Jon Rebman on a riding mule during an earlier expedition to the Sierra Asamblea in Baja California; the full plant presses are carried by pack animals.
Baja California: the Floristic Frontier Meets the Electronic Frontier
By Judy Gibson
It’s April of 2009 and Dr. Jon Rebman, the Museum’s curator of botany, is preparing his plant presses for a collecting trip on muleback to the Sierra de la Libertad, a remote area of the Baja California peninsula. He’s following in the footsteps—or hoof prints—of museum scientists for a century or more. And like them, he’ll be bringing back specimens for the Museum’s collection.
The attraction of this trip is the chance to collect in a place that is practically uninhabited and inaccessible. Read: undisturbed, pristine, entirely natural, unknown...and uncollected. It’s a chance to find plants entirely new to the peninsula or even unknown to science. A chance to find new populations of plants known only from one or two other spots, or plants which are becoming scarcer elsewhere. A chance to see, perhaps, what many of the peninsula’s remote arroyos were like before the influx of people and their many impacts.
But wait! How can we know what is new? Or what is found only in one or two places? What is widespread and what is scarce? Which plants are disappearing, and which are increasing?
These are inferences that can be drawn from botanical collections at museums, universities, and botanic gardens. Accumulated in a variety of institutions over decades of exploration and travel, collections give both a historical perspective to our knowledge of the ecology and floristics of the peninsula and a current picture of the distribution and condition of plant species. As interest grows in conserving biodiversity and promoting thoughtful management of resources, there is more demand for the kind of knowledge that can be gleaned from herbarium collections.
An example of this traditional kind of work is Dr. Rebman’s upcoming Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Lower California, Mexico (“Lower California” being a name for the entire Baja California peninsula and its islands). Rebman and his staff have scoured the Museum’s herbarium for a specimen of each plant that has been collected in each of Baja California’s two states. These vouchers provide proof that these plants actually occur where they are claimed to be.
Rebman and the Botany staff then extended their search to the herbaria at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (with a Baja California collection rivaling ours at the Musuem) at UC Berkeley, and at the California Academy of Sciences, both with important historical collections from the region. Herbaria in La Paz and Ensenada will also be searched and included in the checklist.
At the same time, Rebman is doing the immense taxonomic and nomenclatural work to develop an authoritative and updated list of names for these plants. When completed, the work will provide a fully vouchered checklist of plants for each Baja California state, and will set the standard for what taxa will be recognized, and what names will be used for them. In addition it will reference older synonyms, list common names in Spanish and English, and give a full taxonomic bibliography. This work will form the basis for integrating information from different herbaria.
The Museum is now bringing together resources from several institutions and making them available on its Baja Flora website (www.bajaflora.org). In December, Rebman proposed an idea at a meeting with representatives from four institutions on both sides of the border with collections from the Baja California peninsula—to pool their data in a combined database, with the result being the Baja California Botanical Consortium (BCBC). The combined specimen data from these institutions is already being used to determine the rarity of various plant species in Baja California, with the ultimate goal of developing a plan to conserve and protect the rare and threatened plants of this region.
The five members of the BCBC have sent copies of their herbarium data to the Museum, and these have been combined into a single database for the purpose of doing combined searches and mapping the results. The goal of finding all records of a given species from a search of the combined records, however, will not be fully attainable until the above-mentioned issues of plant names have been resolved.
Although the searching and mapping functions for the combined database are presently behind the closed doors of password protection while the tools are being developed, a wealth of the Museum’s own historical resources are open to the public. Thousands of photographs of plants in our slide collection can be seen, and photos of landscapes and regional scenery are now being added.
A database of historic place names of the peninsula—with the ability to map them—is a popular feature. Seventeen volumes of former curator Reid Moran’s field notes have been scanned and placed online; indexing of these notebooks is nearing completion.
So it is that the ancient collection technology of mules and plant presses continues to provide valued information to today’s researchers and plant enthusiasts by means of the latest electronic technology. In the quest for knowledge, we use whatever works.
Judy Gibson is the Collections Manager of the Botany Department at the San Diego Natural History Museum.
On this expedition, Jon Rebman hopes to find an additional population of the shrub Eysenhardtia peninsularis (Fabaceae), which was originally named by T. S. Brandegee on the basis of a single specimen collected near El Paraíso, Baja California, in 1889. It was not collected or reported again by any botanists until 1992, when Jon found it in the Sierra San Francisco of northern Baja California Sur. Heavy livestock grazing in this region may be contributing to the scarcity of this species and endangering its future existence, so it is hoped that conservation efforts will be considered in order to protect it from extinction.
SAN DIEGO NATURAL HISTORY: FIELD NOTES, July–August 2009