I have been exploring the wonders of nature since childhood. The biodiversity in the wilds of Idaho and the intricate webs of life coursing through the eastern deciduous forests got me into science. As early as grade school I knew I was going to be a scientist and study the diversity of life—it was only a matter of determining which group of organisms I would study.
My research centers on the legume family (Fabaceae, Leguminosae), the third largest plant family with over 19,000 species. This a group of stunning diversity, and I aim to understand legume evolutionary relationships from population to family level. I am particularly interested in the Phaseoleae tribe – a group that includes many economically important plants such as soybean and the invasive Kudzu vine.
As much as I love the lab, I love fieldwork more. One of the highlights of my job as a research botanist and curator at NMNH is the opportunity to discover and collect plants all over the world. However, I have longed to continue my field studies in the U.S., and thanks to a grant from the Smithsonian’s Global Genome Initiative, I was able to complete a collecting trip across the United States from September–October. My goal was to collect as many legumes as we could from wild or cultivated sources. Botanical gardens hold living collections from regional and worldwide flora and are excellent and easy places to collect plants.
Most of the trip was spent on the road. Over the course of 3 weeks, my field assistant and I collected legumes and other plants from Utah to West Virginia, bisecting the country along Interstate 70, taking in collections from the top of alpine mountains, to deserts, grasslands, and deciduous forests.
As a plant systematist and evolutionary biologist, I aim to collect as many individuals or species of a group as I can. In the past, before heading out on a collecting trip (which sometimes compares to a massive scavenger hunt), I would prepare a long list of locality information sourced from herbarium specimens, such as those held in the U.S. National Herbarium. Hopefully this data would include GPS coordinates, but it is more often comprised of only an address or other brief locality data, sometimes as skimpy as “On the shores of Lake Michigan.” I have been on some pretty wild goose chases trying to find plants.
But this trip was distinctly different. This time, I didn’t spend weeks compiling locality lists. Recent efforts by botanists and herbarium staff worldwide have produced amazing resources for plant research in the form of georeferenced databases. I simply typed in "Fabaceae" and drew a rectangle along I-70 from Salina, Utah to Washington, D.C. By downloading results as KML files, I was able to upload these into Google Earth on my laptop, enabling real-time proximity searches for legumes! With the exception of a few major side trips, we mostly drove eastward on I-70. If a legume popped up within 1-5 miles of an exit, we would hunt down the GPS coordinates (like geocaching) and sample it and other flowering plants opportunistically. This method significantly improved our sampling success and also made identification much easier!
By Dr. Ashley Egan, Research Botanist & Assistant Curator, Department of Botany, NMNH (Edited by GGI Staff)