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Plant, Fungal and Linguistic Diversity of Tafea Province, Vanuatu

Project Overview: Vanuatu is a South-Pacific archipelago of more than 80 islands, situated roughly equidistant from New Caledonia, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands, all of which are globally recognized biodiversity hotspots. Vanuatu’s biota is considered an important component of the region’s status as a global center of biodiversity, and the "Vanuatu rain forest" vegetation type is recognized as an endangered terrestrial eco-region. This project will complete a botanical and linguistic survey of Tafea, the southernmost province of Vanuatu, resulting in a specimen-based checklists of the flora and mycota. We will undertake extensive field studies during eight, 4-6 week expeditions to the three main volcanic islands and two small atolls. These have been designed to sample the entire elevational, vegetational, and seasonal floristic diversity of the province. On each of the main volcanic islands, we will target 3-4 areas for extensive collection and the establishment of permanent monitoring plots. Other collection sites have been determined based on herbarium studies and initial field observations.

Intellectual Merit: Despite its importance, Vanuatu’s flora and mycota remain poorly documented, leaving a significant gap in our knowledge of its biotic and biogeographic relationships with neighboring regions, all of which have active or completed flora projects. No floristic checklists exist for Vanuatu, rendering it a “biodiversity black hole.” The few surveys of vascular plants that have been completed focused primarily on the northern end of the archipelago. In the southern part of the country, little reliable data exist on botanical and mycological diversity. For this reason, we have selected Tafea Province, the southernmost area of Vanuatu, as the focal point of our research. We are conducting the first comprehensive survey of angiosperms, gymnosperms, ferns, lycophytes, bryophytes, fungal endophytes, macrofungi and lichens ever undertaken in this region of Vanuatu. We are surveying an area estimated to contain ca. 50% of the nation’s flora and mycota. In each area targeted for extensive collection, surveys are being conducted using two approaches: 1) Establishment of 1-3 permanent monitoring plots. These plots will allow both vegetation analysis and dense floristic and fungal sampling, and permit long-term monitoring in the face of global change. 2) A general collecting approach is used in larger areas. An annotated checklist, both hard copy and on line, will be assembled using our database of newly collected and historical specimens. The checklist will provide a test of phytogeographic relationships between Vanuatu and its closest neighbors (New Caledonia and Fiji) and allow us to address questions relating to levels of endemism, species distributions, evolution of the regional flora and mycota, and conservation priorities in Vanuatu.

Broader Impacts: We plan to build capacity in the Vanuatu National Herbarium (PVNH), a facility that is struggling to achieve its potential as a modern scientific facility. Through purchase of additional equipment, PVNH staff and student training, along with computerization and electronic dissemination of information compiled during this project, the result will be a vastly improved and sustainable herbarium and specimen database for Vanuatu and the Pacific community. Practical field and curatorial training is being provided to local students and forestry officers in Vanuatu, and additionally, formal student training is taking place at the University of the South Pacific, California State University East Bay, Swarthmore College, University of Hawaii, and The New York Botanical Garden. As most land in Vanuatu is held under customary ownership, and local people are the stewards of their environments, the loss of biocultural knowledge is a serious threat to their ability to manage biodiversity resources sustainably. To support local conservation and environmental education efforts, we are combining the expertise of the team’s linguists, botanists and mycologists to work with indigenous speakers of each of the nine Tafean languages to document names of plants and fungi, providing a tangible linkage between biodiversity, traditional culture and conservation. 

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