Computational model aids plant species research

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Scientists in Georgia have teamed up with Microsoft Research Cambridge and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to create a sustainable harvesting model to help protect populations of the snowdrop plant.

Concern had previously been expressed by Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Fauna and Flora that the 15 to 18 million snowdrop bulbs exported annually from Georgia was unsustainable. Using the new model, the group of scientists predict that the snowdrop populations in Georgia could easily support commercially valuable harvesting levels of around 15 million bulbs per year, securing the trading of this valuable commodity for the country.

The project began when the CITES Secretariat, with funding provided by the Netherlands, commissioned a study to assess the abundance of snowdrops in cultivated and wild sites in Georgia, undertaken by a team of scientists from Georgia, Microsoft Research and RBG Kew during the spring of 2009.

The team surveyed the national status of plant populations and interviewed local officials and landowners about their cultivation and harvesting methods. Using this data, the team pioneered a computational approach to estimate the abundance and distribution of bulbs in Georgia, allowing an overall quota and regional quotas to be recommended. The findings were well received by the Georgian Authorities and most of the recommendations, including the prevention of harvesting from sites of high conservation value, have been implemented.

'Microsoft Research Cambridge's computational model played a vital role in establishing sustainable harvesting practices for snowdrops in Georgia, and the same model could easily be transferred to other species and countries to help prevent over-harvesting,' said Matthew Smith, scientist in the Computational Ecology and Environmental Science Group, Microsoft Research Cambridge. 'Technology similar to that which we developed can help governments provide the tools and training required to maintain sustainable harvesting practices.'