Scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Fort Worth Zoo and the University of Puerto Rico were back in the British Virgin Islands on expedition with the National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands to collect data on the islands’ forests. When the project began in April 2019, we posed the question: What makes a resilient habitat, and are the BVI’s unique plants and animals at the heart of this resilience? How have these forests responded to Hurricanes Irma and Maria and what qualities might enable them to survive in our changing climate? BVI habitats are key to providing many of our essential needs: water, healthy soils, protection from floods and landslides and clean air. Likewise, they sustain the needs of so many of the BVI’s unique plants and animals, from the Anegada Rock Iguana to the St Thomas Prickly-ash and Poke-me-boy.
Now, in the final months of this four-year project funded by the UK government’s Darwin Plus programme, the team have collected data from forests across Anegada, Virgin Gorda, Fallen Jerusalem, and Tortola to answer these questions. We have conducted 101 botanical surveys
Photo: Scientists from Kew, University of Puerto Rico, Fort Worth Zoo and NPTVI researchers at Sage Mountain National Park
to better understand the distribution and biodiversity of habitats across the islands in the context of resilience following the devastating 2017 hurricane season.
Through cutting-edge DNA sequencing of threatened species, we are also beginning to understand where and how diversity contributes to the potential of plants to survive environmental change. Further work is planned to extend this genetic analysis from threatened species to the whole flora of the BVI in an attempt to identify hotspots of genetic diversity, a first for a territory in plant research worldwide.
These data are extremely important to help guide the most effective ways to look after the BVI’s amazing forests for future generations.
Kew Project Leader, Tom Heller said “This trip, the last under the current project, has been a great success, made possible through the energies and dynamism of the NPTVI staff often in challenging conditions in the bush.”
Fort Worth Zoo conservation biologist, Kelly Bradley said “This project has offered fascinating insights into how native reptile species interact with local plant communities in the different BVI habitats. This is particularly evident with the Anegada Rock Iguana’s seed dispersal activities maintaining diversified plant assemblies that contain many rare plant species. That’s why we refer to Anegada’s unique iguana as the farmer of the forest.”