Thirty new species of plants and fungi were discovered in the Hengduan Mountains of Tibet in a recent research project conducted by Harvard researchers in collaboration with Chinese collectors.
Over the past five years, researcher David E. Boufford and others affiliated with the Harvard University Herbaria—an extensive collection of pressed, dried plant specimens housed at a Divinity Avenue facility—have been working to collect specimens of plant life in the remote mountain range on the Tibetan Plateau.
“If you’re interested in the plants in China, you have to go the mountains,” he said. “Because most of the vegetation in the lowlands was lost as land was converted to agriculture.”
The region has been designated by the nonprofit organization Conservation International as one of the 34 “hotspots” of biodiversity in the world. According to Boufford, these hotspots only occupy 2.5 percent of the globe’s surface yet account for 35 to 40 percent of the variety in the world’s plant species.
The project’s manager Susan Kelley, an executive assistant associated with the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, expressed that in terms of plant life, the mountain range is probably the richest part of the North Temperate Zone, which includes North America, Europe, and northern Asia. For example, more than 220 species of “Pedicularis,” a genus of flowering plants, have been found in the area—about 10 times more than in all of North America.
“To see such diversity at that elevation is really unusual,” she said.
Kelley was also involved in creating an online gazetteer that helps researchers to locate places in the region—sorting out the confusion that can arise from the propagation of a variety of transliterated names. The site also makes accessible a database of specimen images and descriptions.
“As provincial and county boundaries have changed, names [of places] have changed,” she said. “The gazetteer was intended not only for our project...[but also other] geologists who have explored that area.”
Field work was a very important component of the species-finding project, as much of the initial processing was done on-site. Boufford, who has done several stints in Tibet, said conducting research in the field is very different than working in a laboratory.
“To see these things in nature, you get a better idea of the diversity and variation,” he said. “You see where [the plants] grow, their interactions with insects and other animals.”
Boufford has been at the Harvard Herbaria for over 28 years and continues to work on other flora projects, including some in Japan, Korea and North America. He said that Harvard’s facility has one of the best collections for studying Asian plants in the world.
“We also have one of the best libraries in the world for systematic botany studies,” he said. “Some of the collections go back to the late 1700s.”