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2016_07: Where are the missing grasses?
Supervisors: Dr Eimear NicLughadha ([email protected]), Dr Maria Vorontsova
Department: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
(a) Motivation for the project
Lord May of Oxford once stated that the most pressing challenge for biology was to
determine how many species there are on earth. That challenge remains a major
motivation for scientists. Human civilisation depends on grasses which include wheat,
rice, maize and sugar cane. Grasslands cover around 20% of the Earth’s surface. With
c. 12,000 species the grass family (Poaceae) is one of the largest plant families but
also one of the best documented. This project seeks to identify and quantify gaps in
our knowledge of grass diversity by estimating how many grass species remain to be
discovered and described and which areas of the world are likely to be the most
important for grass discovery in the coming years.
(b) Context and background
Knowledge of global species diversity underpins our understanding of global
ecosystem function and NERC’s research into climate change, as well as work
towards building resilience. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is the world’s leading
institution on global plant diversity and hosts key plant information resources including
GrassBase, the International Plant Names Index and the World Checklist of Selected
Plant Families. Originally developed by and for taxonomists, these resources are now
recognised as a rich and under-exploited source for exploring global and regional
patterns in plant diversity and their implications for ecosystem function in the face of
environmental change.
(c) Objectives and methodology
The project will be based on major plant diversity databases developed and hosted at
Kew: GrassBase, the International Plant Names Index and The World Checklist of
Selected Plant Families. The analysis will explore trends in the discovery and
description of grass species over time and relate them to factors such as different
kinds of taxonomic effort and regional differences. The student will use and adapt code
already published in the statistical software R to explore the trends in the description
of grass species at global and regional levels. The main data sets required for the
proposed analyses are already in place, but depending on how the project develops
the student may be involved in harvesting and incorporating additional datasets for the
analysis e.g. on collection effort in particular regions.
The co-supervisors have more than three decades of experience of working with these
databases, resulting in a detailed understanding of the strengths and limitations of the
data therein. They would welcome the opportunity to work closely with a student with
quantitative skills and have designed this project to be readily achievable within the 10
week timescale but to include scope for the student to influence the direction of
research, depending on the initial outcomes.
The student will spend time in a world-leading institution studying plant diversity and
gain an understanding of global plant diversity patterns. He/she will gain familiarity
with the major information resources in this field and the exciting opportunities
available for quantitative exploration of these resources. There will also be an
opportunity to collaborate on the description and publication of one or more grass
species new to science.