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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.