Exploring the Bahamas with Lewis Jones Knight Brace

By Matthew C. Pace

Sep 19 2019

The Bahamas suffered its worst natural disaster recently as Hurricane Dorian, a powerful Category 5 storm with wind gusts exceeding 200 mph, struck earlier this month. Abaco and Grand Bahama Island were devastated, tragically resulting in more than 50 deaths and leaving countless still unaccounted for. As climate change affects hurricanes, potentially making storms even more powerful and more frequent, both humans and ecosystems will face increased risk from wind, rain, and storm surge. Caribbean plants and ecosystems have evolved with these storm systems over several hundred thousand years since the end of the last glacial maximum. Hopefully these adaptations will allow these unique species to continue to thrive, serving as a metaphor for the resiliency of the Bahamian people.

Lewis Jones Knight Brace (1852–1938) was a NYBG-affiliated Bahamian Scottish-Irish botanist who explored the Bahamas between 1904 and 1919. Brace was also a cousin of NYBG co-founder Elizabeth G. Knight Britton, who, along with her husband, Nathaniel Lord Britton, had a special research interest in the Bahamas. Brace collected throughout the archipelago, and the 4,000 specimens of algae, mosses, ferns, and seed plants that he sent back to NYBG formed an essential element of N.L. Britton and C.F. Millspaugh’s The Bahama Flora.

Since its founding in 1891, The New York Botanical Garden has been a strong leader and partner in exploring and conserving the flora of the Bahamas, and the NYBG Steere Herbarium has the most complete collection of Caribbean plants in the world. The Caribbean is extremely diverse, with about 11,000 native plant species, of which nearly 72% are endemic (species with highly restricted distributions). The Bahama Archipelago, a chain of at least 700 low-elevation islands formed from ancient limestone deposits and ancient exposed coral reefs, contains 89 endemic species found in this one place.

Herbarium specimens serve as irreplaceable windows into the past, allowing us to study and understand how plants and ecosystems may react to climate change in the future.


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