Biodiversity of the Hengduan Mountain region, China

Biodiversity of the Hengduan Mountain Region, China

Hengduan Mountains
All collections are georeferenced, and the data and digital images are available online.

In 1997, under the auspices of the Biotic Surveys and Inventory Program of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Arnold Arboretum initiated a three-year program that brought together Chinese and American scientists to inventory the plant and fungal diversity of the Hengduan Mountains. These expeditions resulted in the addition of 32,623 specimens—7,970 of which were unique—of vascular plants, bryophytes, and fungi to the collections of the Harvard University Herbaria and of other herbaria worldwide.

Chinese and American botanists and mycologists are collaborating to inventory the plants and fungi of unexplored areas of the Hengduan Mountains biodiversity hotspot in south-central and southwestern China. The Hengduan area, roughly the size of Texas, lies on the southeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, extending from the Sichuan Basin to eastern Xizang (Tibet), and from northernmost Myanmar (Burma) southward to the Yunnan plateau. This unique area averages over 4,000 meters in elevation and straddles four of the major rivers of Asia, the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy), the Nu Jiang (Salween), the Lancang Jiang (Mekong), and the Chang Jiang (Yangtze).

Hengduan MountainsRich in vascular plants, it is home to between 30 and 40 percent of China’s roughly 30,000 species. Possibly 3,000 or more species are endemic. The area’s flora is especially noteworthy for its diverse representation of several genera; for example, upwards of 225 species of Rhododendron, 200 of Pedicularis, and 100 each of Gentiana, Saussurea, and Primula are found there. The region is also rich in mosses and fungi. We discovered at least 15 new species of fungi and five of bryophytes on our field trips between 1997 and 2000. Extremes of geography and climate together with inaccessibility (caused by multiple factors) have kept much of this area unexplored or underexplored and to a large degree biologically unknown.

Hengduan MountainsFrom 2004 to 2008 the research team will focus on the most poorly known areas, collecting specimens of plants and fungi and gathering information about them, determining biogeographical patterns, and drawing the boundaries of the hotspot. Specimens will be deposited in Chinese herbaria and in the Harvard University Herbaria, with duplicates sent to specialists for identification and study. All collections will be georeferenced and computerized in the field and the data and digital images will made available online.

Results of the project will be extremely useful in phylogenetics, floristics, biogeography, ecology, and conservation. In addition, the work will provide training for Chinese and American students in field techniques, in database development, and in GIS. All collections—herbarium, silica gel, and material collected by special request—will be made available to researchers as needed.