This blog is the start of a short series documenting the plant-collection trip of Canadian Museum of Nature botanist Lynn Gillespie, Ph.D., and her graduate student Warren Cardinal-McTeague. They will be collecting plants in Madagascar from October 16 to December 12. Follow their adventure in the field using a live global positioning map and Twitter!
Madagascar is truly an island of intrigue—a land like no other. It is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots and is home to numerous endemic lineages of plants and animals (organisms found nowhere else on Earth!).
Their rarity and uniqueness is due to the island’s 88 million years of isolation from Africa and India, which allowed the biota to evolve and diversify in solitude.
Madagascar is home to many iconic organisms including lemurs, aye ayes, chameleons, geckos, snails, baobab trees and orchids. This accumulation of curious and unusual organisms has inspired biological research for centuries.
My graduate-studies supervisor, Lynn Gillespie, and I are going to Madagascar to collect plants from the spurge family (the Euphorbiaceae), commonly referred to as euphorbs. Well-known members of this family include the rubber tree, castor bean, cassava, poinsettia and crown of thorns.
Many euphorbs contain plant chemicals that protect them from herbivores, and which has also made them useful as traditional medicines for people around the world.
During our plant-collection trip we will be collecting all species of euphorbs, but we will be focusing on members of the tribe Plukenetieae. This is an unusual group that grows as vines and lianas, and has great diversity in floral morphology. There are five distinct lineages in Madagascar, and sampling them will greatly improve our understanding of this poorly studied tribe.
The results of our trip will provide essential data for part of my Master’s thesis—a molecular phylogenetic study of the tribe Plukenetieae. The plant material collected will be used in DNA sequencing in order to reconstruct the phylogenetic relationships of genera within the tribe. This phylogenetic groundwork is necessary before future evolutionary studies on the diversification of the tribe can take place.
Our plant collection trip will also be beneficial in many other ways. It will allow us to deepen the knowledge of the Madagascar flora and tell us more about the world’s biodiversity. A set of our collections will be left at the National Herbarium of Madagascar (herbarium code: TAN), which will aid in building a comprehensive record of the flora in country.
Samples brought back will also enrich the collection of the National Herbarium of Canada (herbarium code: CAN), which is under the safekeeping of the Canadian Museum of Nature.
Our plant-collection trip will take us on three main journeys:
- A road trip from the capital city (Antananarivo) to the northern tip of the island (Antsiranana)
- A boat and hiking expedition through the rainforests of the Masoala peninsula (north-eastern coast)
- A second road trip to the southern central highlands and the south-east coast.
We will be experiencing a variety of habitats ranging from the central temperate highlands to the tropical rainforests along the coast. One of our stops (the Ankarana Reserve) will include the famous tsingy limestone, a dramatic formation indicative of Madagascar.
Lynn has visited Madagascar on a previous plant-collecting trip and documented three new euphorb species. It is very likely that we will describe more.