María Mercedes ArboWe interviewed long-time Global Plants partner and respected taxonomist María Mercedes Arbo, who told us about the evolution of botanical research from the 1970s to today and mused about the direction botany might be headed. Among other topics, Dr. Arbo discussed the role of technology and best practices for effective research.

As a respected botanist in your field with a long career, you must marvel at what can now be done through projects like Global Plants. How have you seen this have the greatest impact on the work of botanists?

I began working in Plant Taxonomy around 1972, in Corrientes, where Botanical Research had started in 1965. The Herbarium was just beginning, and the Library was very small. The main Argentine Botanical Libraries were located at Buenos Aires, 1000 km away. In those years not even photocopies were common. I still keep the photocopy of Urban’s monography on Turneraceae (1883), which I got in Buenos Aires (Darwinian Institute), made on a special photosensible paper.

You could request material on loan to each Herbarium, but it wasn’t easy, depended on surface or airmail, you had to write a letter, wait sometimes several months to receive an answer, and loans, logically, were partial. In those years, almost the only way to study a good number of the nomenclatural types was to travel to Europe to visit the herbaria of various countries, with different currency and legal standards…

In 1976 I got a grant to visit the herbarium of the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, and work under the direction of Dr. Alicia Lourteig. I was privileged because she had obtained loans for me of the types of Turneraceae from the main European herbaria. So I could review, live and live, the types of each species, from different herbaria, and I could compare those of related species.

The “privileged” experience that I lived in the 1970s, is now available for all botanists who have access to Global Plants on JSTOR. It is awesome to write the name of a species, and to have in seconds the high-resolution images of the types!! You can check not only the morphology of the specimens but every detail of each sheet, the annotations made by the botanists who worked on that material, which in the case of specialists, serve even as a guide for the analysis.

I think that botanical youngsters, especially those who are beginning their career in plant taxonomy, have no awareness of the immense advantage provided by this resource. Reviewing some papers published after 2010, I confirmed that the authors had not used JSTOR Global Plants because they referred to as “not seen” types that are digitized and available on the website. Although it seems obvious, I believe that the botanical training should include learning about online resources.

How do you think (or hope) technology’s role will continue to evolve?

The fact that Global Plants is connected with JSTOR and other electronic sources of information such as Biodiversity Heritage Library, Tropicos, Global Biodiversity Information Facility, simplifies and facilitates enormously the taxonomic work.
A new possibility, which already has begun to be implemented, is the “compilation page” of each species, which include the botanical works where the species are cited. In this “compilation page”, the first point should be the link with IPNI, “The International Plant Names Index”, which replaces the Index Kewensis (in the 1970s it was the basic reference work to start the taxonomic revision of a genus).

Global Plants is the best place to gather all the papers about typification; the IAPT should recommend that every botanist publishing an article about this subject should send a copy to Global Plants.

I am currently working in a family in which I am not a specialist, I know only the Argentine species, so I am not familiar with many original works, where the protologues for each species were published. Thanks to JSTOR, to IPNI, to BHL, Tropicos, I can consult the original descriptions in the classics and download all the information I need.

As the links with other related databases are materialized, the possibilities go beyond the imagination, because you will be able to access information about parasitic or mutualistic relationships with other organisms, ecological analyses, and to the uses and applications of each species in fields as diverse as food, pharmacology, toxicology, agriculture, environmental care…

It must be kept in mind that always and especially when there are interactions with other organisms, the correct identification of the species is the key that lets you get all the information about it. The reference which certifies that step is to check the material with the nomenclatural types, and that’s what Global Plants has provided us.

There is also an increasing number of leading women botanists nowadays. I imagine things were different when you first began your studies. How did you find your path in an occupation mostly made up of men, and did this pose any particular challenges?

When I started my studies, there were already many women in the field of Botany. My mentors in taxonomy were Dr. Carmen L. Cristóbal, and Dr. Alicia Lourteig. But it’s true, in those years, women were not frequent in leading positions, but since then things have changed a lot.

Before and now, the challenges come from other angles: how to coordinate a demanding career with home management and growing children. I was very lucky, because I had a lot of family support: husband, mother, mother in law and loving aunts. Fortunately, these days many men share family responsibilities and participate in activities that were formerly limited to women.

Do you have any advice for young women interested in botany today?

Botany is a wonderful career, but if you are interested in leading positions, maternity raises the most difficult challenge, as in any other career; ultimately, problems or issues relating to children are usually gladly prioritized. It is something to keep in mind.

You continue to take part in the Global Plants community and engage in research after your recent retirement: once you enter the field, are you a botanist for life? What drives such passion?

Yes, it is just as you said: you are a botanist for life. A few days ago I received a message from a colleague saying: “Best regards – and hopefully the fun of botany without other obligations for you”. That’s the key: the fun of botany. I started my career working on plant anatomy, then I dabbled in Palynology, and finally, I devoted myself to taxonomy, with plant morphology as a basis. In every branch of Botany there are intriguing, exciting things that make work fun. As more inter-relationships are analyzed, the plot becomes more interesting.

Like all people, I’ve been through especially difficult periods, and in those moments, botany was my lifebelt, because it allowed me to focus brain and efforts on things that could be solved. I thank God to have had such stimulating occupation, which balanced my life in the painful moments.

Your current research on the typification of Argentine bignoniaceae incorporates some wonderful annotations and marginalia that bring to life your findings. For non-specialists, this certainly brings an added dimension to the work, but what role do you think this type of historical contextualization plays in taxonomy?

Taxonomy summarizes all the branches of Botany, but its base is still the morphology, because the characters that allow the visual identification of each species are the morphological ones. In addition, each species is characterized by its geographical distribution, the particular ecological niche that occupies, and its relations with other organisms. A botanist cannot dispense with other sciences among which history has a special importance, as I learned with Eng. Antonio Krapovickas, founder of the Institute of Botany, where I worked. The history of the world is important because the world events are crucial, the destruction of the Berlin Herbarium during World War II is a good example.

But in taxonomy the personal history and relations among botanists are very significant. The labor of each botanist is better understood knowing the context in which he worked; the historical information provides clues to a proper typification of the species and clarifies their interpretation.

The monumental work of Staflew et al.: Taxonomic Literature II, fortunately also online today, is an invaluable contribution to know not only the particular history of each botanist but also the fate of his collections, his library, his manuscripts.

Finally, what recommendations do you have for current young researchers, and the next generations of botanists?

It is very difficult to give specific recommendations, we are living in an extremely changing world, with new scientific approaches, the classical taxonomy is very different to current taxonomy, so linked to molecular and statistical studies. But finally in Botany as in any science, profession or trade, the important things are to work hard, in the best possible way, taking care of the details and the completion of each task; to appreciate the work of those who preceded us; to care for those around us and share efforts; to be generous with the knowledge and skills acquired.