Seed Sown for Future Research and Collaboration on St Helena

  • Mark Yon 

Dr Hanno Schaefer Professor of Plant Biodiversity at the Technische Universität München (Munich), touched down on St Helena with 10 Master’s Degree students on Saturday, 28 September 2019. Their arrival on the Island was a week late, having been unable to board at Johannesburg due to an error by German airline staff, shortening their planned two-week visit to just one week. Professor Schaefer successfully turned what could have been a disaster around, arranging field trips from Johannesburg and whilst not achieving everything they set out to do in their week on St Helena, the visit was extremely productive, new relationships reinforced and the ‘seed sown’ for future research and collaborations.

The University field study group is the first academic group to take advantage of the opportunity that air access brings. Professor Schaefer had first made the trip to St Helena in 2018 to explore the Island and meet Island conservationists to scope the potential for field study and research. He worked closely with local authorities to plan and secure the necessary support and permissions for the visit which included securing research licences from the newly established St Helena Research Council.

Professor Schaefer conducted research on six of the Island’s non-native plants. These are plants that were introduced to St Helena and which have become naturalised but are not invasive. They are also a group of plants that Professor Schaefer knows well from his work on the Azores. On the Azores their behaviour is very different as they are invasive species. The work involved identifying the plants from the Island’s road and Post Box Walk network. A second element of research was to collect minute samples of St Helena’s endemic tongue ferns (Elaphoglossum) for genetic analysis back in Germany. These are a group of extremely rare endemic ferns that live in the cloud forest of the peaks. Over a very long time they have evolved into four different species on St Helena from a common ancestor. Conservationists here and Professor Schaefer are interested in learning more about this speciation and whether there is hybridisation going on between species.

When asked about his experiences on St Helena Professor Schaefer reflected:

“For me and for the students it was an overwhelming experience. Even though I had seen most of the places already in 2018, it was very interesting to see the vegetation after a much drier winter than the year before and some of the plants (Lantana and everlasting flower) seem to have spread a little bit within just 12 months.

“From the teaching side, St Helena is probably one of the best examples worldwide to show human impact on isolated ecosystems in its negative but importantly, also in its positive aspects. There is of course the evident destruction caused by wrong decisions in the past. But at the same time, I have seen very few other places with so many enthusiastic people involved in conservation and restoration. So, in my opinion, the most important lesson to be learned for my students is that there are ways to restore ecosystems even in highly degraded landscapes and under high invasion pressure from exotic plants and animals as long as it is the strong desire of the local people.

“More specifically, the tree fern forest of the peaks is a globally unique and, in our opinion, extremely impressive habitat. I have never seen anything like that and the students told me that they felt a bit like going back to the Jurassic. 

“In terms of research, for me the most exciting angle is the comparison to the situation in the Azores, which I have been studying for the past 20 years or so. Why do some plants, like kikuyu and flax invade quickly on St. Helena but not the Azores, even though they are present on both? Why are others a big problem in the Azores but hard to find on St Helena, like the Himalayan purple knotweed and the Australian Pittosporum tree? Why is there a radiation of Elaphoglossum ferns in St Helena but in the nine islands of the Azores archipelago, we find only a single Elaphoglossum species throughout? Both, St Helena and the Azores are home of endemic or near-endemic Grammitis ferns, which are probably the first to go extinct with increasingly dry climates. Can we develop a strategy to protect them that works for St Helena and the Azores? Just a few examples of the many, many questions that I have in mind now, after my return. Of course more time on St Helena would have been better but I think in terms of teaching and research we still managed to do a lot.”

It’s good to know that Professor Schaefer sees a lot of potential in St Helena as a research site for island biology, evolutionary biology but also practical restoration ecology and similar topics. He looks forward to returning again and he hopes that he will be able to bring future MSc. students.

Interestingly, the student’s learning experiences weren’t just limited to the Island’s landscape and ecology. None of the students had ever experienced such isolation. Professor Schaefer noted that:

 “For my students, having a flight only once or twice per week, limited  internet access, only a limited range of things to buy in the shops, and limited options to go out is a unique experience and I realized that some of them struggled a bit with it. I think this is also a generation issue: when I grew up, there was no Wi-Fi or internet, so I can live easily without these modern communication systems.”

In summing up, Professor Schaefer considered:

“All in all, St Helena is a beautiful place with wonderful people and still an amazing diversity of unique plants and animals and I think everybody working on island biology should see it.”

Coordinator of the St Helena Research Institute, Dr Rebecca Cairns-Wicks, described the visit as a success: “Hanno and the students were such great people to work with and the visit provided an excellent platform for learning, as we begin to implement new research policies and processes. It has also given us the opportunity to forge new friendships and professional relationships. We look forward to welcoming Hanno and his MSc students back on St Helena in the future.”

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Image © David Pryce