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Catawba Biology Professor Travels to the Land of Frankincense, Oman, for Botanical Research

January 09, 2015

Category: Academics, Biology, Faculty


oman-hajarmtns.jpgTo some, Dr. Jay Bolin’s two-week trip to Oman at the end of fall semester seemed dangerous, to others, so worth it because after all, it was for science.

Bolin, an assistant professor of biology at Catawba College, visited the country located on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula to conduct taxonomic research on parasitic plants.

The research trip was funded primarily by the Mary Payne Hogan Botany Endowment at Old Dominion University, Norfolk Va., and in part by faculty development funding from the Catawba’s Office of the Provost.  The research was also supported by the Oman Botanic Garden whose assistance in the field and planning the trip made it possible.

Bolin and his team’s travels to southern Oman were coordinated with the Oman Botanical Garden, where garden staff were collecting plant cuttings and seed, for a botanical garden under construction near the capital of Oman, Muscat. While in country, Bolin also gave a lecture to the Oman Botanical Garden on plant systematics.

oman-terrace.jpgBolin describes Oman as “a peaceful and beautiful country,” where “the hospitality and kindness of Omanis towards visitors was obvious in the major cities and in small settlements and villages that we visited.”  That experience of a peaceful and welcoming country, he notes “was in great contrast to the instability of the Middle East region and particularly adjacent Yemen.”

For the bulk of his trip, Bolin and his colleagues explored extreme southern Oman, known as the Dhofar region. There, they followed in the footsteps of British explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger who authored the book, Arabian Sands, that chronicled his travels in the Dhofar region and his crossing of the Rub’ al Khali by camelback in the 1940s.

Bolin’s research collaborator, Lytton J. Musselman at Old Dominion University, and he were interested in Thesiger’s travels because Thesiger made important early Arabian plant collections, now stored at the Natural History Museum in London, that Bolin and Musselman have studied.

“It was exciting to relocate some of Thesiger’s collections in Dhofar and to contribute to botanical understanding of Oman’s diverse flora,” Bolin shares.oman-oasistown.jpg

Oman has over 1,200 species of vascular plants which is a relatively large flora for a generally very arid country, Bolin explains. “The plant diversity stems from Oman’s geographic variability,” he adds, “from junipers and wild olives on 10,000 foot mountains to black mangrove estuaries along the coast of the Arabian Sea.”

Bolin says the Dhofar region in southwestern Oman was “particularly fascinating biologically because it is affected by annual monsoon seasons known as the Khareef in Arabic.”

“In coastal regions of the Dhofar, there are forested hillsides replete with ferns draped in fog for several months of the year,” he remembers. “Banana and papaya plantations were the last thing I was expecting to see in Oman, but lush tropical plantations were common in the Dhofar coastal town of Salalah that served as our basecamp.”

He proudly describes “a wonderful gift I was able to bring home for the Christmas holiday – frankincense, one of the gifts of the Biblical Magi.”

oman-camel.jpg“Oman,” he continues, “was well known in antiquity as a source and powerful trading center of the spiritually important incense, frankincense. I was able to observe the frankincense tree, Boswellia sacra, in the wild and in planted groves, whose aromatic resin is collected from scars in the bark of the tree.”

From a research perspective, Bolin believes the trip was a great success. “Catawba College biology research students will use the plant material collected in Oman to learn to perform DNA extractions and DNA sequencing of many of the specimens that we collected,” he says. “The purpose of the DNA sequencing is a process known as DNA barcoding to confirm species identities, and the results may lead to a plant species description new to science.

“Taxonomy and especially new species discoveries energize and deepen student interest in biology when they realize that there are new species waiting to be described all over the world, particularly in relatively remote areas such as southern Oman but species remain to be discovered in North Carolina and even in our own backyards.”

Bolin notes he will share more about the specific parasitic plans that he and his colleagues studied in Oman in a new species description he expects to be published in 2015.