Biotic Inventory of Central Asian Grasslands

Inventory of the Terrestrial Arthropods and Vascular Plants of the Montane, Steppe, and Semi-Desert Grasslands of the Kyrgyz Republic. NSF Biotic Surveys and Inventories Program. DEB-9870187.

C. H. Dietrich, PI.

Temperate grasslands are the most threatened of the world’s ecosystems. Grasslands may be comparable in species diversity to forest ecosystems at similar latitudes and are important reservoirs of genetic material for cereal grains, cultivated pasture grasses, and their symbionts. Among the most extensive temperate grasslands are the steppes and semi-deserts of Central Asia. Until recently, this region has been inaccessible to western scientists and the lack of specimens in collections outside the former Soviet Union continues to impede research on the Holarctic biota. Moreover, precarious economic conditions have increased human impacts on the native biota and Central Asian scientists lack the support needed to effectively document the flora and fauna.

The proposed project will inventory vascular plants and arthropods in the grasslands of Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet Republic situated near the borders of four major desert regions, comprising a transition zone between the Palearctic and Oriental realms, and encompassing a variety of grassland types arranged along steep elevational/climatic gradients. Field work will be facilitated through collaboration with scientists at the Kyrgyz National Academy of Sciences, two of whom (a botanist and an entomologist) will be direct participants in the project.

The primary specific goals of the project are: (1) to collect specimens of as many species of arthropods and vascular plants as possible and estimate the diversity of these groups in Central Asian grasslands; (2) to document ecological interactions (e.g., herbivore-host plant) among plants and arthropods in this region; and (3) to provide a searchable, Internet-accessible database of the grassland flora and arthropod fauna of Kyrgyzstan as well as printed and electronic checklists and identification guides for selected taxa.

Twenty-two sites representing the various grassland habitats of the region were selected by Kyrgyz collaborators for sampling over a three year period. Plants will be sampled using standard quadrat methods as well as by thoroughly walking each site in an attempt to document all species present at the flowering or fruiting stage. Quantitative sampling for arthropods will consist of sweep and vacuum transects of each site. Additional qualitative sampling, performed using Malaise and pitfall traps, Berlese funnels, and visual searching, will further improve documentation of the species present and will provide specimens of as broad a range of taxa as possible. To document arthropod/host-plant relationships, pollinators and herbivores will be sampled on the dominant plant species at each site. Samples will be sorted initially to family, and collection data, including detailed descriptions of the collecting sites, will be entered into a Biota specimen-level relational database, linked to a Geographic Information System (GIS), and made available on the World Wide Web. Specimens of the various higher taxa will be distributed to cooperating taxonomists who will be permitted to retain a portion of the material they identify. Species identifications will be entered into the database as they become available. Duplicate specimens will be distributed among collections in the U.S., Russia, and Kyrgyzstan. In addition to the large number of curated specimens and the electronic collection database, specific products resulting from this project will include on-line interactive keys, published checklists, and phylogenetic and biogeographic analyses of selected plant and insect taxa. Quantitative analyses of vegetation, diversity, and complementarity among sites and regions will also be published. Insect specimens, host plant, and distributional data collected during the project will contribute to ongoing research by the PI on the phylogenetic and biogeographic relationships among the grassland insect faunas of the Holarctic. The project will aid the scientific community at large by facilitating comparisons of the Central Asian grassland biota to that of the more intensively studied Nearctic prairies, identifying especially diverse or otherwise unique regions that merit future study and/or conservation efforts, and providing reference specimens and ecologial data for comprehensive analyses of the vascular flora and arthropod fauna of the Holarctic. Additional value-added components include: (1) improvement of host-country infrastructure through the enhancement of plant and arthropod collections and the purchase of equipment and supplies; (2) establishment of collaborations between U.S., Russian, and Kyrgyz scientists; (3) involvement of students in international field work; (4) compilation of vegetation and disturbance data for use in GIS; and (5) documentation of basic community-level ecological interactions (e.g., host-herbivore, plant-pollinator).

To access specimen data, go to the INHS Insect Collection Database search page.