Plant Cuttings

Where are new species found?

If students were ever to ask me “Sir [I do like to think they would show due deference and respect when addressing their professors…], where do you find new species?”, the simplest, honestest, straightforwardest answer is “Everywhere, dear Student, everywhere”. Whilst that might seem a little rude, bordering upon as it does a wise-guy response, it is true; new species can be found any- – and every- – where, if you look hard enough. Take for example the newly-described fungus Pyrenochaeta telephoni.

In the true, time-honoured tradition of scientific names telling us something about the organism, the specific epithet (the second part of the binomial) is a big clue to its habitat. Yes, this curious cucurbitarian [nothing to do with gourds and squashes in the flowering plant family Cucurbitaceae, but everything to do with the fungal family Cucurbitariaceae] was isolated from the surface of a … mobile ‘phone in India. Knowing that many fungi cause diseases in plants of commercial importance,* I don’t suppose the i(ronic)phone in question was a … Blackberry?

Drosera magnifica
Drosera magnifica. Photo Paulo Gonella / Wikipedia

Talking of telephonic gadgetry and the communication media of choice of today’s ‘hip young things’, it was social media that led to the discovery of a new species of carnivorous plant. The largest New World sundew, Drosera magnifica, found on a single mountain top in eastern Minas Gerais (southeastern Brazil), was only discovered when photographs of the arthropodophagous botanic were posted on the social network Facebook. There the images were serendipitously viewed by Paulo Gonella, who thought they lookedunusual’. Sadly, although only recently described, the magnificent sundew is already considered to be critically endangered [when the best available evidence indicates that it is therefore considered to be facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild]**. Still, I wonder how manylikes’ it got? [Ed. – Presumably none from the insect community!]

From a most modern source, to an ancient one now with a new angiosperm species identified in fossilised tree resin. Flowers, discovered entombed within amber, were amongst a collection of predominantly resinified insects liberated 30 years ago from an amber mine in the Dominican Republic by Oregon State University (USA) entomologist Prof. George Poinar. As you’d expect (and rightly so!), the resin-encased insects held Poinar’s immediate attention and it was some time before he got around to investigating the botanical curiosities.*** When he eventually did, he enlisted the help of Rutgers University (USA)’s Dr Lena Struwe, an expert in the Strychnos genus, which Poinar thought the flowers resembled. His hunch was right; they were a new species and duly named Strychnos electri sp. nov. Amongst the significance of this discovery is that it represents the first find of a fossilised member of the asterid plant clade (one of the largest assemblages of flowering plants that includes families such as the Asteraceae (‘sunflower’), Solanaceae (‘potato’), Rubiaceae (‘coffee’), and Menthaceae (‘mints’)). Siting the find in the Dominican Republic also provides evidence that this plant group existed in the neotropical Caribbean forest in the Mid-Tertiary period (45–15 MYA [millions of years ago]), long before North and South America were connected by the Panama land bridge. Presumably long-since extinct (although you can never know this for certain!), it’s rather nice to think that the “amber strychnos” [well, I’ve not seen a common name for this flower elsewhere, so thought I’d invent one …] has some sort of immortality as a bejewelled, fossilised tree-sap-encased exhibit to beautify the Caribbean collection’s curiosities’ cabinet for many more millions of years to come.

[Ed. – Had the question been “Where do plant names come from?”, you’d’ve had an excuse to shoehorn in mention of Solanum watneyi, a new bush tomato species from the Northern Territory, Australia named for Mark Watney of the book and film “The Martian”. But it wasn’t. So you couldn’t. Pity…]

* But, you need to overlook the statement therein that Phytophthora is a fungus (sorry Prof. Sophien Kamoun et al.), and its inaccurate spelling as Phytopthora(!).

** But, they do say that material on the internet is there forever. So, this taxon may never be really extinct in cyberspace..? And – even if evanescently – it shines a little more brightly now since it is one of the Top 10 new species for 2016.

*** In the interests of balance (after all, we do like to appear well-balanced…), and because I suspect zoologists occasionally read this blog, here’s a ‘fossil geckos-in-amber’ paper for you.


  1. Finally, an article with a question I can answer: where are new species found? In a herbarium or other collection. Almost all the new species which are described are found already in collections – even the olinguito, a rather large carnivorous raccoon ‘discovered’ in 2013, was in some 20 museum collections, before the discoverers went into the wild to find it there too ( Plants too are mostly already collected, so you don’t need to head into the jungle.

  2. Another place to find ‘new’ species would be in the collection of someone you don’t like. Goodwin et al made the news last year with: “Widespread mistaken identity in tropical plant collections” that states over half of species could have inaccurate names.

    In some cases, personal differences between academics may have been at fault, according to researcher Zoe Goodwin, from the University of Oxford’s department of plant sciences. “There were a couple of specimens where you could see that two botanists clearly did not get on and over a period of a few months they angrily changed the names back and forth, and it looked like it was a bit personal between them,” she said.

    See also Rupert Shepherd for an Art Historian’s take on why managing museum collections is difficult.

    Nigel will be bringing up the importance of accurate names in a forthcoming post.

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