A new waterlily species has been found on a plant-hunting expedition in a remote spot in Kimberley, Western Australia. As plant-hunter Carlos Magdalena investigated the waterlily, it became clear this was not the first time the species has been encountered by Kew experts.
An identical plant had previously been collected in the Northern territories and then grown at Kew. It was thought the lily grown at Kew must be a hybrid — a cross between two different plant varieties. However, the discovery in Kimberley was thousands of kilometres from the location where the original lily was found, and there were no examples of the suspected parent plants in the surrounding area. It was then that Carlos realised it was indeed a well-defined and separate species. He explains:
'After years of wondering about this plant, it was huge a surprise to make this discovery. Finding the first population was a shock, but then we found creeks filled with just this species — it was breathtaking.'
The discovery is a personal victory for Carlos, as this is the first time he's discovered a species previously unknown to science. Carlos is already famous for his plant conservation work after saving the world’s smallest waterlily (Nymphaea thermarum) from extinction in 2009.
He joined the expedition in the hope of furthering waterlily conservation but was faced with very challenging conditions. As well as covering hundreds of miles of remote wilderness by jeep and helicopter the scientists, despite careful checks, were still faced with the omnious threat of the saltwater crocodile. The crocodiles inhabitat the lakes, creeks and ponds where the waterlilies grow and posed a serious threat to the scientists, as Carlos says:
'It was extremely scary at times. Ultimately, if you are attacked by a crocodile, there is nothing you can do but accept your fate as waterlily fertiliser! Despite spending great lengths of time assessing the risk, there were occasions where we had to enter potentially dangerous waters to reach a critically-endangered species that desperately needed further research.'
The team was willing to face the risk as these explorations are such an important part of plant conservation, Carlos explains:
'It is vitally important that we have a thorough knowledge of how many species there are out there. Without it, it is impossible to protect them. Where they are, how many, which threats they may face — all these factors must be established. Plant conservation of this nature is at the very heart of what Kew exists to do.'
Carlos was part of a team from Kew, Kings Park Botanic Gardens, and the University of Western Australia, who wanted to collect as many native species as possible for cultivation. The researchers also wanted to study and develop the germination, and storage, of waterlily seeds from the many species of Nymphaea found in the vast territories of Queensland and Kimberley.
Once this discovery has been backed up with DNA analysis, the next step will be to officially name the waterlily. Carlos has collected a dozen species from 30 different locations, which have been duplicated in Australia and Kew. If successfully grown at Kew, their DNA will be available for international researchers to study, and will produce seeds that will be stored at the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst. And of course, they will be put on display for visitors to admire.