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Florida Museum awarded grant to study Mediterranean Basin bellflower distribution, future response to climate change

Two clippings of Campanulaceae bellflowers collected from the Mediterranean Basin are pressed and preserved in the University of Florida Herbarium in Dickinson Hall. (Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp/WUFT News)
Two clippings of Campanulaceae bellflowers collected from the Mediterranean Basin are pressed and preserved in the University of Florida Herbarium in Dickinson Hall. (Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp/WUFT News)

The herbarium swallowed Dr. Nico Cellinese. It was a winding maze of filtered light and filing cabinets guarding plant samples dating back decades, but she easily navigated to a folder labeled “Campanulaceae.”

To Cellinese, those 13 letters in black ink could be an untapped key to the connection between Mediterranean history and the future of climate change globally.

“When you understand what happened in the past, you are way more prepared to understand what may be coming to you in the future,” she said.

She opened the folder, and pressed within it was a bellflower.

The Florida Museum, along with Southern Illinois University and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, received a grant of over $1 million from the U.S. National Science Foundation to launch an uncommon collaboration between archaeologists, anthropologists, botanists and evolutionary biologists. Researchers will study the impact of Mediterranean human activity on the evolution and distribution of Campanulaceae, a scientific family of approximately 2,400 bellflower species.

The project, which officially began June 1 with an estimated completion date in 2028, will also offer student research opportunities. 

The Mediterranean Basin, home to approximately 10% of known plant species, is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, according to the National Library of Medicine. However, Dr. Andrew Crowl, a Florida Museum researcher and project co-principal investigator, said it’s also one of the most altered due to human pressure.

“We’re attempting to understand how human activity has shaped the distribution of the species on islands specifically and … predict how climate change will alter the landscape of this region in the future,” he said.

Project investigators from various fields will spend time traveling the region annually to gather diverse clippings of Campanulaceae, said Crowl, who specializes in Mediterranean plant evolution.

Cellinese, a Florida Museum herbarium and informatics curator and the project’s principal investigator, has a long history of studying Campanulaceae. She said the bellflower DNA can remain intact for decades when collected and pressed correctly. The clippings are transported back to Dickinson Hall’s herbarium carefully wrapped in newspapers before they can be oven-dried and labeled.

Sample of Campanulaceae bellflower pictured in the University of Florida Herbarium. (Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp/WUFT News)

Marked as “Plants of Greece” and “Plants of Portugal,” bellflower samples, ranging from tiny buds to stems over a foot long, were secured to individual papers with tape and filed into folders.

“A lot of these plants are endemic, and that means they have a narrow distribution in sometimes one island or two,” she said. “The populations are very contracted, which we don’t understand whether that is a product of climate change or maybe really strong human influence.”

Cellinese said boiling the flowers will “bring them back to life,” allowing for DNA extraction analyses run in a molecular lab. In tandem with the lab’s long tables and beakers hung to dry on one wall, on another was a colorful array of personal mugs.

The Dickinson Hall molecular lab holds both lab equipment and the personal mugs of Florida Museum researchers. (Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp/WUFT News)
The Dickinson Hall molecular lab holds both lab equipment and the personal mugs of Florida Museum researchers. (Rylan DiGiacomo-Rapp/WUFT News)

The Mediterranean Basin is one of five regions in the Mediterranean biome, which also includes California, Chile, South Africa and Southern Australia. Therefore, Cellinese said studying bellflower evolution and distribution within the basin could shape predictions for the survival of related gene pools worldwide.

“Understanding what happens in the Mediterranean region might actually help us a lot to understand what has happened or may happen in this other corner of the planet that has the same kind of climate,” she said.

The project is currently in search graduate students who will assist with sample collection and DNA extraction beginning in Fall 2025, she said.

Dr. Jennifer Weber, a Southern Illinois University assistant professor and project co-principal investigator, is a plant evolutionary ecologist studying Triodanis, bellflowers native to North America. She said drawing connections to Triodanis’ close relatives in the Mediterranean could bridge the gap to less documented species.

“We have found that climate change is inducing earlier flower times in Triodanis, but we know almost nothing about those similar anthropogenic changes in related claves in the Mediterranean,” Weber said.

However, she said it’s too soon to determine the patterns between Triodanis and Campanulaceae diversity, distribution and dispersal, especially in relation to global climate change.

Dr. Nicolas Gauthier, a Florida Museum artificial intelligence assistant curator and project co-investigator, specializes in anthropology. While human influence on domesticated animals and agricultural species is known to be direct, he said inadvertent impacts by humanity on their environment, including Mediterranean bellflowers, is less understood.

“We don’t think as much about their extensive impact on the ecosystems around them,” he said.

Through research based completely in technology, Gauthier said he will draw correlations between bellflower genetic information and climate predictors along with material evidence of human inhabitation of islands within the Mediterranean Basin.

“The idea is to better contextualize the nature of human impacts,” he said. “We can understand how these species are distributed based on where humans might have destroyed the environment or otherwise influenced where they can go.”

The collaboration of specializations ranging from botany to evolutionary biology to anthropology in pursuit of a single goal is uncommon, which Gauthier said will give their findings a multi-disciplinary perspective.

“Very often, these fields don’t really talk to one another,” he said. “They don’t think about the different theories or hypotheses generated from those different streams of data.”

Rylan is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.