Comprehensive Survey of Plant Diversity in Hengduan Mountain Area: the Brilliant Achievement of International Cooperation


  September, 2009, as the neat specimen boxes were put into the herbarium of Kunming Institute of Botany of CAS, the comprehensive scientific investigation of plant diversity in Hengduan Mountain Area cooperated by Sino-US scientists, which lasted 6 years, was formally finished. The Chinese expedition leader, Party secretary and deputy director of the KIB of CAS, winner of National Outstanding Youth Science Foundation Sun Hang said with deep emotion, "the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau comprehensive scientific expedition developed by the older generation of scientists in the seventies of last century laid a good foundation for finding out the background information of resources in Southwestern regions. Stood on the shoulders of predecessors, we just hope that six-year's investigation in Hengduan Mountain could provide valuable information for more in-depth research of plant and fungal taxa in Hengduan Mountains." 


    China and U.S. National Fund Promote the Projects to Carry Out.


  In 2003, Kunming Institute of Botany of CAS and Harvard University Herbarium signed a science and technology cooperation agreement in Kunming, jointly implementing the cooperation project-'Biodiversity research of plant and fungi in Southwest China'. Under the impetus of botanists from both sides, the project received co-finance from U.S. National Natural Science Foundation(NSF) project -'Biodiversity research of Higher Plants and Fungi in Southeast Tibet and West Sichuan' and key international cooperation project of Chinese National Natural Science Fundation -'Research of the Origin and Evolution of Plant Diversity in Hengduan Mountain'.

  Under the co-leadership of Researcher Sun Hang China chief scientist, from KIB and Dr. David Boufford U.S. Chief Scientist, from Harvard University, since 2003, the Sino-US joint expedition team successively launched five large-scale field investigations in nearly 50 counties, such as Tibet Changdu, Yunnan Diqing, Sichuan Liangshan, Ganzi, Aba. The expedition team consisted of more than 20 Researchers respectively from KIB of CAS, Institute of Botany of CAS, Yunnan Normal University, Harvard University, the Field Museum of Natural History, Kochi Prefectural Makino Botanical Garden, Japan and other units . For six years, China and U.S. scientists have collected 12,000-15,000 specimen in total, more than 6,000 of which are higher plants or fungi taxa. Until now, the researchers have confirmed 30 new species of plants and fungi, built on-line query database of plant images and descriptions, which is open to the scientists all over the world, and online Chinese Place Names Handbook, which provides important reference for accurately identifying plant specimen collection places.


  The Improvement of Complex Geographic Environment Provide Prerequisite for the Successful Completion of Study.


  Hengduan Mountain is the area richest in biodiversity in China, its administrative region including northwestern Yunnan (Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture), western Sichuan (Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture and Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture) and southeastern Tibet Autonomous Region (Changdu regions and part of Linzhi regions), extending north to the southeastern Qinghai, south-western Gansu and south to the northern part of Myanmar, a total area of approximately 500,000 square kilometers. In geological history, due to the rapid uplift of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, Hengduan Mountains were squeezed by the plates, making the stratum bended and leaped, and gradually formed a group of mountain landscapes which is nearly north-south direction and is cut by a number of rivers. Because of the complex and unique natural geography and climatic conditions, the plant species are various here, up to more than 10,000 species. Plants from different sources assemble, exchange and differentiate in here, thus creating abundant new and endemic genera and species, which makes the area gradually become one of the key hot spots rich in biodiversity all around the world. The region is listed as the 34 biodiversity hotspots in the world by Conservation International.

  Owning to the complex terrain and under-developed transport infrastructure, only few botanists carried out collection work in the local regions during modern times. Since the founding of People's Republic of China, comprehensive scientific expedition in Qinghai-Tibet Plateau had been successively developed , laying a good foundation for the material collation work of 'Flora of China' and the local flora. Since China's reform and opening up 30 years ago, with the substantial increase of China's comprehensive national strength and the improvement of regional traffic environment, it is possible to further develop the investigation and research work of botany. As Researcher Yang Zhuliang of KIB, the project partner and the National Outstanding Youth Science Fund winner, mentioned, "many exiting specimen materials were collected in seventies and eighties of twentieth century. Because of the poor working conditions and limited equipments, most of the specimens collected were directly dried by the fire in the wild, causing that many materials can not be applied in the molecular biology experiments. However, through this exploration, we can collect samples in lots of places that difficult to reach in the past, and as well it is easy to obtain experimental materials as specimen preparation equipments are greatly improved."

  "If you can not get high-quality specimens, it is hard to acquire reliable scientific data", said Yang Zhuliang.


  Harsh Environments, Extreme Weather and the Unanticipated New Discoveries were Along with the Investigation.


  For historical reasons and limitation of natural conditions, the traffic condition of Hengduan Mountains is quite poor. Beside, the extreme weather such as drought and floods as well as road collapse occurred frequently, which caused a lot of troubles to the joint exploration team. For years, the team worked at places higher than average altitude 3,500 meters and each investigation lasted for more than 40 days. And this resulted in cold hypoxia problems that troubled the survey work all the time.

