Purdue Herbarium -- A Noah's Ark For Egyptian Plants

April 16, 1998

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- As Egyptians carve out more living space by irrigating the desert, Purdue University researchers are helping inventory and preserve plants that otherwise might be lost as the water flows in.

Almost 90 percent of Egypt's 62 million people live on just 4 percent of its territory, a narrow swath of land along the Nile River. Population density along the water's edge is 5,000 people per square mile. Beyond them lies desert.

By bringing water to the desert, the Egyptians hope to reclaim land in the "New Valley" for agriculture. By the year 2001, Egyptians will complete a 40-mile canal that pumps water from Lake Nasser in the south to more than 415,000 acres of desert in the central section of the country.

"There are two ways to look at it," says Anthony Swinehart, curator of the Purdue Department of Botany and Plant Pathology's Arthur and Kriebel Herbaria, which houses a cataloged collection of dried plants. "In Biblical times the area was vegetated, so you could look at it as taking back the desert and restoring it to its former glory." Swinehart and others, however, recognize that irrigation and agriculture could destroy some native plants and animals.

Swinehart is one of several Purdue researchers who will visit the New Valley in May to count and identify the desert plants before irrigation begins. The group is working with Sayed Khalifa, professor of plant taxonomy and flora at Ain Shams University in Abbaseyya, Egypt. Khalifa also serves as a consultant to the National Biodiversity Unit of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency.

This first phase of the project is funded by a Global Initiative Faculty Grant from Purdue.

"There never has been an inventory of that area that could give us a baseline when we try to judge the ecological impact of this project," says Bill Chaney, a physiological ecologist who heads the Purdue team. "And if you don't know what you started with, you won't know what you've lost."

On this trip, the group will just begin to inventory the plants that populate the desert. They'll travel by camel or Land-Rover to the desert interior, checking how many plants grow per square mile. That information, coupled with satellite imagery, aerial photography and global positioning systems operated by Guofan Shao, a remote sensing scientist at Purdue, will let them set up a more detailed sampling plan. Abdelfattah Nour, Purdue professor of basic medical sciences, speaks Arabic and will coordinate activities between the American research team and Egyptian officials. Nour also will help determine if the land can support livestock.

Swinehart will make a second trip to Egypt to count plant species at each sampling site and to preserve representative plants for herbaria in Egypt and at Purdue. He'll also make maps that show where each plant species grows. After the New Valley is irrigated, researchers will again analyze the vegetation to see how things have changed.

"Purdue's Herbarium will be the only repository in the Western Hemisphere for this collection," Swinehart says. "It's a valuable research tool for this project and for scientists in the United States who want to study how changes in land use affect vegetation. And the collection will add notoriety to our herbarium, which is already recognized as one of the best in the world."

Swinehart's herbarium specimens also are a safeguard, in case New Valley progress kills native species. Seeds in the herbarium often can germinate and grow -- even after years of storage in dry herbarium-cabinets. A student currently working in Swinehart's laboratory is researching the possibility of germinating seeds that have lain dormant in the Purdue Herbarium for 150 years.

"Herbarium specimens can also tell us about pollutants in the environment," Swinehart says. "We can look for levels of a certain pollutant in plant tissues collected today and compare that to levels of the same pollutant in tissues of similar plants collected years ago. The comparison can tell you how pollution levels have changed."

Purdue University

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