Garden News Blog

BBG Scientist in New Caledonia

For those of you unfamiliar with my research and my global botanical escapades, I offer this brief introduction. My name is Susan Pell and I am the director of Science at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The primary foci of research conducted in our department are the evolutionary relationships of plants, their nomenclatural classification, and where they occur (both naturally and introduced). These three different branches of botany have a common application: they inform decisions about conservation. My research is a bit unusual in the department because the majority of my fieldwork is conducted outside of the US. I have been very fortunate in my career to obtain funding from a wide variety of agencies, organizations, and foundations in order to collect plants all over the world. My latest trip is to New Caledonia, a series of islands in the Pacific Ocean. I will be blogging on a regular basis as I travel around the islands, collecting plants and stories along the way.

New Caledonia is a group of islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean, east-northeast of Australia. It has one of the most unique floras on earth with more than 75% of the 3,250 plant species endemic. The biological distinctiveness of New Caledonia is due in great part to its geological history. It is the third largest island in the Pacific (behind New Zealand and New Guinea) and is rather exceptional among Pacific Islands because it is continental rather than volcanic in origin. The largest island in New Caledonia, Grande Terre, was once part of Gondwanaland, but separated from all other landmasses approximately 65 to 80 million years ago. New Caledonia consists of one large island (Grande Terre, ca. 400km by 50km) and several smaller islands. It was named by Captain Cook in recognition of the similarity between its shore and the rocky coastal cliffs of Scotland (a.k.a Caledonia).

This expedition is funded by a grant I received from the US National Science Foundation (DEB-0919485). The focus of the trip is to collect members of the cashew family (Anacardiaceae) and the frankincense and myrrh family (Burseraceae) on Grande Terre and Île des Pins. The diversity of these two families is not overwhelming here, but the species that are present are extremely unique. One Anacardiaceae genus in particular, Euroschinus, has diversified in New Caledonia to a greater degree than it has done throughout the rest of its range in the Pacific. We are interested in understanding why there is such a relatively high number of Euroschinus species in New Caledonia, when there are only two species in the much larger land masses of New Guinea and Australia. One explanation may be the diversity of ancient soil types found in New Caledonia and the other may simply be the 65+ million years its flora has been isolated from other major landmasses. The collections we make on this expedition will be contributed to several herbaria around the world and the DNA I extract from them will help us unravel their evolutionary and biogeographic histories.

Susan Pell is the director of science at BBG, where she studies the evolutionary relationships of the cashew family. She holds a PhD in plant biology and teaches continuing education and training courses in genetics, angiosperm morphology, and systematics.

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Image, top of page:
New Caledonia Satellite Google Earth
New Caledonia’s Islands: Grande Terre (west), Loyalty Islands (Ouvéa, Lifou, Maré; east), Île Bélep (north) and Île des Pins (south); many smaller islands are also visible in this Google Earth satellite picture.