Unraveling the diversity of Caquetá-Colombia, where the Andes and Amazon meet: Four new species of the genus Piper

Two of the species bear names inspired by the indigenous tribes that live in Caquetá, while the other two species honor Amazonian naturalists.

Recent botanical expeditions in Caquetá department (southeastern Colombia) have uncovered the enormous richness of plant species in this region. Research led by W. Trujillo in the Andean foothills has allowed the unveiling of at least 90 species of Piper in the region, highlighting northwestern Amazonia as one of the richest regions for the genus. Here, four new species of Piper new to science are described.

Andean foothills in Caquetá, Colombia. Photo by William Trujillo

This publication is the result of a collaboration between three institutions and five researchers, each contributing their experience and strengths: main author William Trujillo (Fundación La Palmita), with M. Alejandra Jaramillo (Universidad Militar Nueva Granada), Edwin Trujillo Trujillo, Fausto Ortiz and Diego Toro (Centro de Investigaciones Amazónicas Cesar Augusto Estrada Gonzalez, Universidad de la Amazonia). W. Trujillo, a native of Caquetá, has dedicated the last ten years to the study of Piper species in his department. M. A. Jaramillo has been studying the phylogenetics, ecology and evolution of the genus for more than 20 years. Edwin Trujillo is a local botanist well versed in the flora of Caquetá and the Colombian Amazon. Fausto Ortiz and Diego Toro are trained in plant molecular biology methods and lead this area at Universidad de la Amazonia.

Amazonian slopes of the Andes, Caquetá with Iriartea deltoidea palms. Photo by William Trujillo

Caquetá is situated where the Andes and the Amazon meet in southern Colombia, in the northwestern Amazon. Several researchers have highlighted the importance of the northwest Amazon for high biodiversity and our lack of knowledge of the region. Fortunately, ongoing studies led by W. Trujillo and E. Trujillo are unveiling the immense diversity of plants in Caquetá, showing the importance of local institutions in the knowledge of Amazonian flora. There are many species in the region yet to be described and discovered. Leadership from local institutions and collaboration with experts are vital to appreciating the great relevance of plants from Caquetá.

Piper indiwasii, branch with leaves and spikes. Photo by William Trujillo

Two of the species in this manuscript (Piper indiwasii and Piper nokaidoyitau) bear names inspired by the indigenous tribes that live in Caquetá. The name indiwasii comes from a Quechua word meaning “house of the sun” and is also the name of one of the National Parks where the species lives in southern Colombia. In its turn, nokaidoyitau comes from the Murui language and means “tongue of the toucan,” the way the Murui Indians of the Colombian Amazon call the species of Piper. In fact, local communities rely on these plants for medicinal purposes, using them against inflammations or parasites, or to relieve various ailments.

Furthermore, the other two new species (Piper hoyoscardozii and Piper velae) honor two Amazonian naturalists, the authors’ dear friend Fernando Hoyos Cardozo, and Dr. Vela. Fernando, who was a devoted botanist and companion in W. Trujillo’s botanical expeditions. Dr. Vela, a naturalist and conservation enthusiast who sponsored Trujillo’s trips, was killed in 2020. We miss him immensely. His death is a significant loss for the environment in Caquetá. 

The team’s joint effort will continue to describe new species, explore unexplored regions, and inspire new and seasoned researchers to dive into the magnificent diversity of the Colombian Amazon.

Piper hoyoscadozii, branch with leaves and fruiting spikes. Photo by Fernando Hoyos

Research article:

Trujillo W, Trujillo ET, Ortiz-Morea FA, Toro DA, Jaramillo MA (2022) New Piper species from the eastern slopes of the Andes in northern South America. PhytoKeys 206: 25–48. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.206.75971

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Flora of Cameroon: Annonaceae Vol 45 available in print, as well as Open Access format with PhytoKeys

While every Flora publication is an incredibly valuable scientific resource, Vol. 45 is the first in the series to be made available in digital format, following its publication in the open-access journal PhytoKeys

The 45th volume of the Flora of Cameroon pilots a novel “Flora” section in the journal to promote accessibility and novelty in plant taxonomy

Dedicated to Annonaceae, the 45th volume of the Flora of Cameroon is the result of over 15 years of work on the systematics of this major pantropical group, commonly known as the Custard apple family or the Soursop family, and its diversity in one of the most biodiverse African countries, whose flora has remained understudied to this date.

In their publication, the authors: Thomas L. P. Couvreur, Léo-Paul M. J. Dagallier, Francoise Crozier, Jean-Paul Ghogue, Paul H. Hoekstra, Narcisse G. Kamdem, David M. Johnson, Nancy A. Murray and Bonaventure Sonké, describe 166 native taxa representing 163 species in 28 native genera, including 22 species known solely from Cameroon. The team also provides keys to all native genera, species, and infraspecific taxa, while a detailed morphological description and a distributional map are provided for each species.

Specimen of Uvariastrum zenkeri from Cameroon. Photo by Thomas L.P. Couvreur.

Amongst the findings featured in the paper is the discovery of a previously unknown species of a rare tree that grows up to 6 metres and is so far only known from two localities in Cameroon. As a result of their extensive study, the authors also report that the country is the one harbouring the highest number of African species for the only pantropical genus of Annonaceae: Xylopia.

While every Flora publication presents an incredibly valuable scientific resource due to its scale and exhaustiveness, what makes Volume 45 of the Flora of Cameroon particularly special and important is that it is the first in the series to be made available in digital format, following its publication in the peer-reviewed, open-access journal PhytoKeys

Available in the open-access scholarly journal PhytoKeys, the latest volume of the Flora of Cameroon features perks like displaying occurrences of treated taxa side-by-side when reading the publication in HTML.

As such, it is not only available to anyone, anywhere in the world, but is also easily discoverable and minable online, as it benefits from the technologically advanced publishing services provided by the journal that have been specially designed to open up biodiversity data. While the full-text publication is machine-readable, hence discoverable by search algorithms, various data items, such as nomenclature, descriptions, images and occurrences, are exported in relevant specialised databases (e.g. IPNI, Plazi, Zenodo, GBIF). In their turn, the readers who access the HTML version of the publication may enjoy the benefits of this semantically enriched format, as they navigate easily within the text, and access further information about the mentioned and hyperlinked taxa.

In fact, the Annonaceae contribution is the first to use the newly launched publication type in PhytoKeys: Flora.

Yet, to keep up with the much treasured tradition, the new publication is also available in print format, accompanied by its classic cover design.

In the field: Narcisse G. Kamdem (Université de Yaoundé I, Cameroon), co-author of the Flora of Cameroon – Annonaceae Vol 45. Photo by Thomas L.P. Couvreur.

When we spoke with the team behind the Flora, we learnt that they are all confident that  having the new volume in both print and open-access digital formats, is expected to rekindle the interest in the series, especially amongst younger botanists in Cameroon.

“The hybrid publication is a response to the reluctance to publish new volumes of these series. The hybrid version pioneered in Volume 45, is an opportunity for any scientist to freely access this fundamental work, and eventually use it in future studies. