Famous Botanists in History: Zhan Wang

Researching last week’s post reminded me of a series of posts that I have been wanting to start for quite a while: Famous Botanists in History. With Metasequoia on my mind, who better to inaugurate this new series than Zhan Wang – the botanist who made the first scientific collection of the living fossil.

From what I can tell, most of what is known about Zhan Wang (at least outside of China) comes from his contribution to the discovery and description of Metasequoia glyptostroboides, and even that information seems to be available largely due to the efforts of some of his colleagues and former students who endeavored to see that Wang be acknowledged for his role in the event. After Wang’s death, a group of his former students wrote a short biography which appeared in the August 2000 issue of the journal Taxon. The biography is written from the perspective of a group of people who greatly admired and respected their teacher and mentor. Unable to find much else written about Wang and his life, the details in this post are mostly taken from that biography. If there are other resources, I would be grateful to have them brought to my attention.

Zhan Wang was born in a remote village in Liaotung Province (now Liaoning Province) in northeast China on May 4, 1911. His birth name was Yishi, but he changed it to Zhan (or Chan) after running away from home in 1932. He developed plant identification skills early in his youth and used those skills to learn about Chinese medicine. He studied forestry in high school. When he graduated in 1931, the Japanese army was in the process of invading northeast China, so he fled to Beijing. There he continued his forestry studies at Beijing University (known today as Peking University). He graduated in 1936, and around that time, Beijing University along with other educational institutions and government agencies in Beijing and Nanjing were evacuating to escape aerial attacks. As Kyna Rubin puts it in The Metasequoia Mystery, “much of Wang’s early career was spent dodging war.”

Zhan Wang went to middle school and high school in Dandong City, Liaoning Province (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Zhan Wang went to middle school and high school in Dandong City, Liaoning Province, China (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Zhan moved with Beijing University’s Agricultural College to the Shaanxi province where he took a position as professor of dendrology and forestry. Wang’s students say that he preferred to teach his classes outside where the students could have “hands-on experiences” directly observing the morphology and ecology of plants. He “told stories about the species,” encouraged “looking, touching, tasting, and chewing,” and found many other ways to integrate botany and ecology in his courses. One way he helped students understand plant ecology was by grouping plants into categories with clever nicknames such as “mountain climbers” (plants found in cool climates), “greedy boys” (plants with high nutrient demands), “thirsty guys” (plants with high water demands), and “desert fighters” (drought tolerant plants).

In 1943, Wang became a Forest Administrator for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, a position which included doing forest surveys in remote areas. On an expedition to Shennongjia in the Hubei province, Wang was stricken with malaria and had to stop in Wanxian County. There he met an old classmate of his, Longxing Yang, who told him of an unusual tree, which was later described as Metasequoia glyptostroboides by Wanjun Zheng and Xiansu Hu thanks to the initial collections that Wang made in July 1943. Despite being left out of some of the accounts of the discovery, Wang’s students claim that he didn’t complain and was more concerned about the tree’s continued survival, believing that “discussing the past discovery of a new species is not as important as investigating how a living fossil species will survive in the future.” His students were admonished to “focus on the species’ protection and its habitat.”

Wang’s position as Forest Administrator was short-lived; however, over the next several decades he continued to teach dendrology and forestry at several Chinese universities. Much of his research efforts were focused on sorting out the taxonomy of the willow family (Salicaceae), a highly complex plant family. He collected willow species throughout China and, with the help of his colleagues, described more than 90 new species. He also became very concerned about deforestation and “focused his attention on devising scientifically sound harvesting methods and successful regeneration processes.” Despite his work being largely restricted to China and (as his students claim) “receiving little credit elsewhere,” similar approaches to the sustainable forestry methods that Wang preached are “widely recommended and accepted today in western forestry practices for ecosystem management.”

Zhan Wang described many new species of Salix. Salix wangiana var. tibetica is a species that was described by and also named after Wang (photo credit: Flora Republicae Popuaris Sinacea)

Zhan Wang helped describe dozens of species of Salix that were new to science. Salix wangiana var. tibetica is a species that was described by and also appears to be named after Wang (photo credit: Flora Republicae Popularis Sinacea)

In the 1950’s, Wang began carrying out research at Changbai Mountain Nature Reserve high on the Changbai Mountain located in northeastern China on the border with North Korea. His efforts were interupted by the Cultural Revolution, a period that lasted from 1966-1976. As soon as that had passed, Wang and colleagues began working to establish the Changbai Mountain Forest Ecosystem Research Station. Wang became the first director of the station when it was approved and funded in 1979. Wang and his research team worked to establish “baseline information on the area’s flora, fauna, vegetation, and soils,” and in three years time had amassed enough research to warrant over 100 published papers. Due to the efforts of Wang and his team, the Changbai Mountain Nature Reserve gained inclusion in UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Program.

Wang’s students write that Wang viewed “Changbai Mountain as his home” and “believed that his life belonged to this mountain region.” His wish was to one day have his ashes “spread throughout the wilderness” of this mountain. After his death on January 30, 2000, his wish was carried out. “He will forever be with his beloved plants and forests in this important site of plant diversity, and now, place of rest.” Wang was survived by his three daughters; his son committed suicide during the Cultural Revolution, and his wife died in 1992.

In the adoring words of his students, Wang had a “kind, gentle character and contagious enthusiasm for science and nature” and “his contribution to botany went far beyond what is available in print. His footprints from exploring plants in China can be found in almost every province.”

