Dr. Chris Thorogood And His Love For Plants

Chris Thorogood illustrator

 

Dr. Chris Thorogood is a dedicated researcher whose work delves into the intricate world of plant evolutionary genetics, plant taxonomy, and the preservation of biodiversity in critical regions. His primary focus revolves around investigating the mechanisms behind speciation and adaptive radiations within less-explored parasitic and carnivorous plant categories. Additionally, he explores the rich tapestry of taxonomic diversity in biodiversity hotspots, with a special emphasis on the Mediterranean Basin region and Japan.

Dr. Thorogood conducts his groundbreaking research from his academic home at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden, where he collaborates closely with fellow scientists at the University of Oxford Department of Plant Sciences. In his role as Head of Science & Public Engagement at the Botanic Garden, he is equally passionate about discovering innovative and effective avenues for engaging the public with scientific research.

Dr. Thorogood's visit to Greece was a captivating experience that deepened his love for the country and its breathtaking flora. From the vibrant bougainvillea adorning whitewashed houses to the aromatic olive groves and colorful wildflowers dotting the landscape, Greece's natural beauty left an indelible mark on his heart.

Chris Thorogood illustrator

Could you share a bit about your journey and how you became interested in the study of botany and plant genetics, leading you to your current role as the Head of Science and Public Engagement at Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum?

I’ve always loved plants. For as long as I can remember, I’ve held an innate fascination for them. In fact, you might say I’m obsessed with them. When I was a kid, my bedroom windowsill was a jungle of cacti, succulents and vines that jammed the curtain poles and hung from the ceiling. I documented them all carefully, scribbling and illustrating them on my bedroom floor.

Biology was my favourite school subject - I was what you might call a nature nut. I’d look at a living thing and think: how does this work? Science was my favourite school subject-for me it was a way of making sense of the world around me.

So, it seems inevitable that I was to become a botanist.

Today, I am the Deputy Director and Head of Science at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum (OBGA). The research I do here centres on evolution-how plants came to be – as well as conservation, and also biomimetics – the synthesis of artificial materials or systems that mimic biological structures or processes.

This work takes me around the world in pursuit of plants.

Your research focuses on the evolutionary genetics of plants, especially in poorly known parasitic and carnivorous plant groups. Can you provide some insights into your most exciting findings in these areas and their implications for our understanding of plant evolution?

I’ve always been interested in plants that steal. Let me explain: rather than manufacturing food from sunlight by photosynthesis, some plants have evolved devious means of extracting nutrients by other means.

Carnivorous plants, for example, have evolved a whole arsenal of leafy traps that attract, trap, kill and digest animal prey. I’m interested in how these ‘green predators’ evolved, and how they vary. Some have even become vegetarian! There is a species in Borneo which produces little ‘compost bins’ to trap leaf litter from the forest canopy; meanwhile others produce leaf-derived ‘toilets’ that tree shrews perch on to feed, and leave their droppings behind.

Parasitic plants are just as fascinating. They include the world’s largest flowers, economically important pests, and ecosystem engineers. These plants possess a special penetrative organ which attaches to their so-called host plants, drawing food and water from them, to form a living bridge between the two plants. Some can even spend their entire life cycle within the tissues of their host, emerging only briefly to flower and set seed: a plant within a plant.

My fieldwork has taken me around the world in pursuit of botanical curiosities such as these: up mountains, over cliffs, through forests and into swamps.

Chris Thorogood with his painting of Rafflesia

Biodiversity hotspots like the Mediterranean Basin and Japan are areas of great ecological importance. How do you approach studying taxonomic diversity in these regions, and what have been some surprising discoveries you've made about plant species in these hotspots?

Biodiversity hotspots are places rich in endemic species-those which are found nowhere else-and where much of the original natural vegetation has been destroyed or converted. Together, these places represent about 2% of Earth’s land surface, yet they support more than half of the world’s endemic plants, including many which are threatened with extinction. One of the aims of my research, in collaboration with other scientists here in Oxford, is to develop a survey methodology for quantifying the importance of particular areas in these hotspots, working with local partners in these biodiversity hotspots-Japan, for example.

I am also involved with a community-led conservation project in the Canary Islands seeking to ‘rewild’ urban brownfield sites using plants propagated from natural populations. This approach to conservation using native species creates green spaces that require little or no long-term intervention, and benefit the mental health and wellbeing of local communities.

You're known for your interest in public engagement with research. What innovative strategies have you employed to bridge the gap between scientific research and the general public, and why do you believe this engagement is crucial?

We depend on plants for our existence. Botanists have a vital role to play in raising the awareness of the importance of plants at a time when they have never been more threatened.

Many people think that plants, unlike animals, are boring because they do not move on our timescale-they seem inanimate. As a botanist, I have to work hard to show people plants in new ways, for example explaining to them the fascinating interactions that have evolved between plants and animals. It may be in the form of an insect-eating pitcher plant, or a ‘vegetable vampire’ that sucks sap from the roots of other plants. Once people take the time to look at a plant, or are shown one in a way that goes beyond photosynthesis, they tend to find them captivating.

Public engagement-exciting people with plant science-is a big part of what I do. My hope is that it will help inspire a new generation of botanists at a time when we have never needed them more.

As an author of several books and a participant speaker on different media outlets, you've reached a broad audience with your passion for plants. How do you think your work contributes to changing people's perspectives on plants and their significance?

I’m passionate about science communication, and this can be in the medium of words or paint.

There’s no one-size-fits-all. Years ago, I made a papier-mâché model of the world’s largest flower (Rafflesia) to display in Oxford, to enable an appreciation of the scale of something people don’t often have the chance to see in nature. I remember a lady telling me her young son said “Wow, I want to be a botanist and see plants like that.”

