Feature: Wednesday, March 01, 2006
John Janovec and an orphaned baby spider monkey raised by sympathetic field station employees in Peru.
Mathias Tobler digitally overlays aerial photos shot between 1962 and 1988 with more recent photos.
Neill: ‘We didn’t invent this technology, but we’re putting it to use here in a novel way.’
Researchers come to BRIT to study among the thousands of plant specimens, some of them more than 200 years old.
BRIT librarian Gary Jennings looks at a one-of-a-kind book of hand-painted plants from the 18th century.
From the Amazon to Pecan Street

Some of the world’s most important botanic research is being run from downtown Fort Worth.


It was nearly dark when the botanist and his companions found the loggers, hunkered down around campfires on a broad beach beside a small river in the Amazon rainforest. Even in the peque-peque — a long, broad canoe with a small motor that can navigate shallow waters — the botanist’s crew couldn’t go any further that night, so they made camp as well.

The meeting wasn’t exactly accidental. John Janovec, the blue-eyed, red-bearded botanist, was actually looking for the crew that had been cutting mahogany in this remote section of Peru.

Janovec was acting on behalf of a conservation group that several years earlier had purchased nearly 1,100 acres of rainforest at the foot of the Andes Mountains from a failed gold-mining group. Now Janovec and scientists from other disciplines were engaged in a project to intensively study the flora of the jungle preserve and share the results with scientists around the world.

And his first job was to tell these men, whose logging was providing hard-to-come-by money for their families, that they had to stop.

He was about to learn a lasting lesson — that environmental conservation, to truly work, has to go beyond hard science to consider the human factor, represented on this evening by the more than 50 jungle-toughened men who were camped on the beach with him.

The waitress at Haltom City’s Phu Lam restaurant places a teacup in front of the middle-aged man in the jacket and tie, who looks rather like the streetwise New Yorker that he once was. Sy Sohmer puts his nose close to the cup, breathes in, and smiles. “You know what that scent is? Water lotus. They get it by putting the anthers, the pollen-bearing structures of the plant, into green tea. Wonderful.”

Not everyone can recognize lotus anthers in their tea, but then most diners aren’t botanists who’ve collected rare plants from Sri Lanka to Papua New Guinea to the upper Mississippi. Sohmer doesn’t look much like a field botanist — you’d figure he’s more adept at handling concrete jungles than the actual kind, which is fitting, since he spends most of his time these days raising money for the plant-hunters rather than turning over leaves himself.

The particular bunch of botanists whose work Sohmer is describing on this day have made their home base in a couple of beautifully converted old warehouses on the eastern edge of downtown Fort Worth. Few people whose paths don’t take them down that stretch of Pecan Street probably even know that the Botanical Research Institute of Texas exists, but botanists all over the world know it. From here, scientists go out to various corners of the globe to find never-before-identified species and to study what’s happening to plants in different environments. Others stay here, doing work that ranges from helping police locate the source of grass particles on a would-be rapist’s shoes to discovering new plant species as close by as Ridgmar Mall, species that might otherwise have disappeared under some new discount store parking lot before ever being identified.

Still other scientists make the opposite trip, coming to Fort Worth for information and plant specimens that only BRIT has. And upward of 5,000 students, from elementary to graduate school, visit the institute each year to take “Saturday Science” classes, listen to visiting lecturers, or participate in other programs. One local educator credited BRIT with helping spark a noticeable rise in the science scores at her Fort Worth elementary school in the last year, because of the training provided to teachers.

Even as it accomplishes all those tasks with its small 30-person staff, however, BRIT is focusing much of its resources on an initiative like the one that landed John Janovec among the loggers on that Amazon beach. It’s called the Andes to Amazon Botany Project, a groundbreaking effort to gather scientists from many disciplines to explore what’s happening with both plants and animals in one area, then share their data. With the aid of new technology, the resulting deep pool of information is helping scientists at BRIT and elsewhere study the rainforest in a way that’s never been done before. The work is putting BRIT on the cutting edge of botanical studies, extending the discipline’s grasp to look at how all forms of life — plants, animals, and usually people — affect each other in an environment. Computer technology is providing dramatic new ways to look at the changes in the area’s ecology, back 50 years into the past, and projecting those changes into the future.

