Plant Safari

J. Travis Columbus, RSABG research scientist and Claremont Graduate University botany professor, and Amanda Ingram, biology professor at Wabash College, chose an excellent year for field research in South Africa and Namibia.

Earlier rains served up a terrific season for regional chloridoid grasses and consequently offered ample successful collecting trips. The three-month trek, with funding from the National Science Foundation, concluded in April 2011 with a visit to the Skeleton Coast of Namibia.

The remote area, located on the southwestern edge of Africa, is an unrelenting, beautiful landscape of rugged mountains, shifting dunes, dry riverbeds and grasslands.
Bone-chilling fog from the Atlantic blankets the dunes, offering vital moisture and a strange dichotomy between cold coastal humidity and hot, arid winds from the Namib Desert, considered one of the world’s oldest deserts.

The primary agenda for the day is to find the endemic grass Kaokochloa nigrirostris known to be growing in luxuriant swaths in the northwestern coastal region of Namibia. Before leaving California, Columbus plotted survey locations on his laptop based on species collections cataloged in the National Herbarium of Namibia.

The day is wearing on as they drive west. Passing hills textured with interesting forms and colors of diverse vegetation, they stop frequently to collect plants for future research.
The region is sparsely populated. They share the road with few cars and only occasionally see local people—the Himba—walking in the distance. Large animal sightings, including elephants, giraffes and lions, have sporadically interrupted the desert stillness on previous days.

Columbus guides the truck toward the coordinates with single-minded focus, keeping the truck’s speed at a steady clip. He intently scans the hills for something different.

“As a biologist, I look for things that are different,” says Columbus. “After years in the field you develop a skill for identifying plants quickly.” And with more than 20 years studying Chloridoideae, one of 12 subfamilies within the grass family, Columbus can locate a plant he has seen only in herbarium specimens while driving 30 miles per hour on the left side of the road.

At 5 p.m., that something catches his eye. They stop and scour the roadside. There is only one. Columbus takes photos, notes characteristics and jumps back into the truck with the hope of finding more further on.

The light is fading and the wind has picked up. Visibility is low.

Just as time is running out, Columbus spots the reddish annual grass. Numerous Kaokochloa nigrirostris are interspersed with a white-colored grass, Stipogrostis, along the roadside.

“It is exciting to see species I’ve never seen before,” says Columbus. “No matter how tired or hungry. No matter how exhausted I feel, I get excited.” This thrill—despite thousands of these special moments—is one of the reasons why Columbus loves field research.

He quickly sets about collecting information and samples. He spends about 30 minutes at the site—a hurried collection considering a single collecting stop often takes a couple of hours.

He quickly takes photographs, records the exact location with GPS, collects seeds and unearths plants. The following morning, Columbus will press the plants in his well-worn, wooden field press, preserve some for anatomical research and rapidly dry other samples in silica gel for molecular study.

As the sun sinks past the horizon, they drive up one of the dry riverbeds that transect the area like lifelines. They set up camp under a clear, star-lit sky and make a simple hot supper. Lightening flashes in the distance. Ascending the ladder to the protection of the rooftop tent on the truck, the scientists surrender to much-needed sleep after another long day of successful collecting.