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!).

A cluster of reddish buildings amid green fields and hills.
A village south of the capital, Antananarivo, in the central highlands of Madagascar. The soil, rich in iron and aluminum, is what gives Madagascar the nickname “The Red Island”. Image: Bernard Gagnon © Bernard Gagnon

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.

Baobabs (Adansonia grandidieri) and smaller trees line a dirt road.
A baobab-lined lane is one of the most striking and most photographed scenes on the island. Grandidier’s baobab (Adansonia grandidieri) is one of six species endemic to Madagascar, representing a significant proportion of the the island’s diversity. Image: Bernard Gagnon © Bernard Gagnon

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.

Two photos: A panther chameleon (Furcifer pardalis) and a white-headed lemur (Eulemur albifrons).
Madagascar supports many unusual animal and plant species that have been of interest in biological research for centuries. At left, a panther chameleon (Furcifer pardalis). At right, a white-headed lemur (Eulemur albifrons) in Madagascar’s Masoala National Park. Lemurs are the only primates on the island aside from humans. Images: Left: Jean-Louis Vandevivère © Jean-Louis Vandevivère; right: Frank Vassen © Frank Vassen

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.

A Plukenetia ankaranensis vine grows in a crack in a rock.
A vine species described and named Plukenetia ankaranensis by Lynn Gillespie following a 1990 trip to Madagascar. Image: Lynn Gillespie © Canadian Museum of Nature

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.

Two sets of drawings showing the parts of the plants Plukenetia ankaranensis and Plukenetia decidua.
The different parts of Plukenetia ankaranensis (left) and Plukenetia decidua (right). Image: Lynn Gillespie © Canadian Museum of Nature

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:

  1. A road trip from the capital city (Antananarivo) to the northern tip of the island (Antsiranana)
  2. A boat and hiking expedition through the rainforests of the Masoala peninsula (north-eastern coast)
  3. A second road trip to the southern central highlands and the south-east coast.
A stream flows over mossy rocks in a rainforest.
Low-land rainforest in Masoala National Park, Madagascar. This is one of the localities we will visit in the hope of finding more new species of euphorbs. Image: Frank Vassen © Frank Vassen
Amid some trees, a limestone cliff face inscribed with vertical channels from erosion.
Tsingy limestone cliffs in the Ankarana Reserve, Madagascar, where Lynn Gillespie discovered the new species Plukenetia ankaranensis. Image: Lynn Gillespie © Lynn Gillespie

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.

We will be providing updates of our trip in Twitter. You can follow our footsteps in the field using a live global positioning map.

Leaves and fruiting bodies of the euphorb Omphalea ankarana.
A euphorb of the species Omphalea ankarana. Until her trip to Madagascar in 1990 to research and describe this species, all Lynn Gillespie had to work with was a single dried fruit—not even a piece of a dried leaf in a herbarium. Image: Lynn Gillespie © Canadian Museum of Nature