And all of this has happened because, 19 years ago, Southern Methodist University was looking to hand off its collections of botany books and pressed plant specimens that had become too expensive — and seemingly not valuable enough — to maintain.

Sohmer, the institute’s president and director, shakes his head, remembering. “When I signed on there were three BRIT employees,” he said. “We had no real idea what we could do with it, but we were all determined to make it work, make it worthwhile for the community. And we could do that because we had this amazing collection of plants and this fabulous library.”

The creation of BRIT required the confluence of so many factors that it’s kind of like describing how life interacts in the jungle: A recession, college football recruiting violations, and a real estate broker trying to sell timber land in Costa Rica all played their parts. The cast includes some wealthy and philanthropic-minded folks in Fort Worth and California — and a guy who loved growing beans and flowers on an apartment house fire escape in the Bronx.

It almost didn’t happen at all.

Barney Lipscomb, now the head of BRIT’s press division, in the mid-1980s was the assistant curator of the herbarium at SMU. “The core of this herbarium and library used to be over there at Southern Methodist University,” he said in his gentlemanly southern drawl. “What the collections represented was the life work of Lloyd Shinners, the great botanist who had amassed about 450,000 specimens and tens of thousands of books, some quite rare, between the late ’40s and 1971, when he died.”

An herbarium is to a botanist what a museum full of cultural artifacts is to an anthropologist, or a collection of dinosaur bones to a paleontologist. It’s a museum of dried plants, often ranging back over many years. Stems, leaves, flowers, and fruits of plants are collected in the field, dried, pressed, and sent to an herbarium. They are accompanied by with notes about who collected them and when and where, and local names and uses of the plants. Through studies of such collections, botanists can track changes in where the plants are found over time or note climate changes, as plants bloom earlier or later.

Why are such collections important? “Well, you want the short list or the long list?” Lipscomb asked with a smile. “It might be a parent whose child ate something in the back yard and they want to know if it’s poison, or a master gardener who wants to see other species of a plant he wants to use.” Conservationists might use an herbarium, he said, “to compare species in an area today with what was there 20 or 50 years ago to assess changes in a region. I’d give you a hundred others if you had time.”

Given that plant products house, clothe, and feed us; clean our water supply; provide life-saving medicines and so forth, the collections needed for such study would seem important. But during the mid-1980s at SMU they didn’t see it that way. “There were a number of reasons SMU decided to give this collection away,” Lipscomb said. “Primarily the fact was that the university was changing its biology department from the traditional areas of zoology, botany, and ecology to a more cutting-edge approach of genetic and molecular engineering. And these plants just didn’t fit that scheme.”

Add to that the mid-1980s recession and the fact that the SMU football program — normally a big moneymaker —was suspended for three years over NCAA violations, and the plant collection no longer seemed worth the space and funds it took to maintain it.

SMU officials looked into several possible new homes for the collection, including the New York Botanical Gardens, but Lipscomb and his boss wanted to keep it in the region and intact. In 1986 a deal was made to ship the entire collection across town to the Gardens at Fair Park—now the Texas Discovery Garden—but it was simply too large for that space.

A lucky stroke came when an international real estate broker from the area, Ted McAlister, came to the SMU herbarium looking for help. A client had a tract of timber to sell in Costa Rica, but no one had any idea what might be on it or what it was worth. “We got him steered in the right direction, and afterward Ted asked if he might come back if he ever needed us again,” Lipscomb said. “We told him sure, but the herbarium might not be there.”

McAlister went to work with some others to find backers and a space in Fort Worth. Within a year the SMU collection was transferred to the new Botanical Research Institute of Texas. BRIT was incorporated in fall 1987 as a public trust, Lipscomb said. “Three years later, we moved into these quarters, with lots of help from a lot of people and foundations, from Sid Richardson to Ed Bass. A year after that we hired Sy Sohmer and began to build programs around the herbarium and the library. Those are the two resources that drive everything here.”

The two renovated warehouses BRIT calls home are located in a pocket of similar buildings called Tindall Square. Much of the structures’ original brick, beams, and planking exposed and refinished. The first-floor lobby is awash with three stellar collections of framed plant drawings in vibrant color. Sunflowers and bluebonnets, berries, irises, and orchids nearly leap off the walls.

