What remains to be discovered in Central American forests

January 24, 2002

The earth's biological wealth lies in its forests and oceans: delicate, complex systems of plants and animals. But at this late date, we still don't even know what organisms live on our planet, much less what role they play. To get at this information requires science and society to take an extremely organized approach.

On January 11, 2002, representatives from the World Wildlife Fund-US, the Mesoamerican and Caribbean Herbarium Network, the Panamanian National Authority for the Environment (ANAM), the Mesoamerican Biological Corredor--Panamanian Atlantic Region (CBMAP) and the National Museum of Costa Rica gathered in the conference center at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Insititute in Panama City, Panama, to present a new summary of gaps in our knowledge of Central American flora: "Identificación de vacíos de información botánica en Centroaméricaan", an important first step in trying to fill them. The volume includes contributions by a number of STRI researchers: Mireya Correa, Noris Salazar, Stanley Heckadon and Maria Staff. Cristian Samper, STRI's Acting Director, who is, himself, very active in establishing a global adgenda for research and conservation, told the audience: "This exercise to establish priorities for the future at the international level and with a common agenda is extremely essential and represents an important regional contribution to the international conservation movement."

It is easier to convince people to conserve an area if it includes organisms occuring nowhere else on earth. However, in many forests, these species still have not even been discovered. Therefore, the World Wildlife Fund, founded in 1961, one of the largest international conservation groups organized "to stop the degradation of the planet's natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature" organized and paid for the publication of this assessment of Central America's amazingly diverse flora.

Although distant areas of forest, especially on the Caribbean coast have not yet been exploited, most forests in the region have been sliced up into tiny remnants under immense hunting and development pressure. The report concludes that although botanists know something about the big, flowering plants in these forests, they know almost nothing about the less obvious organisms reproducing by spores: the mosses, ferns, and those non-plants--often thrown into the group, the fungi. Who will make these discoveries?

One good place to start is in Central America's plant collections, phenomenal places, treasure troves for biologists, but almost unknown to the general public. The people who care for a total collection of over one million specimens in Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, organized themselves into the Mesoamerican and Caribbean Herbarium Network in 1995. The network currently represents 29 different plant collections including two in Panama: the herbarium at the University of Panama and the Summit Herbarium at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

Central America's herbarium workers are true unsung heroes. Not only do they often travel to remote forests to collect plants, they must preserve delicate plant specimens in cool, dry conditions, and keep mites, mice and other animals at bay, an extremely difficult task, especially in tropical lowlands. But they feel rewarded when local scientists, students and visiting scientists can identify plants near field sites and enhance our knowledge of ecology, physiology and geographic distribution of local organisms.

It's one thing to have a collection, and it's another thing entirely to use it to learn about the past, present and the future of the forest. A collection of coins hold many secrets, the mix of metals used to mint a penny tells you about metal availability, wars and shortages, new supply sources. Likewise, a plant collection yeilds many secrets about the natural history and functioning of a forest. The shape of a flower blossom may tell us what insect is absolutely essential for it's pollination.

Mariela Bermúdez, one of the editors told the audience that to prepare the report, they surveyed 50 professional biologists, asking them to rate ecoregions for the level of botanical, geographical, ecological and taxonomic information gathered to date from each region. The team made maps detailing the extent of knowledge about different groups of organisms throughout the Central American Isthmus. Some of the orange areas indicating well-studied floras on the maps represent the efforts of one or two individuals who have struggled to collect and identify plants there for many years. Julieta Carranza, Professor of Biology at the University of Costa Rica, described a recent workshop of distinguished mycologists, who, as a result of the survey, have now organized a systematic plan to collect and study the fungi of Central America. Ivan Valdespino, the manager of the Mesoamerican Biological Corredor, Panamanian Atlantic, spoke about the importance of this information as they try to organize a continuous series of protected areas throughout the region.

The people gathered at the book presentation hope that this will not be just another report to be shelved, but that it will serve as a strategic planning document for forest exploration and conservation, and will motivate professional biologists, young people and students to explore the still mysterious forests of Central America.
Identificación de vacíos de información botánica en Centroamérica WWF Technical series No. 4, 80 pp., Turrialba, CR Mariela Bermúdez and Joaquín Sánchez, Editores WWF, Red de Herbarios, Museo Nacional de Costa Rica

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

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