Accurate knowledge of the identity, geographic distribution and uses (or harmfulness) of plants underpins the success of agriculture and biodiversity conservation. In addition to the lack of readily accessible information on the species and data on their distribution impedes biodiversity conservation and the sustainable development. The only way to overcome this problem is to speed up the accumulation of basic data on plants, while simultaneously providing to potential users an easy and efficient access to this knowledge. The flagship project Pl@ntNet of Agropolis Fondation aims at developping a web-oriented scientific, informative and educational software platform for the gathering data, share and use of large, multi-disciplinary datasets on tropical and mediterranean plants. The openness and generic nature of the platform is intended to create a collaborative network of botanists, professional and amateurs, through an international consortium involving a number of institutions around three main teams: AMAP research unit (botany and ecoinformatics), IMEDIA Research Group (informatics), and NGO Tela Botanica (botany network). The French Institute of Pondicherry (FIP) is partner of the project through Pl@ntGhats, a case study in the Western Ghats of India.
Pl@ntGhats aims at gathering within a shared platform the existing information on observed occurrences of plant species in the Western Ghats, and utilizing the data for the modelling their potential distributions in order to assess the vulnerability of populations and to contribute to the improvement of management plans for species conservation.
The specific objectives of the Pl@ntGhats project are: to increase the scientific knowledge and produce new methods, models and techniques relevant:
- to enhance the use of the huge, but underexploited reservoirs of data on plants, such as herbaria, plant images, pollen collections, and permanent or temporary field censuses, for the improvement of biodiversity conservation;
- to the establishment of potential distribution maps of useful or key plant species and plant communities, by combining various kind of data sources such as remote sensing of environment, plant biology and ecology, herbarium specimens, etc.
Study Area and data: The Western Ghats region, a World Biodiversity Hotspot, is a 1,500 km long escarpment that runs parallel to the south-western coast of Peninsular India. Interactions between this relief and the summer monsoon winds result in strong bioclimatic gradients that determine a large variety of non-equatorial tropical forests, with a high proportion of endemic species (63% for the evergreen tree species). These particular features make the Western Ghats an exceptional field laboratory for understanding the mechanisms underlying the geographical distributions of individual plant species and their assemblages, such as speciation and adaptation to climatic constraints and changes. On another hand, many stretches of forest have been and continue to be under intense anthropogenic pressure leading to an accelerated fragmentation of the forest continuum. There is consequently an urgent need to provide precise information to the decision makers in order to help them defining conservation priorities for the Western Ghats forests and species, some of the latter being already listed as critically endangered by IUCN.
The FIP works on the Western Ghats vegetation since more than 30 years. It has produced reference outputs (vegetation maps, ecological syntheses, conservation plans, etc.) and gathered important collections and databases, particularly on the Western Ghats tree species: a herbarium collection of 22,300 specimens of 4,600 species (popularly known as HIFP-Herbier de l’Institut Français de Pondichéry); a database of 10,000 geographically located occurrences of 337 endemic tree species; a network of about 500 0.1 to 1-ha sampling plots throughout the Western Ghats; a 28-ha permanent field station in an undisturbed wet evergreen forest regularly monitored since 1990; a database of more than 250 morphological character states of about 600 tree species of the Western Ghats.
Databasing: The foremost requirement of the project is completing the FIP databases on the Western Ghats into the Pl@ntNet platform. This part of the project will contribute to the effort of the FIP for interconnecting its ecological databases and make them accessible through a dedicated Western Ghats Forest Biodiversity Portal, as part of the Indian Biodiversity Portal (IBP) initiative endorsed by the National Knowledge Commission, The Government of India. This project will also be an opportunity to complement the computer-aided application for identification of tree species in the Western Ghats (BIOTIK), with an interactive retrieval algorithm based on the content-based image indexing techniques developed in Pl@ntNet-Identify subproject.
Species distributions modeling: The modelling of species potential distributions still faces scientific and methodological challenges that are not fully resolved as yet, and which this project will attempt to address. On the one hand, current models are primarily based on the hypothesis that observed populations are in equilibrium with their habitat conditions (which are consequently enough to predict areas of potential distributions), neglecting the independent stochastic effects of population dynamics (competition, dispersion, colonization, extinction, etc.; the so-called “non-equilibrium” theory). On the other hand, in the specific context of hyper-diversified tropical areas, there exist gaps in spatial data on species distribution, as a result of which only methods that use presence-only information can be used, whereas the seeming absence of species could simply be due to the lack of survey in certain areas.
The HIFP herbarium database: Transferred into the desktop version of the Pl@ntNote software, it has recently been published online through the Institute’s Western Ghats Forest Biodiversity Portal. A total of 3470 images was edited and incorporated into the herbarium database. Subsequently web site was upgraded with taxonomic browser and improved searching of specimen records and simple mapping capabilities. The database is currently under importation into the new Pl@ntNet-DataManager system for a better multi-users and shared data management.
Data papers: Two ecological datasets gathered through decades by the FIP reasearch teams have been documented and published online. The first one report forest stand structure and composition in 96 sites along environmental gradients in the central Western Ghats of India (Ramesh et al. 2010). The second makes available a twenty-year demographic survey of an undisturbed Dipterocarp tree stand in the Western Ghats of Karnataka (Pélissier et al. 2011).
New species description and records: A new species of Clusiaceae, Calophyllum pascalianum B. R. Ramesh, N. Ayyappan & De Franceschi, have been described from the Western Ghats (Ramesh et al. 2012), while new records of the tree species Memecylon macrocarpum Thwaites in the Western Ghats led to a revision of its geographic distribution, previously considered confined to Sri Lanka (Ayyappan et al. 2012).
Species distribution modeling: Based on the species occurrences data gathered into the Pl@ntGhats plateform, observed and potential distributions of the endemic tree species of the Western Ghats are currently being modeled using original methods of spatial data analysis and species niche models. The expected results will provide elaborated information for the decision makers to assess and define the conservation priorities and improvement of management plans for the species and forests conservation in the Western Ghats region.