27 November 2017

Species discovery and seed banking in New Guinea

Martin Cheek describes a recent research trip to New Guinea, where a team of Kew scientists stumbled upon a new species on the roadside.

Seeds in sub-zero storage facilities at Millennium Seed Bank

It was our last day in New Guinea. For most of our trip, we had been high in the Arfak Mountains of Indonesia researching tropical pitcher plants (Nepenthes) with Kew’s longstanding scientific partners from University of Papua (UNIPA), collecting seeds for Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank (MSB). With very few previous seed collections from New Guinea, we were confident that we would add new species to Kew’s target of banking 25% of all wild plant species.

Hearing about pitcher plants existing at Gunung Botak (‘Bald Mountain’), we persuaded UNIPA botanist Jimmy Wanma to take us there. While most of New Guinea is blanketed in forest, Gunung Botak proved to be aptly named, being open grassland, presumably due to high levels of nickel, which is especially toxic to most trees. It is popular with day trippers.

Spotting a pitcher plant on a rockface, Jimmy stopped the car so that Bruce Murphy, Kew PhD student, could take DNA samples to analyse for his doctoral studies.

Meanwhile, by the side of the road, I noticed a shrub with purple flowers and fruits opening to show shiny black seeds. It turned out to be a species of the chocolate family (Byttneriaceae or Malvaceae-Byttnerioideae), one of my areas of expertise.

I was keen to photograph and collect this plant as I remembered it dimly as Keraudenia from curating and identifying specimens in the Kew Herbarium years before, but had never seen it alive.

More importantly, I had a target to collect the seed of 20 species for the Indonesian Seedbank, part of the global Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, a collection of institutions around the world saving the seeds of wild plant species. Together we collected a brown paper bag of ripe, dried fruits, each with 10-15 seeds, so that I could process and clean them that evening. We were also collecting samples for the Kew-led Plant and Fungal Tree of Life (PAFTOL) programme, which aims to map the evolutionary relationships between plant species that can be used for species conservation. When Bruce finished his Nepenthes collection, we moved on, surveying more of Botak, and collecting more samples. Bruce’s research was slowed by repeated requests for group photographs with other Sunday day trippers!

Back at Kew, awaiting export permits and clearance of our samples from Indonesia, I could not resist trying to identify the plant I was convinced was Keraudenia. This task was made easier by the recently published global revision of the plant genus Seringia, which now includes Keraudenia, by Carolyn Wilkins (Western Australian Herbarium) and Barbara Whitlock (University of Miami). Thanks to their excellent identification keys, descriptions, line drawings and photos, I quickly confirmed that it was Seringia, which was deeply satisfying. More excitingly, it seemed possible that my specimen, Cheek 18779, was a new species to science.  When the specimens arrived at Kew, I compared them with the reference specimens in the Herbarium, and there was no doubt that this Seringia was new to science. It is related to three species in northern Australia, 1,500km to the south. This new discovery will be described in our forthcoming paper in the journal Blumea. Incredibly, this will be the first published, evidenced record of the genus Seringia from both New Guinea and South-East Asia. Previously, Seringia was thought to be confined to Australia-Madagascar.

If a chance roadside collection at a Sunday sight-seeing spot can produce such a discovery, it indicates how much more awaits to be found in New Guinea. Several of the other specimens collected during that hour at Botak are also potentially new to science. Together they may provide evidence to support the designation of Botak as a Tropical Important Plant Area (TIPA) so that the area can be protected against threats.

My trip was made possible by funding awarded by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.

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