Pointless trivia…

A job application (for a botanical position with the state of Missouri) had a field for typing speed. Since I don’t know how quickly I type, I figured I’d take several of the various online tests. Over four of them I averaged about 85 words per minute, which I guess is respectable.

Geranium dodecatheoides

My second new species from New Mexico is published, Geranium dodecatheoides P.J.Alexander & Aedo. Many thanks to Carlos Aedo, who knows far more about Geranium than I could ever hope to. Read the article here: http://www.bioone.org/toc/rhod/113/955. The location where I found it happens to be along one of the most readily accessible trails in the Sierra Blanca; it is surprising that it has not been collected before, but so far as I can tell it was completely overlooked. So, one more reason to keep your eyes open outside, even in areas where you wouldn’t really expect to find anything too exciting. I’m sure I’ve stumbled past at least as many undescribed species as I’ve happened to notice… with luck, perhaps I’ll find another that I can give a name with even more syllables!

NOAA

I just stumbled across a lovely interface for tracking precipitation in the U.S.: http://water.weather.gov/precip/. Previously I’d been using this site: http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/precip/realtime/. Alas, NOAA has discontinued that page and replaced it with something that is, to me at least, not very useful; fortunately, water.weather.gov is a great improvement.

It is also worth mentioning that I’ve always found NOAA’s website hopelessly baffling. They seem to be improving that; water.weather.gov is surprisingly easy to navigate to from either weather.gov or noaa.gov, but the cpc.ncep.noaa.gov side is hopeless. Suppose you start at the CPC’s “Monitoring and Data” page. Then you click on “United States Climate Data and Maps”, then “Precipitation and Temperature”, then “Recent Precipitation Maps”… and that sends you to http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/precip/realtime/, where you are redirected to http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/Global_Monsoons/gl_obs.shtml, which is apparently intended for global monsoon monitoring. Huh?

Botany is hard

So, in the post below, and probably in a number of posts that will follow, I criticize the results of or approaches to research that relies on field botany and plant identification. I should say now: it’s hard. None of us always get it right and mistakes will be made. A major target of my ire tends not to be that people aren’t perfect botanists, but that I think there is a systematic undervaluation of botanical expertise. Field personnel whose work requires them to be able to identify plants are often poorly trained and poorly paid, because the difficulty of the work is not appreciated. So far as I can tell, land management agencies and ecological research stations assume that someone who’s taken a couple of courses in plant taxonomy can be sent into the field and will bring back reliable data. Well, I’ve taken those courses, I’ve taught those courses, I’ve botanized extensively across much of the western United States, and I can tell you (assuming, hypothetically, a reader) now: this simply is not the case.

Someone who’s taken the courses available at NMSU (Rangeland Plants, Rangeland Grasses, Plant Taxonomy), done well and studied conscientiously, should be able to sight-ID a fair number of the common species (but few of those uncommon species that make up most of the biodiversity), and should be able to key out most plants assuming there is flowering and/or fruiting material available (and there often isn’t, but field crews don’t tend to have the luxury of waiting for good conditions). But that’s it. Don’t expect or rely on sight-IDs of most of the plants in the area, and don’t expect that any kind of identification will be possible for most species if the plants are in poor shape and many or most of the diagnostic characters are absent.

Suppose you want to answer a simple question: is plant diversity higher in grasslands or shrublands in southern New Mexico? Well, if you want reliable data, you need a field crew of people who already have several years of experience–probably voluntary / recreational since, AFAICT, no one will pay you to learn plants–botanizing in the area. Those people are scarce, and most of them have Masters or PhD degrees (and many are retired!); you probably can’t (and, ethically, shouldn’t) hire them for crappy minimum or near-minimum wage temporary positions. If, on the other hand, you hire a field crew of people fresh from their undergrad degrees whose experience is limited to two or three courses in plant ID or taxonomy, either that crew is going to be spending 90% of its time learning plant ID, or you’re going to get crappy, unreliable data. (As for the simple question, so far as I know there is no reliable answer! More on that some time later.)

One way to minimize the expertise required is to only focus on a few of the dominant plant species (as in the vegetation maps discussed in the post below). It is better to recognize one’s limitations and work within them, but this approach means you’re ignoring most of the botanical diversity in the area… not exactly ideal, in my opinion.

The gist is, if you try to fill botanical field crews on the cheap, rather than hiring highly trained botanists with extensive experience, you have a few options, none of them particularly good: deal with poor accuracy of identifications; get very little data back because your field crews are spending most of their time learning the plants; adopt a very myopic view of plant communities.

Vegetation mapping & confusion

For a recent lecture in Rangeland Grasses, I was hoping to include a slide or two showing the decrease in grassland at the Jornada (Jornada Experimental Range and Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center). A recent paper documents this decrease:

Gibbens, R.P., R.P. McNeely, K.M. Havstad, R.F. Beck, and B. Nolen, 2005. Vegetation changes in the Jornada Basin from 1858 to 1998. Journal of Arid Environments 61: 651-668.

So, I thought, I’ll just pull the maps from there. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. One problem is common to almost all published vegetation maps: you can’t just look at the map and say, “OK, all this is grassland, and here it is quite extensive in 1918, and then there’s not much of it in 1998,” because the color system used is fairly confusing and you’d have to spend a minute pointing out that yellow, light pink, dark tan, etc., are grassland while light green, light blue, light tan, etc., are shrubland. There has to be a better way to do this! Here’s the figure (just for the JER; there’s a separate figure for the CDRRC), see how long it takes you to figure out the extent of grasslands at any point in time:

Looking at the map more closely I realized that, in this case, there are further difficulties. The map legend does not match the colors used. Here’s a comparison of the colors used in the legend and in each map:

That dark pink for “other grasses” never occurs in the maps; two different browns not in the legend are used. Presumably those browns mean “other grasses”, but I don’t know. It is odd that most, but not all of the areas of Scleropogon brevifolius (burrograss; light pink) in the 1918-19 map become brown in the 1928-29 and 1998 maps. It’s hard to tell if this is supposed to indicate a change in vegetation, or is simply an error in producing the map. I assume the latter, because similar maps were produced again, in:

Havstad, K.M, L.F. Huenneke, and W.H. Schlesinger (editors), 2006. Structure and Function of a Chihuahuan Desert Ecosystem. Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

Here, that difficulty seems to be solved. So far as I can tell, the legend matches the maps, and all those areas of Scleropogon brevifolius in 1918-19 are still Scleropogon brevifolius in 1928-29 and 1998 (as they continue to be today). However, this map is more precise about what the dominant species is (e.g., listing Sporobolus airoides, Sporobolus flexuosus, Sporobolus nealleyi and Sporobolus spp. instead of just “Sporobolus spp.”), which is good, but exacerbates the problem of colors that are difficult to distinguish to the point that much of the map is unusable. Worse, the maps are small and resolution is poor; and I have a physical copy of the map rather than a .pdf. There is no way, AFAICT, to use these as workable images in a powerpoint presentation. Luckily the GIS layers are available on the Jornada website, so I can make my own maps (which I may do as time goes by).

So, that’s frustrating. Here’s another difficulty: “Plant nomenclature follows Allred (2003).” Except, it doesn’t. For instance, Allred recognizes Gutierrezia microcephala and Gutierrezia sarothrae, while the Jornada literature uniformly lumps both as Gutierrezia sarothrae. And then there are the big questions that remain even if we leave this niggling behind us:

1) How exactly do we determine what the dominant species is in the first place? The standard has always been that you look out at a landscape and guess (and the methods of the 2005 paper are consistent with this). In clear cases, this should work. In other cases, it won’t, and you’ll get different answers depending on who’s doing the fieldwork (or, for that matter, what time of year, how wet the year is, etc.). An objective measure, and some account of seasonal / yearly variation as well, is needed.

2) How much does that tell you, anyways? If we want to understand the distribution of vegetation, don’t we want to know more than just one (or two–the 2006 book includes separate maps for the second most abundant species) of the species at a site? This is a constant frustration of mine with ecologists and land management agencies. Interest is almost always focused on the most abundant species and, due to the Endangered Species Act, the least abundant species. The other 95% of the biodiversity is uniformly overlooked.

Lest you think I am singling out the Jornada for criticism, I also searched for vegetation mapping information for the Sevilleta LTER. Results were worse. A vegetation map was created, but never published. At one point it was online, but at present it is not available through the Sevilleta website; you can find a fairly illegible jpeg through archive.org, but that’s it. Despite 25 years of research and three long-term NSF grants at the Sevilleta LTER, so far as I can tell there simply is no published account of the vegetation, nor one available online. This is disappointing. Poking around online also led me to this article:

Weiss, J.L., D.S. Gutzler, J.E. Allred Coonrod, C.N. Dahm, 2004. Long-term vegetation monitoring with NDVI in a diverse semi-arid setting, central New Mexico, USA. Journal of Arid Environments 58: 249-272.

From which I quote:

“The objective of this study is to examine 11 years (1990-2000) of seasonal and inter-annual variability of NDVI in a diverse semi-arid setting in central New Mexico, USA, that includes six different vegetation communities: Great Plains / desert grassland (GPGrslnd), Chihuahuan Desert (ChiDes), piñon-juniper woodland (PJWdlnd), juniper savanna (JunSav), Colorado Plateau shrub-steppe (CPShbStp), and Colorado Plateau grassland (CPGrslnd) (Moore, 1989-2001).”

