Thursday, December 3, 2015

Australasian Systematic Botany Conference 2015, third day

On the third day I unfortunately had to miss several talks. The main topic of the day was Integrated Floras, Electronic Floras, and Online Keys.

In the morning session chaired by Zoe Knapp, Ilse Breitwieser's keynote lecture gave an overview over the various types of floras or flora-like publications, starting with her first use of the Schmeil-Fitschen field flora of Germany as a student. She explored the definition of a flora, of an integrated flora, and of an electronic flora - not just a digitised book but a flora curated and updated in an electronic data management system. She then covered a variety of 'learnings' from the eFlora of New Zealand including the problem of managing authorship rights and copyrights in an increasingly collaborative, dynamic and openly accessible workspace.

Zoe Knapp herself provided an update on the progress of moving the Flora of Australia from a printed monograph series into the digital space. About half the printed volumes have so far been made available online, and future contributions will be born electronic only. Kevin Thiele, as far as I remember the first person not to use slides, discussed the tension between an ideally continually updated and authoritative electronic flora on the one side and the need to test out competing taxonomic hypotheses on the other. Traditional book floras were published at long intervals, and in between differing taxonomic views could be discussed and fought over; in the new world, will there be a committee that has to decide within a few weeks whether to reject or accept taxonomic changes suggested by a single researcher? On what basis? Does it make sense to have two alternative treatments of one genus in the same flora and let the user decide?

I then had to bow out of much of the second half of the eFlora session, so I know less about the detailed content of the talks. As planned, various speakers would have presented progress on the digitised or electronic floras or keys they are working on: Michelle Waycott on the Flora of South Australia, Frank Zich on the Australian Tropical Rainforest Plants key, David Cantrill on the Flora of Victoria, and Russell Barrett on the Kimberley Flora, with Leon Perrie closing the session with a talk on his practical experiences contributing the treatment of a fern genus to the eFlora New Zealand.

I likewise missed the Burbidge Medal ceremony in which lichenologist Jack Helix was honoured for his life's work and the associated lecture presented by Gintaras Kantvilas. However, I was back for the last session of the meeting, a phylogenetics symposium chaired by Peter Weston. Here, Darren Crayn showed an updated phylogeny of the Ericaceae. The results indicate that the large genera Styphlia, Astroloma and Leucopogon are all horribly polyphyletic. That is admittedly not all that surprising: Styphelia was mostly defined based on exserted stamens, an obviously homoplasious trait that evolves quickly as an adaptation to bird pollination, and Leuocopogon is well known to be a mess or, as Darren Crayn put it, "a dog's breakfast".

Jen Taylor discussed her Ph.D. students research on a widespread genus of mistletoes that exhibits strong morphological homoplasy. After a brief introduction on myrtle rust Matt Buys focused his talk on new phylogenetic data for the peculiarly distributed genus Metrocideros (Myrtaceae), which as currently (and apparently wrongly) circumscribed occurs in South Africa and the Pacific region. He also made the suggestion that DNA extracts should be deposited to DNA banks like voucher specimens are to herbaria, so that subsequent researchers do not have to duplicate the sampling of genetic material. The very last talk of the day was contributed by Peter Wilson, who presented a phylogeny of the tribe Leptospermeae (Myrtaceae).

The scientific conference program closed with student prizes, thank sayings, and handing over to the herbaria of Alice Springs and Adelaide that will organise next year's conference. However, there were and still are associated events going on. The evening saw a moving memorial ceremony for Hansjorg and Marlies Eichler, who have had a tremendous influence on Australian plant taxonomy, and today two workshops and a field trip are taking place.

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