Fairchild’s Scientific Work in the Caribbean: Jamaica

The Tropical Garden, Fall 2010

By Melissa E. Abdo, Pamela McLaughlin, Ph.D., Keron Campbell, Brett Jestrow, Eric von Wettberg, Ph.D.

The Caribbean Islands are home to nearly 11,000 known indigenous plants, and an extraordinary 72% of these Caribbean plant taxa are found nowhere else on earth. With an impressive record of exploration, research and on-the-ground conservation activities in the Caribbean Islands, Fairchild continues its work in the region in exciting ways through joint efforts with Florida International University and partners throughout the Caribbean region. Dating back to Dr. David Fairchild’s earliest visits to the Caribbean in the late 1800s, Fairchild has engaged in activities to explore, study, cultivate and conserve the diverse plants of the region. In fact, a little- known historical detail about Dr. Fairchild is that the city of Kingston, Jamaica “was the first foreign port in which [he] began a serious study of the marketplaces, tasting the new fruits and vegetables.” (excerpted from Dr. Fairchild’s The World Was My Garden.)

Since those early days, our work has helped bring about greater understanding of the diversity of Caribbean flora and the best strategies for conserving it. Fairchild has endeavored to bring Caribbean plants of ecological, ethnobotanical, and economic importance into cultivation and ex-situ conservation. Our many active research projects in the region involve multi- disciplinary efforts from garden staff, students, and colleagues; Fairchild is also the Caribbean regional coordinator of the Global Plants Initiative (GPI). Built over years of research and commitment to conservation in the Caribbean, the garden’s world-class Caribbean collection permits us to experience plant life from all corners of the colorful islands.

Intrinsic to the growth of our scientific endeavors in the region has been a consistent and simultaneous strengthening of partnerships with Caribbean botanists, scientists and conservation practitioners. Fairchild collaborates closely with botanical gardens and herbaria throughout the region. One of our primary partners in Jamaica is the Natural History Museum of Jamaica (NHMJ), a division of the Institute of Jamaica whose mission is to research, document, preserve, protect and disseminate information on Jamaica’s natural heritage and to function as a repository for Jamaican flora and fauna. Importantly, the Natural History Museum of Jamaica is the custodian of Jamaica’s national collections and houses the National Herbarium. Fairchild’s and NHMJ’s missions are mutually supportive, contributing to a successful long-term partnership that will continue into the future in Jamaica and other sites of environmental concern and botanical interest in the Caribbean.

The Caribbean Islands are home to nearly 11,000 known indigenous plants, and an extraordinary 72% of these Caribbean plant taxa are found nowhere else on earth. The biodiverse nation of Jamaica has an exceedingly rich flora with more than 3,000 flowering plant species—of which nearly 34% are endemic to the island, including many that are rare and threatened.

Jamaica is also home to one of the last remaining large forested tracts in the Caribbean, known as the Cockpit Country. In 2004, FIU-Fairchild Ph.D. candidate Brett Jestrow traveled to this remote region to study a highly endangered species of the Euphorbiaceae. Based on molecular and morphological data, this research changed the generic placement of the species formerly known as Lasiocroton trelawnienses: it is now recognized as Bernardia trelawniensis. Delving further into the Cockpit Country, Fairchild and Institute of Jamaica, in cooperation with colleagues from the Jamaican National Forestry Department, Hope Royal Botanic Gardens, Jamaica’s National Environmental and Planning Agency and the University of the West Indies, began work to successfully rediscover many “lost species” of the region that had not been seen in decades. Collaborative work with all these Jamaican professional partners continues to thrive today.

Currently, the focal project, jointly led by Ms. Abdo and Keron Campbell of the Institute of Jamaica, provides the foundation for our work in Jamaica. The goal of this project is to explore, study and analyze the flora of the Cockpit Country in order to support an integrated plant conservation strategy for the region, while building research and management capacity every step of the way. In what is one of the most ambitious collaborative exploration and collecting efforts ever undertaken in the Caribbean, we have already collected thousands of plant specimens and associated data on species distributions, as well as important geo-referenced data on priority conservation sites (in addition to other research components). This vital research will inform protected area planning and culminate in the conservation and protection of a key biodiversity area of Jamaica. Emerging data collected by Ms. Abdo and Mr. Campbell, in close collaboration with the project team and local counterparts, suggests that the Cockpit Country is one of the highest priorities for protection in all the Caribbean.

