Inventory of Bryophytes in the Gaoligong Shan, Yunnan, China

Published on 6 October 2010 in Ecosystems and biodiversity

Collecting bryophytes in Gaoligong Shan


The Biotic Survey of Gaoligong Shan, Yunnan is one of the biggest exploratory biological surveys ever undertaken in China, and has resulted in collection over the years 2002 to 2007 of over 25,000 fully documented plant specimens as well as countless insects and other invertebrates. These specimens and rigorous supporting data are available to scientists worldwide.

The 585km long Gaoligong Shan is the dividing range between China and Burma (Myanmar), densely clad in rich subtropical and temperate forests with mountain peaks rising to over 6,300m. Its biodiversity is truly outstanding; the topography is steep and rugged and access for collecting has been difficult. However, this terrain has helped to protect the range from over-exploitation but the rich natural resources are increasingly vulnerable, and the scientific results will be used to enhance its protection.

The 5-year field programme is now complete, and the participating research groups in China, USA and Scotland are now focussing on scientific description and dissemination of the specimens and data.

Key Points

Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) is a partner in the project for flowering plants and bryophytes and nine staff have joined one or more expeditions. Bryophytes have been collected by David Long (RBGE) and Jim Shevock (California Academy of Sciences). Bryological field work to date has covered a range of vegetation types from lowland subtropical evergreen forest to the alpine zone up to 3700m, mostly between the Nu Jiang (Salween River) and the Burmese border, but also in the Irrawaddy (western) catchment at the northern end of the range. Over 7700 bryophyte specimens were collected.

Yunnan probably has the richest bryophyte flora of any country in the world, and within China Yunnan is the richest province. The Gaoligong Shan is poorly known for most biodiversity yet is thought to be extraordinarily rich and this has been borne out by field work. Although the mountain range has been a World Heritage Site since 2003, and a large area is designated as a nature reserve, protection of the biodiversity is a major challenge in the face of pressure for commercial exploitation, such as hydro-electric power stations, new roads, harvesting of forest products and medicinal herbs. These threats are ever-increasing.

Research Undertaken

During the years 2002 to 2007, field work was prioritized and bryophyte collections were made on ten expeditions. Funding was provided by a grant from the US National Science Foundation awarded to our collaborators, the California Academy of Sciences. Expedition logistics were planned at the Kunming Institute of Botany and expeditions lasted from four to six weeks, using vehicle transport where possible or trekking on foot with porters to remote areas.

All bryophyte specimens were collected in paper packets and liverworts also in silica gel for DNA extraction. Specimens were dried using electric fans. Accurate locality data using GPS were recorded along with detailed ecological data for each collection. Dry specimens were shipped to Edinburgh and San Francisco for preparation and labelling, and were split into 5 or more sets for distribution to herbaria in the UK, USA and China.

Specimens were distributed worldwide to specialists for taxonomic study which will be on-going for many years. Publications to date include two genera (the moss Shevockia and liverwort Hamatostrepta) and several species new to science. Ultimately a floristic guide and checklist are planned for the mountain range when a significant proportion of collections are fully researched.

Policy Implications

Scotland, particularly RBGE, has a long-standing track record of discovery and description of plant diversity in the Sino-Himalaya and therefore has the potential to be a key player in future collaborative exploration and documentation of plant resources in China in partnership with Chinese scientists.

The research has gathered a very large new dataset on the rich biodiversity of a global hotspot for bryophytes and other plants. This in turn should help to protect the forest and alpine habitats of Gaoligong Shan from destructive development. Recording precise data on biodiversity is a key element of future research on the impact of climate change on mountain ranges such as Gaoligong Shan.


Dr David Long, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh


Ecosystems and biodiversity

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