My recent ‘popular science’ books give a flavour of what it’s like to be a botanist and I try to do this without being grandiose about it. Yes, my work has taken me to some far-flung places, but I don’t consider myself to be exceptionally intrepid; rather I think of myself as an ‘ordinary guy’ who sometimes goes to extraordinary places!

Beyond the aspect of adventure, my writing seeks to show people how we must protect plants just as we must protect animals, and to challenge the perception of what botanists do and why we care so deeply. I hope my books do this in some small way.

Chris in his greenhouse 2

Your latest book is titled "Pathless Forest." Could you tell us the story behind the title and give us an overview of what readers can expect to find in the book?

When I was a kid, I dreamed of finding the world’s largest flower, Rafflesia. This book is about how that dream came true: a journey deep into the green heart of Southeast Asia to study and protect a botanical enigma.

In the book, I take you on a mind-bending adventure with me into a world of weird, wonderful and sometimes fearsome flora where I find myself smacking off leeches, hanging off vines, wading through rivers; and following indigenous tribes into remote, untrodden rainforests. It is an adventure story but also a call to action to safeguard a fast-disappearing wilderness.

Pathless Forest comes out in March 2024 and is published by Penguin.

https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/455788/pathless-forest-by-thorogood-chris/9780241632628

In your research, you explore the potential applications of plants in technology, an area known as biomimetics. Could you share some examples of how plant-inspired technology is being used or developed, and what potential do you see for further innovations in this field?

We use objects and processes in our everyday lives that were inspired by plants and animals, for example the self-cleaning paint on the walls around us based on a lotus leaf surface, or an ink jet printer in the office informed by the insect-trapping surface of a pitcher plant.

There is a long chain of R&D (research and development) that translates the sort of work I do into a real-life application. The first step is to empower innovation technologists with knowledge of living examples that they can feed these into their design processes. This may seem vague but it’s important to work in this way-scientists need the freedom to explore all living things rather than try to reverse engineer something from a known technological problem-otherwise we risk missing potential solutions hiding in plain sight. Who knows what we will learn from nature next?

Recently by examining the structure of giant Amazonian waterlilies, my colleagues and I suggested a real-life application in the form of engineering giant offshore solar platforms. What better inspiration could there be than nature’s own floating solar panels, tried and tested by hundreds of millions of years of evolution?

Collaborative research often yields remarkable insights. How do you collaborate with other scientists, both within the University of Oxford's Biology Department of Plant Sciences and internationally, to advance our understanding of plant evolution and diversity?

All of my research projects are collaborative. My work in Southeast Asia is completely reliant on the shared knowledge and dedication of my co-workers. Thanks to them, I have seen some extraordinary plants and places.

Back in Oxford, I also work closely with physicists, mathematicians and engineers. Combining disciplines-for example biology and maths-is a powerful way for scientists to answer questions such as: How did this waterlily leaf evolve to be so large? Or: How do insects fall into this carnivorous pitcher plant?

Your fascination with plants extends to your work as a botanical illustrator and wildlife artist. How do you believe art can enhance our connection to nature and facilitate a deeper appreciation for plant life?

Art and science are both lenses through which I make sense of the natural world, even if they seem at odds.

Science asks questions. These might be, for example: Where does this species end and another begin? Why is this pitcher plant larger than that one? My research probes deeper into the lives of plants in addressing questions such as these. These are the questions that keep me awake at night.

 Art and illustration complement the science. Although we live in an era of digital photography, illustration has always been important for preserving knowledge about living things. The archives of museums and herbaria hold millions of artworks from illustrators and natural historians, including the original illustrations accompanying the description of new species, which have intrinsic historic and scientific as well as artistic value.

Some of my work seeks simply to capture the beauty of the natural world, and nothing more. In other cases, there is a specific purpose, for example an illustration I might produce to accompany the description of a species new to science.

On a broader scale, what do you envision for the future of botanical research and public engagement? How can society better recognise the interconnectedness between humans, plants, and the environment, and what role does your work play in achieving this vision?

We rely on plants for food, clothes, medicines, and our mental health and wellbeing. They even control the climate. It’s true to say we’ve never needed plants more than we do now.

But plants also possess an intrinsic value all their own-one that goes beyond human utility. We share the biosphere with hundreds of thousands of plant species that existed long before we did, and we have a duty of care to protect them. Two in five are now threatened with extinction in the face of trends in human behaviour and a growing population; some are disappearing before we even know they exist. Their plight goes largely unnoticed-part of a problem referred to metaphorically as ‘Plant Blindness’. Put simply, unlike animals, we don’t even notice them.

My mission is to shine a light on plants and the work of botanists in new ways. I hope that through sharing my adventures into the plant world I can inspire people with a career that is as important as it is inspiring. As a botanist and an artist, if I can help foster a greater care and attention for plants and their plight, even in some small way-then I am happy.

Have you travelled to Greece? What do you think of the country’s flora? Do you have any collaborations with Greek organizations or institutions?

Greece and its flora hold a special place in my heart. It is a land as rich in plants as it is mythology.

In carrying out research for Kew’s field guides to Mediterranean wild flowers, I spent some of my happiest days in Greece, clambering down wild tracks and ravines; and hopping into fishing and onto islands, all in search of plants.

Particular highlights for me were climbing the eastern shoulder of Mount Olympus to see Ramonda heldreichii-a rare jewel-like plant that grows only on this great mountain; and finding giant parasitic toothworts (Lathraea rhodopea) in the remote, untrammelled forests of the Rhodope Mountains.

Currently, I am working with botanists in Greece (for example at the Herbarium of the International Hellenic University) on a project to examine how mistletoes choose their host trees differently across mainland Greece and Crete.

I hope to return to Greece soon as it is the birthplace of botanical science!

Read also I Love Paros (in the Winter)

 

 

 

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