Kew botanist Dr. Tom Heller shows how scientists have collected plant samples, which will be preserved and eventually housed at an herbarium to be constructed at the J.R. O’Neal Botanic Gardens. (Photo: ZARRIN TASNIM AHMED)

Scientists from the United Kingdom-based Kew Gardens have completed a three-year study investigating how endangered plant species have managed to survive in certain areas of the Virgin Islands even following the hurricanes of 2017.

However, they plan to return soon: A new project starting in April will sequence the DNA of those species and others.

Kew botanist Dr. Tom Heller said during a Friday morning press conference at the J.R. O’Neal Botanic Gardens that the recently completed project has shown that VI forests are some of the most ecologically important forests in the world.

Scientists, he added, know of nearly 40 threatened plant and animal species across the territory.

“The habitats in which they occur are so scarce, and their populations are declining over the years,” he said. “This three-week trip marks the last trip under this project.”

Kew scientists have been coming here for nearly 25 years to try to understand the territory’s plant life and to identify its most threatened plant species, he said. This particular study was funded by the Darwin Plus Initiative, a grants scheme funded by the United Kingdom government.

105 surveys

Over the course of their study, the scientists travelled across the territory, carried out more than 105 surveys, and took more than 16,000 photographs.

The information they collected provides a large body of data to support the project, which is titled “Identifying and Conserving Resilient Habitats in the Virgin Islands.”

“In ecology, resilience is the idea that biodiversity is resilient to changes in the habitat,” Dr. Heller said. “With such a devastating hurricane season in 2017, it gave us the opportunity to understand that a little more and investigate it a little more in detail. How did the [VI’s] forests cope with such devastating events and how have they recovered over time, and how have the threatened species fared in those habitats?”

The core of their research focused on vegetation surveys and rapid botanic surveys on Virgin Gorda, Fallen Jerusalem, Anegada and Tortola.

Scientists have collected plant samples taken from over 105 surveys. (Photo: ZARRIN TASNIM AHMED)

Part of the project included collecting specimens and pressing them in order to preserve them. Because the VI currently has no herbarium in which to store the samples, they first will be added to the seven million specimens from around the world stored at Kew Gardens in the UK.

“These are herbarium specimens in the making,” said Dr. Heller, pulling out a book. “This is a plant press which we carry out into the field. Any plants that we’re interested in and want to study, we take a piece and press it in sheets of a newspaper. Using blotters and heaters, we’ll dry the plants out.”

He added that the plants collected on their trips to the VI potentially could be compared to specimens in any other herbarium in the world,even those collected hundreds of years ago.

“Having access to that library of plants is how we classify plants and understand how plant distributions have changed over time,” he said. “We’ve collected quite a few on this trip.”

Dr. Heller called the project a major success and said he was pleased at the amount of data the scientists were able to capture using techniques like remote sensing, field cameras and satellite imagery.

The Kew scientists — who also include Dr. Colin Clubbe, Dr. Sara Barrios and Dr. Juan Viruel — were joined by members of the National Parks Trust and the Forth Worth Zoo during this trip.

“The aim is that this information provides the trust with the information it needs to do their job most effectively and help us understand more widely how forests respond to change in climate,” Dr. Heller said.

From the data collected, the scientists plan to create reports and materials like identification guides that will help the NPT. Raw data sets will also be made available to the NPT, which can use the information as it wishes, Dr. Heller said.

Next step: DNA

Another part of the research — which will continue with a more in-depth Darwin Plus Initiative research project set to commence in April — involves DNA sequencing VI plants.

“Genetic diversity is important in terms of the potential of species to adapt and be resilient to changes in the future, like warding off pests and diseases and surviving different temperature,” Dr. Heller said.

Drs. Barrios and Viruel plan to return in April to begin the genetic research.

“This is a way we can combine science with conservation action, and that’s essential when you want to have a strong impact on biological conservation,” Dr. Viruel said.

Parts of the project, including the DNA sequencing, have never been done in the territory, according to Dr. Viruel.

“By sequencing all the flora, we’ll understand their habitats and how much genetic diversity between species occur in each of them, and for conservation in the long term that will be the basis in how each of those habitats will be able to respond to changes,” he said.

The end of the project will focus on outreach activities like educating students and the wider public, he said.


Meanwhile, the NPT has plans of its own. A herbarium, for instance, will be included in a planned redesign of the botanic garden, according to the agency.

Dr. Barrios said the herbarium will create a national reference collection, a resource that can be used nationally and internationally.

“By having that collection here, you can have international scientists and researchers to come here and study that collection,” she said.

In 2019, residents were invited to contribute to the redesign of the 2.87-acre botanic gardens, which was declared a national park in 1979 but was heavily damaged by Hurricane Irma in 2017.

The redesign plan, which took into account public input, was finally approved in October, according to NPT Director Dr. Cassander Titley- O’Neal.

“We included partners including Kew for their input on the design,” she said. “What the trust did with consultation with Kew, Town and Country Planning and the Public Works Department: We gave all the information to [architecture firm] OBMI to redesign not just the gardens, but the buildings and infrastructure.”

The herbarium is among the elements that will be included in the redesign, she added. Finding the funding for the design consultants took a while, she explained, and moving forward through new procurement rules may be another lengthy process before the project takes off.