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A Conversation with Dr. Charlotte Taylor

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A Conversation with Dr. Charlotte Taylor

Curator Dr. Charlotte Taylor joined the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1990. Today, she is not only considered one of the world’s leading Rubiaceae experts, but she is also among the 500 most productive plant name authors, of which she is only one of eight females and the only one of those eight still publishing names today. With more than 300 new species described to date—19 in 2015 alone—Dr. Taylor is currently working on describing more species, organizing all the information she’s collected over the years to add to the World Flora Online, and helping train the next generation of scientists who will one day become expert taxonomists like her.

Q. What got you interested in plants?

A. I'm the child of two people with a deep interest in natural history and who were serious bird watchers. We grew up birdwatching, but I'm never going to study birds. You have to get up at 4 o'clock in the morning, it's cold, there's bugs, and you have to be quiet…no, no, no, no. With plants you get up when you feel like it.

I grew up in a rural area, so we were outdoors all the time. There was no traveling; it was a small town in northern Michigan. So, where did I move? To Puerto Rico! I was a professor at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan, which is a great place for tropical botany. And you know what? It never snows there. I went to the beach 48 weekends a year.

Q. How did you become interested in Rubiaceae?

A. I went to graduate school and tried several fields. I decided I liked taxonomy, and my professor (Dr. Bob Wilbur) suggested the family as a project. At that point, the university I went to was Duke, and they had big projects in Costa Rica. That was the cool place to work then. Organization for Tropical Studies was just getting going and was based there. And he suggested a project that I'm still working on of a group in that family. It turned out to be a very good group because, in terms of science, you can ask a lot of different questions about ecology and diversity. It has a lot of species, so you're never finished discovering new species. It also has interesting pollination stories.

Q. What can you tell us about this plant family?

A. Coffee is famous in this family, but I'm going to make an argument that there's a more important product, which is quinine. I'm not the specialist on it, but that's the group I work on taxonomically. Without quinine there wouldn't be colonies all over the world, there wouldn't be Roy [Assistant Curator Roy Gereau and Dr. Taylor’s husband].

He got malaria and almost died in Puerto Rico when he was visiting me. He came from Madagascar with a high fever, then was ok, and then collapsed. I hauled him into the university medical center, and he got worse and worse. They figured out it was malaria from Madagascar, which is resistant to everything except quinine. So, my house in Puerto Rico is a dot on the CDC map.

Quinine is an important but overlooked group. I like it because it's from the New World, too. Coffee is from Africa, but quinine from the Andes. It's still used as a remedy for various things. It's a little bit toxic, so you don't want to be taking it all the time. But it’s important as an ethnobotanical medicine and for lumber.

Q. Why did you join the Missouri Botanical Garden?

A. This is a major center of study for tropical plant diversity. We’re one of perhaps half a dozen organizations that does big inventory work, exploration work, and collections-based work. The Garden also has one of the top herbaria in the world. It was already important for Rubiaceae, and it's number one now because we've had a lot of people working on this family since the 1960s. There's always been a Rubiaceae specialist on staff here; I'm just the latest in a long line. Also, all the resources are here. The Garden is the coolest place to work.

Q. How has your career evolved over the past 25 years?

Dr. Charlotte Taylor

A. When I first came here, I was assigned to a country project. We were geographically organized, and I originally was hired to handle Chile. I think I was the only person in North America who had never been to California, which is the equivalent of Chile. So it was a real learning experience. Then I ran Colombia for several years, and that was really complex and interesting. I didn't do that much field work, but I met with all the institutions and coordinated things and data exchanges, specimen exchanges, etc.

Then I went through a phase where I did flora treatments. I contributed to all the major floras; I wrote my family, which is a large one, for all the big floras. So I spent six to 10 years writing that.

During the course of the flora projects and inventories we acquired a lot of material of plant groups no one is studying except me, so now I'm trying to write up everything I know before the end of my career, which is soon. I'm trying to write as fast as I can and to write up new species and keys to species. In this last section of my career, I’m organizing all the information available about a number of genera of plants for the World Flora Online, and I'm reviewing groups that don't have specialists and nobody is studying. When you tell a taxonomist there's no hurry, we're thinking six to eight years. Don't ever tell me there's no hurry.