Upstairs, a reception area holds the books and scientific journals produced by BRIT’s publishing arm, under Lipscomb, as well as plants and photos from the new Andes to the Amazon Botany Project. Beyond, a wide, 50-foot-long hallway is banked on either side by tall walls of herbarium cabinets — airtight metal cabinets with many cubbyholes in which folders of plant specimens are stacked. Only about one-third of the collection is here — the rest is kept in other parts of the warehouses or off-site.

Down the center sits a row of broad solid oak tables where people work with the plant collection. BRIT research assistant and TCU student Tiana Franklin — one of six in a TCU – BRIT graduate program in environmental science and biology— might be using a microscope to take pictures of the flowers from nutmeg trees, brown fuzzy blossoms smaller than a grain of rice with oily cells that attract beetles. The whole place smells like a rich combination of wood and other plant material.

Amanda Neill, BRIT’s collections manager, a tall, fast-moving woman with long blonde hair, overflows with information and ideas. Walking through the hall, she lifts a plant specimen from one of the tables. “This plant was collected in 1791” — one of the oldest at BRIT, she says. “These are things that make this collection invaluable. And the beauty of BRIT is that we are getting this material up online so that people with internet access anywhere can get to see it.” She is also head of botanical information, which goes beyond overseeing the physical collection itself. In addition to the plant collection, BRIT also houses a library with tens of thousands of books on every aspect of botany, some dating to the 16th century, with new titles added each year.

BRIT’s herbarium now includes more than a million specimens, making it one of the larger collections in the country and more than double the size of SMU’s original gift. Beside the Shinners Collection, BRIT has also become home to collections from the Vanderbilt University Herbarium, the Southeastern Oklahoma State Herbarium, and the Houston Museum of Natural Science, as well as plants from Africa, Papua New Guinea, and a host of other exotic locales.

“All of those were basically orphaned collections that people either couldn’t afford to keep or didn’t have a real use for. So we gave them a home,” she says. “Plus we’re adding thousands of new specimens from the Andes to Amazon project.”

Neill introduces Pat Harrison, who’s in charge of BRIT’s educational programs. “I came here as a teacher to develop curriculum for an organization that didn’t have a science program,” she explains. When she joined the institute in 1995, “the staff was just sort of feeling their way around. There was talk of needing some good science out there because high schools and universities were scaling back on botany, and we were losing our older botanists — the people we need in the field to generate the plant specimens, to be willing to do the work to sort the plants. So I tried to develop a program basically for school kids to generate early interest in the natural world and botany.”

That became the hands-on Discovery program, which provides out-in-nature and back-in-the-herbarium instruction for more than 5,000 students annually. It includes family-oriented Saturday Science explorations, a Budding Botanist program in the summer, Master Gardener classes, a distinguished lecturer series, and a host of other educational programs. “As a public trust, education is a vital part of what we do, from kids to grad students,” Harrison says. “We also have real courses on things like medicinal plants.” The larger goal, she says, is to give students a stronger connection to the outdoors and a sense of how they relate to their environment.

Neill opens a copy of Iridos, the quarterly publication covering BRIT’s activities, to a picture of a high school student named Kevin Jenson. “This is a kid who is just so smart but was terribly bored in school. An aunt of his pushed him to come here for a tour — anyone can have a tour — and he just fell in love with it and became a volunteer. Well, Pat here put him to work with Guy Nesom, our research botanist, and the next thing you know he was able to get a grant to travel with John Janovec down to the Amazon to work on the project there. And now he’s going to illustrate some of the plants John and his team are collecting there.”

Neill directs the Texas end of the Andes to Amazon project while Janovec — her husband, with whom she designed the project and from whom she is amicably separated — leads the project’s field work. Her role includes seeing that the plant specimens collected in the field get properly mounted, identified, photographed, and put up on the web site they designed together, while he directs his team of botanists, naturalists, zoologists, and climatologists in gathering information from their rainforest sites.

