New tropical mistletoe just in time for Christmas – one of many new discoveries from Kew this year
As the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity draws to a close, scientists at Kew are celebrating the diversity of the planet’s plant and fungal life by highlighting some of the weird, wonderful and stunning discoveries they’ve made this year.
20 Dec 2010
Helixanthera schizocalyx - A striking new mistletoe, recently discovered in the ‘lost forest’ of Mount Mabu (Image: RBG Kew)
This year, scientists at Kew are celebrating the diversity of the planet’s plant and fungal life by highlighting some of the weird, wonderful and stunning discoveries they’ve made in 2010 – from the rainforests of Cameroon to the UK’s North Pennines. But it’s not just about the new – in some cases plant species long thought to be extinct in the wild have been rediscovered.
On average, 2,000 new plant species are discovered each year, and Kew botanists, using our vast collection of over 8 million plant and fungal specimens, contribute to the description of approximately 10% of these new discoveries.Professor Stephen Hopper, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Professor Stephen Hopper, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew says, “Each year, botanists at Kew, working in collaboration with local partners and scientists, continue to explore, document and study the world’s plant and fungal diversity, making astonishing new discoveries from microscopic fungi to canopy giants.
“This work has never been more relevant and pressing than in the current era of global climate change and unprecedented loss of biodiversity.Without a name, plants and fungi go unrecognised, their uses unexplored, their wonders unknown.
"On average, 2,000 new plant species are discovered each year, and Kew botanists, using our vast collection of over 8 million plant and fungal specimens, contribute to the description of approximately 10 per cent of these new discoveries. Despite more than 250 years of naming living plants, applying each with a unique descriptive scientific name, we are still some decades away from finishing the task of a global inventory of plants, and even more so for fungi.
"Plants are at risk and extinction is a reality. However stories of discovery and rediscovery give us hope that species can cling on and their recovery is a very real possibility. Continuing support for botanical science is essential if plant based solutions to human challenges, such as climate change, are to be realised.” Browse more Kew discovery stories here.
Here our some of our new discoveries in 2010:
From Africa with love - wild Mozambican mistletoe
This parasitic tropical mistletoe was named in 2010, and was first discovered near the summit of Mount Mabu in northern Mozambique, a region which hit the headlines in 2008 when a Kew-led expedition uncovered this lost world bursting with biodiversity.
Since then, the team at Kew have worked tirelessly sorting through the hundreds of specimens they collected, and they have described this new wild mistletoe (Helixanthera schizocalyx) just in time for Christmas!
It was spotted by the expedition’s renowned East African butterfly specialist, Colin Congdon, while the team were trekking up the mountain, on a path that took them from the moist montane forest up to where the broad granite peaks break through the dense foliage. Colin quickly realised this species was different from anything he had seen on the mountains in neighbouring Malawi and Tanzania, and on closer inspection back at Kew it was confirmed a new plant species.
A medicinal wild aubergine from East Africa
Commonly known as ‘Osigawai’ in the local Masai language, Solanum phoxocarpum was discovered by Maria Vorontsova on an expedition to Kenya’s Aberdare mountainous cloud forests. Having researched specimens of wild African aubergines in Kew’s vast Herbarium collections of dried plant specimens, Vorontsova discovered some unusual unnamed specimens, some of which were unlike any she had seen before.
Eager to discover more, Maria set out on an expedition with botanists and seed hunters from Kenya's ‘Seeds for Life’ project team, partners in Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership.
Many of the old collection locations they visited had been stripped of native vegetation, but after four weeks, the team was successful. They spotted a wild aubergine shrub with distinctive unusual long, yellow, pointed fruits and deep mauve flowers that was indeed a new plant species. They collected its fruits and set out slicing them open to collect seed for banking. While spreading the fruit’s yellow sludge onto paper, so the seeds could dry for long term storage in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, one of the team noticed that the fruits began to emit a pungent odour, and later that day they became ill. It is now believed that this species may be poisonous, and having consulted Kew’s historic specimens, it also proves to be used medicinally by local people.
Other showstoppers discovered by Kew scientists in 2010 include:
- A lustrous Vietnamese orchid - Dendrobium daklakense
- Cameroon canopy giant - Magnistipula multinervia
- Steely blue and spiky dragon palms - Dypsis gronophyllum
- Wild irises from the Andes - Mastigostyla torotoroensis, Mastigostyla chuquisacensis and Mastigostyla woodii
Here are some examples of plant species brought back from the brink of extinction by Kew and our partners around the world in 2010:
Ascension Island parsley fern
On the tiny UK overseas territory of Ascension Island in the South Atlantic, a fern long thought to be extinct was rediscovered and saved in a mammoth rescue effort. During a routine plant survey, a team from the Island’s Conservation Department decided to explore the intimidating knife-edge ridge running down the wild southern slopes of Green Mountain, Ascension’s dominant volcano.
Finding it was difficult. Carrying water and hanging onto the safety rope was even harder. However, we will do whatever it takes to keep these ferns alive.Local Conservation Officer, Stedson Stroud.
By chance, botanist Dr Phil Lambdon with local Conservation Officer Stedson Stroud, noticed a tiny fern leaf poking out from an almost bare rock face. They instantly recognised it as the long-lost Ascension Island parsley fern, Anogramma ascensionis, which was once prevalent on the mountain, recorded by Sir Joseph Hooker in 1876, but had since been declared extinct. A detailed search soon revealed four minute plants, with delicate, yellow-green leaves, which resembled miniature sprigs of parsley clinging to a precarious existence in spite of harsh, dry conditions.
The rediscovery of extinct British fungi
The long-lost British fungus, bird’s-eye primrose smut (Urocystis primulicola), recognised as a species of “principal importance for the conservation of biological diversity” (BAP review 2007) had not been seen for 106 years until it was rediscovered by Kew and Natural England mycologist, Martyn Ainsworth, during a two hour ‘ovary squeezing’ session.
Smuts are species of inconspicuous, microscopic fungi that are found inside living host plants, in this case the IUCN red-listed wild pink flowered bird’s-eye primrose (Primula farinosa) found in the North Pennines. The bird’s-eye primrose smut has co-evolved with the plant and hijacks its ovaries, replacing its seeds with a black powdery mass of smut spores. Concealed in the ovaries, it is only when the bird’s-eye primrose seed-pods are squeezed in the late summer, when the seeds are ripe, that this rare smut can be found.
Other plant species brought back from the brink in 2010 include:
And finally the biggest new discovery of them all…
The biggest genome in a living species – bigger than Big Ben!
Scientists in Kew’s Jodrell Laboratory, as part of their ongoing research into the causes and consequences of genome size diversity in plants, discovered the largest genome of all living species so far – found in Paris japonica, a subalpine plant endemic to Honshu, Japan.
With a genome size of 152.23 picograms, its genome is 50 times the size of the human genome, and 15% larger than any other found so far —it’s so large that when stretched out it would be taller than the tower of Big Ben! However, having such a large genome may have direct biological consequences, as plants with large genomes may be more sensitive to habitat disturbances and environmental changes and be at greater risk of extinction.
- Browse Kew's discoveries 2010
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We have successfully banked 10% of the world's wild plant species and we have set our sights on saving 25% by 2020.
Without plants there could be no life on earth, and yet every day another four plant species face extinction. Too often when we hear these kind of statistics there is little that we can do as individuals, but thanks to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank partnership and the Adopt a Seed, Save a Species campaign there is something that you can do to ensure the survival of a plant species.
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