Exploring ways to accelerate taxonomy

A foundation monograph of Ipomoea

There is worldwide concern at the loss of biodiversity and widespread popular support for efforts to conserve diversity before it disappears. However, efforts to prioritise individual species for conservation as well as areas rich in biodiversity are hampered by our lack of knowledge of what species exist and where they are found. This Leverhulme funded research focuses on flowering plants, which are the dominant life form on most land habitats. Current estimates of the number of described species of flowering plants range between 230,000 and 420,000, the uncertainty surrounding these figures being largely due to the unknown levels of synonymy [multiple names for the same entity] for many groups of plants. In addition, there are estimated to be about 70,000 species of flowering plant yet to be described of which, it has been estimated, more than half have already been collected and await discovery in herbaria.

Major impediments to the detection of these new species include the high levels of synonymy, lack of keys to recognised species and, in the case of most large genera, lack of any global treatment. In addition, for many groups of considerable size there are massive quantities of collected specimens that remain unstudied and associated vast but disparate literature. This has led to the current situation wherein many of these groups, where the major taxonomic issues reside, are viewed as too difficult to tackle. This research project will develop a novel but, effective method to accelerate the pace of overhauling the taxonomy of these large, poorly known groups of plants in a relatively short timeframe at modest cost, thus making a significant contribution to underpin conservation efforts.

Figure 2 jpg
An as yet un-described new species of Ipomoea from the cerrados of Bolivia.

We propose the Foundation Monograph as a solution to the problem of poorly known species-rich groups of mainly tropical plants. In contrast to standard modern global monographs which are few in number due largely to their expense, the aims of the Foundation Monograph are limited to: (i) delimit taxa, establishing taxon circumscriptions and providing brief descriptions; (ii) resolve nomenclature; (iii) provide identification tools, specifically, diagnostic keys and DNA barcodes; (iv) provide distribution data and (v) test the monophyly of the study group (make sure the group is a natural one). We propose to produce a Foundation Monograph for Ipomoea L, the largest genus in Convolvulaceae with in excess of 600 species distributed in tropical and subtropical regions worldwide. Ipomoea has never been tackled from a global perspective. Several species are cultivated as ornamentals and the genus includes the important food crops Sweet Potato (I. batatas) and Water Spinach or Kangkong (I. aquatica).

Figure 3 JPG
Three colour variants of the Morning Glory, Ipomoea purpurea, growing together.

The novelty of our approach lies in the way it combines the skills of experienced botanists from University of Oxford Plant Sciences, Natural History Museum London, and Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh, with the most up to date technological advances in DNA sequencing and smart electronic tools to achieve the focussed aim of delimiting and identifying species in a large problematic group of flowering plants within a relatively short period of time, producing a geographically comprehensive and user-friendly account of the whole group.

Dr Robert Scotland
University of Oxford

Robert was awarded a Research Project Grant in November 2011; providing £243,323 over 36 months.