The remote part of the Peruvian Amazon called the Los Amigos watershed, located at the foot of the Andes 3,000 feet below the fabled Inca city of Cuzco, includes some of the most lush tropical jungle in the world. Its several different environments — from swamps to pristine canopied forests — are home to tens of thousands of species of flora and fauna, from rare birds, snakes, and monkeys to rare flowers and trees. It’s also an area where illegal loggers are cutting as fast as they can, where poachers are collecting those rare animals — not to mention jaguar skins and teeth for sale to tourists — and where visions of gold strikes keep a steady flow of dreamers and schemers coming in to wreak more havoc. Ironically, it was one of those failed gold mine schemes that led to the project that may help save the region’s incredibly rich natural resources.

In 1998, two very different kinds of visitors were drawn to Los Amigos by those resources. One was a group of tropical ecologists and scientists from Peru, Canada, and the U.S., amazed by the area’s beauty. The others were representatives of a company called Texas Gold, which got a concession to mine there. When the gold miners went broke, the scientists stepped in.

The Amazon Conservation Association, founded by the brilliant tropical ecologist Adrian Forsyth, bought the nearly 1,100 acres from Texas Gold and built a biology station and cabins for scientists working in the region. The group, which seeks to conserve the Amazon rainforest’s biodiversity through science, sustainable resource management, and rational land-use policy, then asked the Peruvian government for an environmental concession on an additional 400,000 acres of rainforest nearby. The government was used to people asking for logging concessions and mining concessions, but an environmental concession was unheard of. Nevertheless, the association got it.

In 2001, two years after the Amazon Conservation Association bought the initial property, Janovec, a botanist doing his post-doctoral research at the New York Botanical Garden, got a grant to travel to the Los Amigos area. He fell in love with it and decided to continue his research there.

Janovec is a Kansan of Sioux, Welsh, and Czech descent who came to botany through an early interest in nature and, later, a fascination with the roots of the psychedelic revolution of the ’60s, including the work of early ethnobotanists who studied the many psychotropic plants utilized by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. Janovec met Neill when both were studying at Texas A&M University, before they moved on to New York.

In person, Janovec is a volcano of ideas. At 35, with his reddish-hair in a long pony-tail and sporting an enormous beard, he looks like someone you’d find on a Grateful Dead tour. He speaks in rapid-fire bursts, moving like a hummingbird from idea to idea, sometimes finishing them, sometimes not.

At the end of the first year of the South American project, Neill got a call from one of Janovec’s old mentors, Ted Barkley, who’d come to work for BRIT on a major project on sunflowers. He’d learned that the institute was looking for someone to run their herbarium and thought Neill might be interested.

“It was basically a two-for-one,” Janovec recalled. “He offered me a job as a research botanist. But it was Amanda they were really after.” The two later separated, he said, “because I work so much in the tropics and simply am never home.”

It wasn’t long before BRIT’s directors learned what an excellent two-for-one deal they’d really made. Shortly after the couple moved to Fort Worth, Janovec was approached by an official with the Moore Foundation, a California-based philanthropic organization interested in environmental conservation, one of whose members Janovec had worked with in the Amazon. The foundation wanted him to put together a proposal for a project to continue the rainforest research.

Janovec, Neill, and doctoral student Mathias Tobler, who’d followed them out from New York, had already been talking about broadening their botanical studies in the Los Amigos watershed. They proposed a project that would combine botany with the study of other organisms and the area’s overall ecology, using new technologies.

“Several months later I get this letter from them and figure it’s a rejection. But I opened it, and they’d approved the project for $2.3 million,” Janovec said. “That was the key to everything Amanda and Mathias and I had been talking about.”

With funding from the Moore Foundation and BRIT’s logistical support, the Los Amigos work has kicked into a higher gear. Janovec’s original project, which continued through 2002, became the inspiration for the Andes to Amazon Botany Project. What started as an effort to collect and identify the flora of the region has grown to include the study of insects; the large mammals known as tapirs; orchids; the interaction of humans, animals, and flora; weather patterns; and new ways of disseminating all that data. Coordinating the various elements has demanded the invention and adaptation of new computer technologies, which the BRIT staff — including several graduate students from TCU — has taken on with a passion.

