Looking at our scientific work in the Caribbean

Thursday, June 17, 2010

At work in Jamaica's treacherous hills of the Cockpit Country, Melissa Abdo,
front left, Fairchild's Marlon Rumble and Howard Beckford, with the Forestry
Department of Jamaica.


Melissa Abdo, the garden’s international conservation projects officer, offered a wonderful overview of our scientific work being done in the Caribbean at the last members’ lecture of the season Wednesday night. Historically, she said, the natural habitats and forests of the West Indies have been plundered to support the development of economic crops, including sugar, tobacco, cotton and timber. According to coarse estimates today, Cuba has 21 percent of its forests remaining; Jamaica, 30 percent; the Dominican Republic, 28.4 percent, and Haiti a mere 3 percent.

There are about 11,000 to 12,000 plants native to the region, she said, with three families containing a proliferation of species. They are the wild coffee, aster, and orchid families (Rubiaceae, Asteraceae, and Orchidaceae).

Abdo touched on collaborative work being done with the Montgomery Botanical Center and institutions throughout the region in efforts to further conservation of palms, cycads and other plants, then she concentrated on Fairchild’s labors in the Cockpit Country of Jamaica. Her images of the extraordinarily difficult terrain clearly answered the question of why botanical exploration has been scant in this exceptional landscape, where 34 percent of the plants are found nowhere else. The garden’s scientists and horticulturists working closely with Jamaican counterparts have discovered two species new to science in the six years working there (Anthurium flemingiana and a new species of Syngonium), and Abdo believes more will be uncovered. A great deal of the area remains to be explored as the garden’s applied conservation research program continues, with the support of the MacArthur Foundation. The goal is to create a conservation strategy with Jamaican scientists for the tiny area that contains nearly 10 percent of the entire flora of the Caribbean.