OK, we have six different kinds of vegetation. You might ask: How are they different, exactly? How do we know that they’re different? And just how much of the variation in vegetation at these sites is captured by those designations (e.g., does “juniper savanna” mean just any kind of juniper with any kind of grass, or is it always Juniperus monosperma with Bouteloua gracilis; and what about the other 95% of the plants in that habitat)? In particular, I was curious what exactly the difference between Great Plains grassland and Colorado Plateau grassland is at the Sevilleta. However, in the paper there is no explanation of any of these points, nor any citation indicating how you could find that information (the Moore citation is for meteorological data). Near as I can tell, “Great Plains grassland” must refer to communities dominated by Bouteloua gracilis east of the Rio Grande, and “Colorado Plateau grassland” must refer to communities dominated by Bouteloua gracilis west of the Rio Grande, but is that a meaningful distinction? Are these actually distinct plant communities or just different names for the same thing? I don’t know, but it’s the kind of basic knowledge I can’t imagine conducting ecological research that relies on vegetation classifications (nevermind running an LTER site) without. And yet… well, maybe it’s all in that unpublished vegetation study.

Floral inventory of my apartment

An inventory of the plants presently living in my apartment. Some identifications are very approximate, as a number of these were acquired through greenhouses that don’t label plants and so forth… and I don’t exactly have, say, a key to all the species of Aechmea, Neoregelia, all the myriad cultivated varieties in genera like Saintpaulia, etc. Listed in alphabetical order by family, genus, then species.

Asteraceae:

Senecio articulatus
Senecio stapeliiformis

Bromeliaceae (I have a particular fondness for terrestrial bromeliads, as you may notice):

Acanthostachys pitcairnoides
Acanthostachys strobilacea
Aechmea sp. (not one of the obnoxious cultivars; alas, I’ve lost the tag indicating which species)
Billbergia chiapensis
Billbergia zebrina (thought this thing was dead for a good while!)
Deuterocohnia brevifolia
Dyckia platyphylla
Fosterella kroemeri (or perhaps F. windischii; I need to wait for flowers to tell; sold to me as Fosterella albicans)
Fosterella latifolia (sold as Fosterella villosula; Fosterella latifolia is placed in synonymy of Fosterella penduliflora in a revision by Jule Peters but it looks different so, what the hell, I’ll list it separately)
Fosterella penduliflora (I’ve had these for something like 15 years; they reseed readily and are hard to kill)
Fosterella petiolata (I think)
Fosterella spectabilis
Neoregelia sp. (not one of the obnoxious cultivars; alas, I’ve lost the tag indicating which species)
Orthophytum saxicola
Pitcairnia cf. punicea

Cactaceae (I don’t particularly like cacti, but somehow I end up with them anyways!):

x Disophyllum, unknown cultivar
Echinops, unknown hybrid
Mammillaria elongata
Mammillaria hernandesi
Rhipsalis baccifera
Rhipsalis paradoxa
Schlumbergera, unknown cultivar (white flowers)
Stenocactus zacatecasensis

Commelinaceae:

Tradescantia spathacea

Crassulaceae:

Sedum wrightii

Euphorbiaceae:

Euphorbia horrida
Euphorbia obesa (although it doesn’t look particularly happy…)

Gesneriaceae:

Saintpaulia, unknown cultivar (single purple flowers)

Hypnaceae:

Hypnum sp.

Isoëtaceae:

Isoëtes louisianensis
Isoëtes melanopoda

Marchantiaceae:

Marchantia polymorpha

Marsileaceae:

Marsilea vestita

Moraceae:

Dorstenia foetida
Ficus sansibarica

mosses (unknown family):

several species that I have not identified

Ophioglossaceae:

Botrychium lunarioides
Ophioglossum crotalophoroides

Polypodiaceae:

Davallia sp.

Polytrichaceae:

Atrichum sp.
Polytrichum sp.

Porellaceae:

Porella sp.

Psilotaceae:

Psilotum nudum

Pteridaceae:

Astrolepis sinuata (it volunteered in a terrarium, of all things)
Astrolepis windhamii
Bommeria hispida
Cheilanthes eatonii
Cheilanthes fendleri
Cheilanthes lindheimeri
Cheilanthes yavapensis
Pellaea atropurpurea
Pellaea gastonyi
Pellaea truncata
Pellaea wrightiana
Pteris cretica

Selaginellaceae:

Selaginella erythropoda
Selaginella moellendorfii
Selaginella rupincola

Sphagnaceae:

Sphagnum sp. (not really sure why I bought this… online biological supply stores are dangerous)

Vitaceae:

Cissus quadrangularis

Welwitschiaceae:

Welwitschia mirabilis

Xanthorrhoeaceae:

Haworthia herbacea

[updated 30 Jan 2014]