Q. How many species you've discovered?

A. 326 but the study done by Kew only gave you partial credit for species you only described part of. So I've worked on more species than that. I just calculated according to that. I have 30 to go to make it to number six. [Dr. Taylor is currently seventh on the list of eight female plant name authors in the list of the 500 most productive ones.]

Q. Do you remember the first species you discovered?

A. Are you kidding? The first one I described was Palicourea spathacea.

Dr. Charlotte Taylor's cubical wall of plants
Plant images are pinned to the walls of Dr. Taylor's workspace like family photos. 

Q. What can you tell us about the discovery process?

A. It doesn't just happen overnight. It takes time to figure out if something is different because you have to compare it to every other known thing. I love jigsaw puzzles. Taxonomy is a lot like jigsaw puzzles, but no one knows what the right answer is. You just have to figure it out. So you have to compare it to everything that's known. Then you have to write a description and have an illustration and all this documentation. So, it takes a while to describe something. And that's why it's worth working on a group you know already because you've already solved the problem of what's known.

The reason we have all these herbarium specimens is that no one can go out in the field all the time. So we collect over time. Then you get all the specimens together, and you look at them together. You identify them all, and sometimes you have something that clearly doesn't fit. And you know it's new because you check. So Palicourea spathacea was my first new one discovered like that.

I have only twice walked out in the field and found a plant that I know is undescribed. That's kind of fun, too. One of them was Palicourea skotakii in Costa Rica when I was doing my graduate work. I found things I didn't know what they were, but that's not the same as looking at something and saying "I know all the species of this genus in Costa Rica, and I know that you don't have a name. I've never seen you before." Now we do that on a bigger scale. All those boxes coming in from Peru. Every time Rodolfo [Vásquez, CCSD’s Peru Program Manager] sends a shipment, every box has something in it that, when I open it up, I know nobody's ever seen before. It's happening in all our tropical projects–Madagascar, Peru, Ecuador. There's a lot left to know, partly because there are so many species and partly because there's so much less study.

Q. How do you pick a name for a new species?

A. Naming things is interesting. You try to find a name for them, and the problem I have in my group is that there are so many species. Some of the groups I work on have like 2,000 species. So finding a new name is kind of hard. You name them for everyone you know, and then for every place you've been. Then you run out of names, and you have to get creative. I usually try to name mine for color because one of the differences between the species is the color of the flowers.

Q. Any naming stories that stand out to you?

A. There is one that was found during one of the Garden studies in Colombia––one of the big inventories we had in the 1990s in Amaacayacu National Park. That was a big McArthur Foundation project that we had, and we found this one there. I called it Palicourea macarthurorum because the foundation sponsored that big inventory and trained a bunch of students and made our inventory studies.

Also Palicourea skotakii was a fun one. I was with Chester Skotak in Costa Rica, and he was collecting bromeliads. I walked down this road, and while I found this plant and said "This thing is in my group, and it's undescribed. Nobody has ever seen this before!,” he's in the car honking and yelling "Come on! Let's go!" So I named it after him. He thought it was funny.

Q. Why is plant discovery important?

A. Without a name, the plant doesn’t exist for science. You can’t study it. You can’t target it for conservation. You can’t go back and find it again. It could cure cancer, but if you don’t know what it is, you can’t go back and find more of it. So I work at that very basic level; other people work beyond that. I work at the level of What is it?, and I basically spend all my time telling people what the name of the plant is.

Q. Do you worry that there won't be a new generation of scientists studying plant?

A. What I think is a big problem is that most of the people who can sit down and identify specimens of a particular group or a particular area are my age or older. I'm not as pessimistic as other people. There's kind of a middle generation behind me that's not doing this, but the generation behind it is. There's loads of people getting really good at field work, but they don't live here. You don't see them because they live in South America and Africa. My replacement here or wherever working on this family will come from South America, and it will be one of three or four people who are way smarter than I am. They've all been up here to study with me a little and learn a bit.

This work extremely important. Just look at my inbox one day––there aren't that many people who can do it. That's why I'm happy that people from South America come to learn from me. I had to figure it out on my own. It's just stupid hard and a waste of time if someone already knows this stuff for you to have to figure it out. I had to teach myself a lot of it because there was no one. I came after a gap in specialists.

What concerns me is that the value will not be appreciated until you've run out of the people who know how to do it and then you have to build up the capacity. There will be a gap in the middle, and in the meantime you may lose expertise. And it's really expensive and hard to get it back.

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