“The thing is, we started out to collect and catalogue the species growing down in the Los Amigos watershed. But then one thing leads to another. For instance, Amanda and I were down there and walked to the edge of a wetland and noticed that there was a species of vanilla growing up a palm trunk. We had no time to look into that at the time, but then later Mathias and I went out to the wetlands and not only found vanilla — we’re up to seven species of that in the palm swamp — but we find plants that have never been found in the rainforest before. So we started realizing how little is really known about these ecosystems, and our project began to expand.”

As project workers started gathering climate data, they noticed connections between weather patterns and plant patterns. For instance, Janovec said, the project includes studying the fruiting and flowering patterns of about 500 species of trees, “all marked along a long trail that’s hiked for about 10 days each month.” During the dry season, he said, “it turns out that the trees that have winged fruit are pumping those out ... understandable because winged fruits and seeds don’t fly well when it’s pouring rain. But during the wet season, the period of high rainfall, you get all these big fleshy fruits, like mangos.”

That climate-and-plant data then gets used for another part of the project that Tobler is working on. With high-tech GPS collars placed on many of the large wild animals, Janovec said, scientists for the first time are getting extremely detailed information about where the animals are going. “Are they moving between wetlands and swamps during different parts of the year? What do they eat when the fruits they like are out of season? In the end we’ll have a picture of this animal and what it needs, in terms of territory, food, and habitat, in order to survive — and that might give us the impetus we need to get a certain area protected to ensure their survival.”

Along the way, Janovec said, he started referring to this collection of broad groups of information as “biodiversity” data. “Most scientists are concerned with the papers they have to publish each year. ... But I want more than that little 10-page paper that winds up in a library somewhere that no one ever picks up. ... We think you need a bigger picture of a place like the Amazon if you’re going to make decisions about it.”

The picture the BRIT folks are building up is not only bigger, it’s deeper and — thanks to some new computer imaging developments — it’s going to be available more dramatically to more scientists than ever before.

“Put these on,” Neill says, handing her visitor a pair of bulky but futuristic goggles.

We’ve been looking at a computer screen showing a photograph of a jungle canopy. Now the image is in 3-D.

She begins to move the mouse. “Now, you see, with this we can look at the three-dimensional overview, or we can zero in on a given tree or plant and zoom down on it, through the canopy.”

The images are fantastic.

“Now watch this,” she says. Using the computer, Matthias digitally overlays aerial photos shot by the US military between 1962 and 1981. Instantly the ghosts of old rivers, oxbow lakes that have dried up, stands of trees that are now gone, and others that have grown up jump into the picture.

“We didn’t invent this technology, but we’re putting it to use here in a novel way,” Neill explains. “With this we can see how the landscape has changed over the last 45 years, and we can also track an individual tree that was a seedling in 1962 that’s going to be part of the canopy someday.”

The system, which adapts existing computer mapping and tracking technology, has never been applied to build a 3-D, changing-over-time picture of an entire ecological region. The applications are as fascinating as the pictures.

When Janovec was working on a report to the Peruvian government, he e-mailed Mathias and asked him to take a map of the rivers, roads, and villages in the Madre de Dios department (like a state) where Los Amigos is located and to overlay it with an image of all the palm swamps. The team knew that all of the bogs occurred on a layer of mudstone that was between 2.5 and 10 million years old. “Then, boom! We put that on a map of the wetlands from satellite images and realize that none of them are in protected areas,” Janovec said. “On one side they’re completely surrounded by forestry concessions, on the other by gold mines. It turns out none of these wetlands were ever factored into any of the conservation planning there.”

Less flashy but just as dramatic is the Atrium web site BRIT is building that allows scientists and others to access photos and extensive information about the Los Amigos area.

When Janovec and other scientists come back from Peru — or from a parallel project in Costa Rica — Neill’s side of the operation takes over. Team members makes sure plant specimens are catalogued, mounted, and shipped out to the experts for positive identification. The plants are then photographed and put into the database, created with collaboration from Jason Best, BRIT’s information technologist.

“Atrium is absolutely cutting edge,” Neill said. It “allows a viewer on the web site to access thousands of photographs of plants, information on them, the names of the collectors ... . People can punch in a given family of plants and Atrium will pull them all up for you. Punch in a region, the plants of that region appear. It’s an incredible tool.”

While the detailed photos help botanists with tasks like plant identification, the system is also a tool for the average Joe in Fort Worth, who can go online and look at 12,000 images of tropical trees he’s never seen before. And it’s about to be expanded to include photos and information on birds, insects, mammals, and fungi.