Importantly, within Cockpit Country study sites and across Jamaica, we have made it a priority to interact with and create linkages to local organizations such as Local Forest Management Committees, indigenous Maroon communities, farmers, and other local stakeholders who have shown a great deal of support for our research and conservation work. By fortifying linkages and connectivity between local communities, professional partners, and other colleagues in the Caribbean, we are increasing the synergies and sustainability of conservation efforts. Continuing the effort to strengthen regional Caribbean research collaboration, botanists from the Jardin Botanico Nacional of the Dominican Republic will soon participate in field research in Jamaica. This project is being generously supported by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and by all collaborating institutions. One highlight of the Cockpit Country project was an intensive summer course on Conservation Genetics held in Jamaica in 2009, designed and taught by Dr. Javier Francisco-Ortega. By emphasizing cutting-edge techniques in the application of DNA studies for informing conservation planning, Dr. Ortega engaged participants ranging from research scientists to graduate students to government agency professionals, and his informative presentations and lively discussions were extremely well received. In fact, one such discussion sowed the seed that led to collaboration between a course participant, Dr. Pamela McLaughlin of the University of Technology, Jamaica, and Dr. Eric von Wettberg. Dr. von Wettberg’s interest in conservation genetics and Dr. McLaughlin’s interest in determining patterns of genetic variation in Jamaican plants, particularly in those used for medicinal purposes, dovetail nicely. 

Many Jamaican plants have significant medicinal properties and are used extensively in folklore medicine for the treatment of ailments and illnesses. Research on this aspect of Jamaica’s rich biodiversity is still emerging, as throughout the region there is a paucity of information regarding the genetic characterization of plants of medicinal and ethonobotanical note. Dr. McLaughlin was awarded a prestigious Fulbright Fellowship to conduct research in collaboration with Dr. von Wettberg at Fairchild and FIU. Sponsored by the United States government to provide international exchange and research opportunities for individuals based on their academic merit and leadership potential, the Fulbright Fellowship has had a tremendous impact worldwide. Dr. McLaughlin’s fellowship research focuses on the analysis of the expressed genes of pepper elder, Piper amalago var. nigrinodum of the Piper family. 

The Piperaceae family is quite diverse, with about 280 species from the genus Piper present in the Caribbean and 13 of these are known to occur in Jamaica. Piper amalago var. nigrinodum is endemic to Jamaica, and is used by Jamaicans as an ethnomedicine in preparing tonics and treatments for a variety of ailments ranging from stomachaches to colds. Indeed, extracts from P. amalago var. nigrinodum have been reported to contain natural compounds having anticancer and antifungal properties. Dr. McLaughlin’s Fulbright visit is allowing her to work with Dr. von Wettberg to use new, next-generation sequencing technology; these methods have the capacity to relatively inexpensively and quickly sequence the expressed genes in an organism. These technologies, driven by the need for sequencing methods to help scientists understand the genetic basis of disease, can also be applied to rare tropical plants. This collaborative work has two aims: allowing us to understand the genetics of medicinal compounds in Piper species, and building upon the genetic resources we need to help conserve these species. Genetic information allows us to gain a broader understanding of different populations and how they vary, and to inform our understanding of evolutionary relationships amongst species across the Caribbean and throughout the world.

Our tradition of engaging in cutting-edge research in the Caribbean Islands thrives at Fairchild today. We are pleased to strengthen our links with Florida International University, the Natural History Museum of Jamaica, the University of Technology of Jamaica, the Forestry Department and many professional colleagues and institutions across the region. With our partners, we look forward to continuing our exploration of unknown habitats and new technologies to support biodiversity conservation in Jamaica and throughout the Caribbean.