UNE botanists help protect biodiversity on Indian Ocean island

Published 25 January 2011

sedgeDr Jeremy Bruhl and Karen Wilson have just returned to Australia from a field trip to the island of Réunion that will result in a better understanding of the evolution and ecology of the flora of south-east Africa and neighbouring Indian Ocean islands.

Plant specimens that Dr Bruhl and Mrs Wilson collected on the rim of Réunion’s active volcano, Piton de la Fournaise, include one that appears to be new to science.

Dr Bruhl, an Associate Professor of Botany at the University of New England and Director of UNE’s N.C.W. Beadle Herbarium, and Karen Wilson, a plant taxonomist from the National Herbarium of NSW in Sydney who is also an Adjunct Associate Professor at UNE, are international authorities on sedges, and it was plants in the sedge family (Cyperaceae) that were the object of their visit to Réunion.

Research on the sedge genus Carpha at UNE has resulted in species from Africa, Madagascar and Réunion being transferred from Carpha to the genus Asterochaete, and the restriction of Carpha to Australasia and South America. Some related taxonomic problems remain, and the Réunion trip was aimed at collecting specimens that will help to resolve those problems.

“We decided to go at this time of year,” Dr Bruhl explained, “because collected material (some dating back to the 1820s) indicated that this was the time for both flowering and fruiting of the plants. We aimed to obtain good, modern collections of species of Asterochaete, sampling sufficient variation to allow thorough study of their morphology, anatomy and fruit structure, and to get material suitable for DNA study of evolutionary relationships.

“We were very successful in making a range of collections from different locations and processing the specimens – finishing at 3 am the day I left. And it was exciting to find a sedge species previously unrecorded in the Mascarene Islands and probably new to science.”

The Australian botanists were hosted on Réunion by Dr Luc Gigord, Director of Science, and his team at the Conservatoire Botanique National de Mascarin (one of France’s eight Conservatoires botaniques nationaux), a centre for the study and conservation of Réunion’s native species. Their visit established a relationship that both parties hope will result in continuing collaboration in research, education, and the sharing of information.

“We had wonderful help from the people at the Conservatoire,” Dr Bruhl said. “Their local knowledge was invaluable, and we had access to data and herbarium specimens from their recent years of surveys, mapping, and ecological studies. And without the facilities of their herbarium, the preservation of the 77 collections we made would have been impossible.”

“They’re doing fantastic work on Réunion,” he said. “They’re protecting biodiversity in the island’s precious World Heritage sites, and I’m delighted that our work will contribute – in a small way – to that effort. Knowing what plants are in an area, and their evolutionary relationships, provides critical baseline knowledge for the conservation and management of the biota and ecosystems.”

The specimens collected on Réunion will be housed in the N.C.W. Beadle Herbarium at UNE, the National Herbarium of NSW in Sydney, and the Réunion Conservatoire.

Clicking on the photograph of the newly-discovered sedge displayed here reveals a photograph of Jeremy Bruhl and Karen Wilson examining the plant at the Conservatoire.