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Distinguished author

Mary Agnes Chase Collecting Plants, Brazil, Image ID 96-548.tif

Mary Agnes Chase
1869–1963. Standard IPNI form: Chase

Mary Agnes Chase, née Merrill, was an American botanist who worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Smithsonian Institution. She is considered one of the world's outstanding agrostologists and is known for her work on the study of grasses, and also for her work as a suffragist. Chase was born in Iroquois County, Illinois and held no formal education beyond grammar school. That aside, she made significant contributions to the field of botany, authored over 70 scientific publications, and was conferred with an honorary doctorate in science from the University of Illinois. She specialized in the study of grasses and conducted extensive field work in North- as well as and South America. Her Smithsonian Field Books collection from 1897 to 1959 is archived in the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In 1901, Chase became a botanical assistant at the Field Museum of Natural History under Charles Frederick Millspaugh, where her work was featured in two museum publications: Plantae Utowanae (1900) and Plantae Yucatanae (1904). Two years later, Chase joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as a botanical illustrator and eventually became a scientific assistant in systematic agrostology (1907), assistant botanist (1923), and associate botanist (1925), all under Albert Spear Hitchcock. Chase worked with Hitchcock for almost twenty years, collaborating closely and also publishing, for instance The North American Species of Panicum (1910).

Following Hitchcock's death in 1936, Chase succeeded him to become senior botanist in charge of systematic agrostology and custodian of the Section of Grasses, Division of Plants at the United States National Museum (USNM). Chase retired from the USDA in 1939, but continued her work as custodian of the USNM grass herbarium until her death in 1963. She was an Honorary Fellow of the Smithsonian Institution (1959) and Fellow of the Linnean Society of London (1961). Agnesia is named in her honour (a monotypic genus of herbaceous South American bamboo in the grass family).

Chase experienced discrimination based on her gender in the scientific field, for example, being excluded from expeditions to Panama in 1911 and 1912 because the expedition's benefactors feared the presence of women researchers would distract men. During World War I, Chase marched with Alice Paul and was jailed several times for her activities. In 1918, she was arrested at the Silent Sentinels rally picketing the White House; she refused bail and was held for 10 days, where she instigated a hunger-strike and was force-fed. The USDA accused her of "conduct unbecoming a government employee," but Hitchcock helped her keep her job. Chase was also an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

See also: Distinguished authors of previous months.

Species of the month

Drakensberg cycad

Encephalartos ghellinckii

Encephalartos ghellinckii02.jpg
Photo: E. ghellinckii in Monk's Cowl area, Natal Drakensberg, South Africa

Some facts about this gymnosperm:

Visual characteristics: Grows up to 3 meters tall. Fronds are olive to yellow-green, and about 1 meter long, while leaflets are narrow (80–140 x 2–4 mm), with strongly revolute margins. The seeds have a yellow, fleshy covering.

Pollination: Initially believed to be wind-pollinated, recent studies show that cones are pollinated mainly by the weevil family, and beetles from the Boganiidae, such as Metacucujus encephalarti. The Boganiidae are known only from South Africa and Australia, and this distribution, shared with the cycad family, indicates an ancient association between these insects and these plants. The beetles are strongly attracted by allomones produced in the early mornings and evenings by both male and female cones.

Toxicity: The seeds are poisonous, containing the azoxyglycosides macrozamin and cycasin, and these are also present in the flesh, roots, stems and leaves, though in smaller concentrations. These toxins are characteristic of and exclusive to the cycads, and play an important role in deterring herbivores.

Habitat: Shrub- and grassland in sub-Saharan Afromontane ecoregions.

Distribution: This species is endemic to KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape provinces of South Africa, recorded at 10–12 locations from 700 to 2,400 meters above sea level. It is strongly associated with Natal Drakensberg on the eastern portion of the Great Escarpment, which encloses the central Southern African plateau. The largest stands are found in the Mlambonja Valley, South Africa.

Number or mature plants: 8,000–10,000 (declining).

Conservation status: Vulnerable (2009). This species is listed on Appendix I of the CITES Appendices. Populations are protected in the uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park and in the Mpendle Nature Reserve.

First described: By Charles Antoine Lemaire, 1868 in L’illustration horticole 15: 79, t. 567.

Etymology: Eponym of Édouard de Ghellinck de Walle, the 19th Century Belgian Ghent plant collector, horticulturist and amateur botanist who first cultivated it in Europe.

See also: Species of previous months

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