  "In order to meticulously study the plant in this region, the team always needed to encamp on the mountain. During the expedition at Haba Snow Mountain in 2006, the team encamped the tent at Lanhuaping meadow,  4,000 meters above sea level,  and worked there for 4 days. During these days, it kept raining heavily and the members had to guard against the ubiquitous leeches while fighting against the cold. At nights, the members crowded in the small cattle to suppress and number the specimens, then sent to the villages at the foot of the mountain by the local horse caravan for baking", said Dr. Yue Jipei of KIB, one of the expedition members. The memory remained fresh when he recalled those days.

  Despite such difficulties, the expedition members still enjoyed the unanticipated new discoveries, such as Isoetes hypsophila, a kind of Ferns plants. As we know, Isoetes is the only survival genera of genera Isoetaceae, of which Isoetes hypsophila is the species lives at the highest altitude. It usually grows at high mountain wetlands, lakes, swamp meadow with an altitude of about 3,500 meters and only distributes at northwestern Yunnan and southwestern Sichuan. In 2005, 2006 and 2007, the expedition team successively found the distribution of Isoetes hypsophila with large populations in Sichuan Jiulong County, Bai Yu County and Hongyuan County. Except for the Isoetes hypsophila, the team also found plants of Cruciferae, Orchidaceae, Thymelaeaceae, Lamiaceae and discovered 30 new species of of fungi taxa, adding important information for ascertaining the elements of flora in Hengduan Mountains.


  The wide range of inspection makes the national research institutions and local governments establish good friendship and provide scientific guidance for management and conservation of regional biodiversity.


During six years' consecutive field investigation, the team reached nearly 50 counties of six states (regions) of Yunnan, Sichuan and the Tibet Autonomous Region. The team kept communicating with administrative sections of  local forestry departments and Nature Reserves and established a good relationship with them. In 2004, the team helped Forestry Bureau of Tibet Autonomous Region finish the 'list of rare and endangered plants under state special protection in Tibet'. Every year after the investigation, the team would propose summaries and suggestions of the study to the local government. For example, in 2006, the team brought forward the text suggestion-'strengthen the thoroughly investigation of wild plant resources, especially rare and endangered plants' to Sichuan Provincial Forestry Department. In the proposal, the team hoped, on the basis of strengthening the protection of wild animals in Chaqingsongduo White-lipped Deer National Nature Reserve, to thoroughly investigate the Isoetes hypsophila in this protected area. This suggestion arosed high attention of Sichuan Provincial Forestry Department and Chaqingsongduo National Nature Reserve. They carried out several key surveys on Isoetes hypsophila in 2009 and achieved important results.


International communication and research level were greatly improved through cooperative work and a group of outstanding young scientists were cultivated.


China is the one of the contract parties of the 'Convention on Biological Diversity' and has broad international cooperation on bio-diversity research. Early in 1984, KIB had jointly carried out the botanical research with U.S. scientists in Cangshan Mountain, Dali, Yunnan and then successively developed Sino-British, Sino-US comprehensive surveys in Gaoligongshan Mountain. The Sino-US scientific survey of plant diversity in Hengduan Mountain is the continuation of previous Sino-foreign cooperations. The joint research introduced the background information of a great number of plants, provided significant scientific guidance for the compilation of the English version of Flora of China. Meanwhile, lots of experimental materials were obtained during the investigations, ennabled in-depth research on origin and evolution of featured plants in Hengduan Mountains and as well provided important theoretical guidance for protection and management of endangered species and construction of natural reserves. During the six-year' work, researcher Sun Hang and Yang Zhuliang successively won the National Outstanding Youth Science Fund. Meanwhile, Sun Hang was also elected as the candidate of Ten Million Talents Project in the New Century and took charge of the key project of National science and technology basic work-the survey and conservation of wild plant germplasm resources under the special habitat of Qinghai-Tibet Plateau'.

A group of young scientific and technological talents were cultivated through cooperative work. Since 2004, 11 young scholars visited Harvard University, Field Natural History Museum and Israel respectively for cooperative research and 11 graduate students participating in the project received a doctorate and two of them went to Harvard University and the Field Natural History Museum to carry out post-doctoral research after receiving the degree. A number of research results about the large-scale comparative study of plant floristic composition and featured vertical distribution in Hengduan Mountains as well as the study of plant flora and intercontinental disjunct taxa in China – Himalaya were published in the international mainstream journals such as: Molecular phylogenetics and Evolution, Fungal Diversity, American Journal of Botany, Taxon, Biodiversity and Conservation and many other well-known journals. 

Bilateral exchange and cooperation between research institutions were enhanced and expanded. The Harvard Gazette printed in late October, 2009, published a report entitled Plant diversity, altitude leave collectors breathless in China, which systematically introduced the five-time's comprehensive scientific surveys of plant diversity deep in Hengduan Mountain hinterlands, co-organized by Kunming Institute of Botany and Harvard University, and gave a high evaluation of this co-operative research. The U.S. chief scientist of the project Dr. David Boufford said, "Our cooperation is very happy and very successful. Hengduan Mountain is an attractive place for scientists because they can always have opportunities to obtain new discoveries." 


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