Advertisements

The Discovery of a Living Fossil

In the early 1940’s, the genus Metasequoia was only known scientifically in fossil form. It had, in its day, been a widespread genus, found commonly in many areas across the Northern Hemisphere. It thrived among the dinosaurs. However, sometime during the Pliocene, the genus was thought to have died out. Thousands of fossils were left behind, and that would have been the end of the story had a member of its genus not been discovered still alive in a Chinese province later that decade. Its discovery is easily one of the greatest botanical stories of the 20th century, fascinating in its own right. The circumstances surrounding its scientific description, as it turns out, are equally interesting.

In the January 2016 issue of Landscape Architecture Magazine, Kyna Rubin details the event in an article entitled The Metasequoia Mystery. It’s the type of story that you almost need a crazy wall to sort out. A broad cast of characters interacted at various levels in order to make this profound discovery during a tumultuous time when the world was at war and China was being invaded by Japan.

Speaking of Japan, let’s start there. In 1941, Japanese paleobotanist, Shigeru Miki, published research describing fossils that for decades were thought to be either Sequoia or Taxodium as a new genus, Metasequoia. As Rubin points out, due to the war, “not every Chinese botanist would have had access to recent international research, let alone articles by botanists of an enemy country.” This could explain why in 1943 when Zhan Wang – a professer of forestry at Beijing University and the forest administrator for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry – was introduced to a living Metasequoia by an old classmate and local villagers in the Hubei Province, he wasn’t sure what he was looking at.

The tree was obviously important to the local people. They called it shuisa (water fir) and had built a shrine around it. Wang collected several branches and some cones that had fallen on a rooftop. At the time he identified it as Glyptostrobus pensilis (water pine), a tree common to the area; but he may have wondered if this was correct.

Eventually Wang’s samples and the details of his collection were brought to the attention of Wanjun Zheng, a dendrologist at the National Central University. Intrigued, Zheng sent his graduate student, Jiru Xue, to collect more samples from the same tree that Wang had encountered. These samples were more complete, and when they were presented to Xiansu Hu – the director of Fan Memorial Institute of Biology in Beijing – the mystery was solved. Hu had access to Miki’s research and concluded that what they had was a living fossil.

In 1948, Hu and Zheng published a paper describing the species and giving it the official name, Metasequoia glyptostroboides. The discovery ignited the botanical community as well as the general public, and soon seeds of what became commonly known as dawn redwood were being disseminated across the globe. Unfortunately, Wang’s contribution was not mentioned in the original paper, and the exact account of the discovery became convoluted.

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glytostroboides) is a deciduous, medium to large tree. Its cones are round and about 1 inch long. Its leaves are oppositely arranged and have a feather-like appearance. Its bark is fibrous, stringy, and red-brown to gray in color.  (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

At some point, a discussion between Zheng and a forester named Duo Gan (also known as Toh Kan) revealed that Gan had come across the tree in 1941, but he did not make any collections. Despite Zheng learning of Gan’s encounter after Zheng and Hu’s original paper had been published, Gan’s story became prominent, further obscuring the role that Wang played.

It’s important to note that none of Wang’s original collections were used as the type specimen – the particular specimen of an organism to which the scientific name is formally attached and is referred to in the scientific literature. The type specimen was collected by Xue. This is not uncommon, as initial collections may not always be in the best condition and may not include all the parts and pieces necessary to identify and describe a new species. But, as Rubin notes, “it was Wang’s specimens [that Zheng and others] had first examined and those specimens brought the tree to their attention to begin with.” So Wang’s contribution is an important part of the story.

Thanks to Wang’s former students, his role in the discovery has received greater exposure. Jinshuang Ma in particular has made it his mission to highlight the part that Wang played in the event. Apart from maintaining a website all about Metasequoia, Ma also spent several years searching for a lost herbarium specimen collected by Wang, which he found in an abandoned herbarium in Nanjing. You can read about his find in this article from the August 2003 issue of the journal Taxon. (Ma’s well researched summary of the events surrounding the Metasequoia discovery is also worth reading.)

Failure to acknowledge Wang’s contribution (at least initially) perhaps didn’t make waves outside of China, but in Rubin’s words, “the omission of Wang’s contribution sparked immediate hullabaloo inside China’s botanical circles in the late 1940’s.” Power and class differences likely played a big role. Hu and Zheng were established scholars that had received their educations in the United States and France respectively. Wang was young, from a remote village, and had not studied abroad. While Wang “went on to become one of China’s most distinguished forestry experts and botanists,” he was early in his career at the time of the Metasequoia discovery.

A deep respect for the elders in his field may be the reason that Wang’s students claim that he “never complained” about his treatment. His students go on to say that Wang “was not interested in personal gain,” and instead was simply satisfied to see that Metasequoia “was now growing successfully all over the world and was better protected.” It is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List and would likely be extinct in its shrunken native range had awareness of its existence not come about when it did.

Fossil of Metasequoia occidentalis - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Fossil of Metasequoia occidentalis – photo credit: wikimedia commons

There are plenty of other interesting details to this story. Read the full article and check out the links on metasequoia.org to learn more. The account of Jiru Xue (also known as Hsueh Chi-Ju), the graduate student who collected the type specimens, is particularly interesting. Suprisingly, the tree Wang and Xue took their collections from is still alive today and is estimated to be over 400 years old.

Other longform article reviews on Awkward Botany: