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New palm genus is discovered in the remote forests of New Guinea

The discovery of a new palm genus has revealed that botanists have much still to learn about remote areas such as New Guinea.

Dransfieldia micrantha inflorescences (Image: William J. Baker, RBG Kew)

Researchers from Kew and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden (USA) announce the discovery of a new palm from Indonesian New Guinea.

While new species of plants and animals are routine discoveries, a new genus, the classification rank above species level, is a major scientific find and represents an entirely new branch of the palm family tree.

Wondiwoi Mountains

The palm came to light during a collaborative expedition to the foothills of the remote Wondiwoi Mountains in western New Guinea, involving Kew botanists and collaborators from Universitas Negeri Papua and the Indonesian National Herbarium.

Christening

The genus has been formally named by Dr. William J. Baker of Kew and Dr. Scott Zona of Fairchild in the latest issue of Systematic Botany , one of science's premier botanical journals. The new genus will be christened Dransfieldia micrantha in honour of Dr. John Dransfield, world authority on palms and the recently retired head of Kew's palm research program. The epithet 'micrantha' means 'small-flowered'.

Dransfieldia micrantha is an elegant palm with pinnate fronds and numerous slender cane-like stems. It bears small purple flowers, followed by olive-shaped black fruits. The palm grows in scattered populations throughout the dense rainforest of northwestern New Guinea, in the Indonesian province of Papua.

"I was perplexed by this palm when we found it in the forest", Baker explained, "but it was only with the help of modern DNA methods that we realised how unique and special it is".

"The discovery of Dransfieldia micrantha is an urgent reminder that we still need to explore tropical forests before they disappear under the bulldozer and chainsaw", said Zona. “We never expected this palm to be a new genus. There is still so much we need to learn about remote areas like New Guinea.”

The publication of the new genus is the culmination of a scientific collaboration that also involved Dr. Carl E. Lewis of Fairchild, Ms. Maria V. Norup of Kew and Aarhus University in Denmark, and Mr. Charlie Heatubun and Mr. Rudi Maturbongs, both of the Universitas Negeri Papua, Indonesia.

Foja Mountains expedition

New Guinea, the world's largest tropical island, is a poorly-explored biodiversity hotspot and an area of high priority for palm research and conservation. A recent expedition to the remote Foja Mountains by an international team attracted worldwide media attention due to astounding discoveries of new species of frogs, birds and palms.

Palms are of tremendous significance to subsistence communities and to ecosystems throughout the island; however, New Guinea palms are so incompletely known that efforts to study and conserve them are hampered by an inability to identify them.

While large areas of primary forest still exist in New Guinea, the rapidly expanding activities of logging and mining projects, and major economic development plans, constitute a real and urgent threat to habitats and biodiversity.

More than 20 new species of palm have been described from New Guinea in the past five years by a team of experts from Kew, Fairchild, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Australia and Denmark, who are collaborating on a book that will describe all of the palms of the island of New Guinea. Many more species new to science have been discovered, but are yet to be officially described.

The Palms of New Guinea book, due out next year, will be indispensable in the conservation of palms in New Guinea. Land managers and conservationists will be able to use the guide to identify palm species of conservation concern and geographic areas rich in palm diversity.

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Comments

21 November 2009
Amazing! We really know only a short percentage of all plants in the world. I can say "well done" to the staff of researchers.