The beauty of both Atrium and the 3-D images, Neill said, is that they can be duplicated anywhere — in theory you could map the whole world in new ways with these tools.

And for ecologically sensitive places like the Amazon, “the more information you have, the better decisions you can make with regard to an environment,” Janovec said.

That trip upriver to meet the loggers was one of Janovec’s first duties in the Amazon. And it changed much of his thinking and much of what came after.

He sat and talked to the loggers, he said, “and they told me why they were there. Most of them were from other parts of Peru. They’d answered ads in newspapers promising them they could make a lot of money logging in Madre de Dios. But when they got there, they found out that they had to travel maybe 15 days upriver to the places where the mahogany was, and the boss who outfitted them also owned the little store up there.

“So these guys, instead of making a lot of money ... needed supplies, so they went to the stores and bought things with their logs — which meant they needed to get more logs. So here I am, and they’ve heard about this [conservation] group that’s going to kick them all out, and they’re guys just like me. They’re just trying to work to pay for their kids’ schools, for their houses. Some of them even agreed with the idea of conservation, but they had no other way to try to make a living.”

Traveling with those men and hearing their stories, Janovec said, “just changes the way you look at conservation.” He realized that telling them they could no longer cut trees in the area meant that “you’re there telling them the trees are more important than they are.”

So part of Andes to Amazon has become looking for ways to allow local people to make livings from sustainable jungle products — industries that don’t destroy the jungle or the families. The vanilla plants that the researchers found growing in the palm tree swamp, for instance, might provide that kind of income.

“The vanilla has to be hand-pollinated, and John’s taught some of the locals to do that,” Neill said. “We just brought back some of our first harvest — they’re so big people think they’re plantains, not vanilla beans. At Central Market a vanilla bean goes for seven dollars, so this might be a new, sustainable, income for the people there,” she said.

“I really think those early conversations with these people sparked the whole integrated approach to what we do, how to manage an area,” Janovec said. “Conservation has to include the plants, the animals and the human components to be effective.”

Even though the Andes to Amazon Botany Project is the current focus of much of BRIT’s work, Neill and Janovec emphasize that it’s taken much more than that — and many other people — to turn what could have been a dusty warehouse of dried plants into a vibrant research facility. “Guy Nesom, one of our research botanists, and other BRIT researchers have identified 38 new species since 2000,” Neill said. “Our librarian, Gary Jennings, is contacted by over 100 scientists a year looking for information that frequently only we have. Pat Harrison’s team is just outstanding, and Barney Lipscomb’s publishing three new books between now and June. And then there’s the whole team in Peru led by our AABP co-director Fernando Cornejo.

“This isn’t me and this isn’t John,” she said. “This is a genuine team effort.”

Janovec talks about the expanse of BRIT’s work. “What we’re learning we’re incorporating into the teaching component that’s affecting grade schools, special schools, high schools, universities,” he said. “BRIT is reaching out into the community and affecting lives.”

As for BRIT’s president, Sohmer has come a long way since he was a kid in the Bronx, finding ways to raise plants even there. “I used to love growing flowers and beans on the fire escape. You know how New York is, right? You have this little cavern between the apartment buildings that gets maybe two hours of light every day. But I could still grow my beans.”

Now he’s in charge of one of the most dynamic botany institutes in the country — and as such, he’s still in charge of growing things. He’s the type of director who lets people like Janovec and Neill follow their passions and tries to nurture their work.

Scott Mori, who worked with both Neill and Janovec at the New York Botanical Garden calls Janovec “the new generation of botanist. He’s going to be the king of botany.”

Janovec, he said, “has been able to take traditional botany — what plants are like — and relate it to all the new ways of viewing botany, extending its bounds to encompass all the biodiversity elements. And then he, with Amanda and Mathias, developed the techniques to get this information out on computers.”

From the perspective of a giant organization like the New York Botanical Garden, Mori said, “BRIT is now recognized as a small but very powerful botanical institute. It’s known for its conservation activities as well as its ability to do field work. Man for man, it may be one of the most productive botanical institutes in the world.”

You can reach Peter Gorman at peterg9@yahoo.com.

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