Keynote Speakers

Dr. Jun Wen

Department of Botany, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 20013-7012, USA

Plant Systematics: A Century of Progress and Outlook for its Development in SE Asia

Systematics is the science of discovering, organizing and interpreting the diversity of all living organisms. The field has progressed tremendously in the last century with building of important systematic collections, documentation of plant diversity via floristic and taxonomic research, integration of taxonomy with paleontology, population genetics and biogeography (the modern synthesis), and development of phylogenetic systematics through cladistics and DNA molecular data. In this new century, developments in integrative systematics, biodiversity informatics and genomics are now transforming systematics and have opened up many new opportunities. Traditional taxonomy is at a cross roads for new challenges of substantial taxonomic changes with new phylogenetic and phylogenomic data.  Major digitization efforts and developments in biodiversity informatics have helped the systematics community explore ways to enhance the efficiency in organizing, publishing, and utilizing systematic information. At the same time, genomics is rapidly facilitating construction of the tree of life, improving taxonomic classification, and disentangling complex evolutionary histories. In the informatics and genomics era, systematics has an incredible capacity to integrate with computational and exploratory platforms for discovery as well as with other, related disciplines while maintaining its core strengths in biological collections and morphology. With the grape family Vitaceae as an example, we illustrate how substantial changes now are being made on circumscribing genera based on new phylogenetic and phylogenomic evidence.  Finally, we call for a community-wide effort of establishing a new global cyberinfrastructure or Biodiversity Cyberbank that will function as the main repository of many types of biodiversity data to ensure the long-term sustainability of the vast and growing amount of systematic data and free access of the data for biodiversity-rich regions such as SE Asia. This Biodiversity Cyberbank will contain new and efficient analytical pipelines for systematics research, especially for efficiently generating taxonomic treatments (revisions, e-monographs and floras). Integrative systematics needs to develop with continued exploration of plant diversity via field work and herbarium studies and training of collection-based botanists in biodiversity-rich regions, especially in SE Asia, and training of next-generation botanists with collections-based as well as integrative skills. Integrative systematics must also proactively educate the public and policy makers on the importance of systematics and collections for addressing the biodiversity crisis of the Anthropocene, and a Biodiversity Cyberbank may represent one powerful tool for such outreach.


Dr. Max M.J. van Balgooy

 Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, The Netherlands


Professor van Steenis – Godfather of Flora Malesiana

 C.G.G.J. van Steenis (1901-1986) started his career at Herbarium Bogoriense in 1927.  Here he acquired a thorough knowledge of plants, both in the herbarium and in the field. Based on the distribution of genera occurring between SE Asia and Australia he established the boundaries of a floristic region “Malesia” which comprises the present-day countries Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, Philippines, Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea. His ideal was to write a flora of this region: “Flora Malesiana”. He brought together the groundwork for the project: literature, cyclopedia of collectors, survey of Malesian genera etc.

Although trained as a systematist, he was much more than that, as evident from his papers on vegetation, geography, conservation and evolution. He had a special interest in certain groups of plants, such as mangroves, mountain plants, drought plants and rheophytes. He held original opinions on plant distribution and evolution, often contrary to generally accepted views. For instance, he completely denied the role of long-distance dispersal and competition as drivers of distribution patterns and evolution. One of his passions was the identification of plants, which he pursued till the end.

Van Steenis was not an easy person. He could present himself as a grumpy, even rude person, but he was extremely kind at heart. These sides of his character will be illustrated by a few anecdotes, assembled on the occasion of his retirement as director of the Rijksherbarium in 1972.

His main legacy remains the Project, Flora Malesiana, which hopefully will be continued, despite its long delays.



Prof. Peter Daniel Wilf

Department of Geosciences, Pennsylvania State University, USA


Patagonian Plant Fossils Highlight West Gondwanan Legacy in the Malesian Flora

Forests with Castanopsis and Papuacedrus occur today in New Guinea, but they represent a history of survival stretching tens of millions of years and thousands of kilometers to Eocene South America. Unlike New World and African tropical rainforests, the Malesian flora’s history is closely tied to tectonic introductions from exotic terranes. For example, South America, Antarctica, and Australia remained adjacent until the Eocene final separation of Gondwana, and warm climates promoted high-latitude dispersals among those landmasses. Australia’s subsequent northward movement led to the late Oligocene Sahul-Sunda collision and the uplift of New Guinea, allowing the introductions into Malesia of survivor taxa that were once widespread in mesic Gondwanan rainforests. In Patagonian Argentina, the Laguna del Hunco (52.2 Ma) site preserves abundant and well-preserved fossils of an unexpectedly large number of lineages whose living relatives characteristically associate in perhumid, lower montane “oak-laurel” rainforests of Malesia, especially in New Guinea. These taxa include the angiosperms Castanopsis (Fagaceae), Gymnostoma (Casuarinaceae), Alatonucula (extinct engelhardioid Juglandaceae), Eucalyptus (Myrtaceae), Ceratopetalum (Cunoniaceae), Lauraceae, and Ripogonum (Ripogonaceae); conifers in Cupressaceae (Papuacedrus), Araucariaceae (Agathis and Araucaria Section Eutacta), and Podocarpaceae (Dacrycarpus, Podocarpus, and a species similar to Phyllocladus); and the fern Todea (Osmundaceae). Many of these records are the only occurrences of the respective taxa in South America, living or fossil, vastly extending their past ranges and thus the biogeographic history of part of the Malesian mountain flora. The living-fossil taxa inhabit, and several dominate, critical watershed areas of high endemism and biodiversity in Malesia’s endangered tropical-montane rainforests.


