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17 May 2016

Dr Matt Renner on liverwort tour

Dr Matt Renner studies leafy liverworts, through a three year project funded by the Australian Biological Research Study scheme. His lab and field work at the Royal Botanic Garden (RBG) in Sydney, have revealed new species and new knowledge of these small, flowerless, spore-producing plants. Liverworts are part of an ancient group of land plants known as bryophytes (including mosses, liverworts and hornworts) and they are usually found growing on the damp floors of “cloud” or “fog” forests.

Matt is currently on a global liverwort mission, funded by a Foundation and Friends of the Botanic Gardens scholarship, meeting up with counterparts in Switzerland, Germany and the USA to explore their liverwort collections and compare notes. 

Matt shares his experiences at The Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, where many liverworts from his homeland New Zealand are collected and studied:

“This week has focused on type* specimens from around the world with collection dates spanning more than two centuries. The oldest type specimen by far is that for Jungermannia gigantea Hook, collected by Mr A. Menzies at Dusky Bay, Fiordland NZ, in 1791.  This was one of the first bryophytes ever collected in New Zealand.  

The visit has been a great opportunity to receive guidance from Dr John Engel, Emeritus Curator of Botany. Dr Engel has granted me access to his working collections and helped me with some challenges resolving names for particular species. This interaction has also provided an avenue for two species identified by my study at RBG to feed into the Flora of New Zealand project, led by Dr Engel”. 

Matt tells us about his time at liverwort heaven - Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques herbarium in Geneva:

“The Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques Ville de Geneve is just one year younger than our own Royal Botanic Garden.  A recent re-vamp of their herbarium has seen the inside of this building hermetically sealed, climate controlled, and modernised into a beautiful work and educational space, for cryptogams (plants that reproduce by spores, without flowers or seeds):


The numbers associated with this building are absolutely staggering. Their liverwort collection alone holds about 105,000 specimens, including approximately 17,000 type specimens. The total number of published liverwort names globally is 28,000 but new species continue to be ‘discovered’ amongst this enormous collection” :


“This exceptional resource has given me the opportunity to examine comprehensive type specimens from around the world, helping me to capture names for Australian species that are widespread overseas. Some of the species I have been working on will need their original names reinstated if it turns out they have been described already. This is the first indication that my study is contributing to increasing global understanding of species diversity.

As for the real world, the people of Geneva don’t mow their lawns anymore. This is for the bees, and birds, and biodiversity in general.  It gives the whole place a prairie-like feel that reminds me a lot of growing up in west Auckland”:

*In biology, “type” specimens are the stars of a collection. These special specimens are used by a taxonomist (a scientist that puts living things into categories) to name and describe a species. The scientific name is published and the official description of the characteristics of that species are permanently attached to that specimen. The herbarium at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, contains over 10,000 type specimens in a collection of more than 1.2 million specimens.

Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques herbarium in Geneva

Dr John Engel, Emeritus Curator of Botany

The Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago

Category: Science
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