Prof. Tetsukazu Yahara

Department of Biology, Faculty of Science, Kyushu University Fukuoka, Japan


Lessons from plant diversity assessments in Southeast Asia: sterile specimens and DNA sequences enabled us to discover more than 1,000 undescribed species

In spite of the continuous efforts in the Flora Malesiana project since 1940s, many plant families including big families such as Lauraceae, Rubiaceae and Annonaceae remain to be treated and published. Due to this gap of taxonomic studies, it is often difficult to identify trees in forest plots; even in the well-studied plots of Pasoh and Lambir Hills, many tree species remain to be identified. To overcome this difficulty, since 2011, we carried out plant diversity assessments in 50 locations of Southeast Asia where we placed totally 174 plots of 100 m x 5 m and collected all the vascular plant species found inside the plots, including trees, shrubs, vines, herbs, and epiphytes, even though those were sterile. The specimens we collected amounted to 42,752 including ca. 30,000 species. To identify those specimens, we are using genome-wide SNPs (MIG-seq) in addition to sequences of classic DNA barcodes. MIG-seq is useful to obtain phylogenetic trees highly resolved for closely related species and MIH-seq trees enabled us to identify species even though most specimens are sterile. In Cinnamomum of Lauraceae, for example, we could distinguish 104 species among which 31 species (30%) are undescribed. In Lasianthus of Rubiaceae, we distinguished 146 species among which 77 species (53%) are undescribed. In Spatholobus of Fabaceae, we distinguished 29 species among which 10 species (34%) are undescribed. In addition to taxonomic studies on some major groups including Lauraceae, Rubiaceae and Fabaceae, we are identifying all the vascular plant species in some particular areas. According to these floristic studies, an average proportion of undescribed species is determined as 3.9%. Based on this average, we estimate that our collections of ca. 30,000 species include more than 1,000 undescribed species. Over the last three years, we published 46 new species, but many more species remain to be described. We need to develop more efficient ways of new species publication. In addition, further efforts of plant species assessments using our method are needed to discover undescribed species in areas where we have not visited.



Prof. Pieter Baas

Professor emeritus Botany

Naturalis Biodiversity Center, P.O. Box  9517, 2300 Leiden, The Netherlands

 Flora Malesiana and its Wood Anatomical Diversity

With its great diversity of forests and timber trees the Flora Malesiana region has been and still is an important field of study for wood anatomists and other wood scientists. In this presentation, I will briefly review the history of wood anatomical research in Malesia, often carried out at national centres of forestry and forest products research. The founder of  Flora Malesiana,  Professor  CGGJ van Steenis, recognized the importance of wood anatomy as a source of diagnostic features for plant systematics and identification, by incorporating a concise wood anatomical account in each family treatment of the Flora. The rich but dispersed sources of wood anatomical  information were integrated and significantly enriched in the three Timber Volumes of the PROSEA Handbook series – heavily leaning on the Flora Malesiana community for taxonomic background and expertise. Meanwile, virtually all known information on the wood anatomy of Malesian woody plants has been incorporated in the global web-database InsideWood (Wheeler 2011). These data are now increasingly used with the following objectives:

  1. Allow for microscopic wood identification of commercial woods, cultural artefacts, and archeological, carbonized or petrified woods. Forensic wood identification gains importance to prevent illegal logging and timber trade and to implement conventions such as CITES for the protection of endangered species

  2. Since wood fulfills numerous functions throughout the lifespan of trees, anatomical features can be analysed as functional traits in order to understand adaptive strategies of woody plants under different regimes of rainfall, temperature, and seasonality.

  3. Despite rampant parallel and convergent evolution due to ecological adaptation, wood anatomy preserves powerful phylogenetic signals which continue to be useful in reconstructing phylogenies, in addition to evidence from DNA sequences.

During the lecture, I will illustrate these points with examples from Malesian plant groups. The paucity of active young wood anatomists in the region is a matter of great concern.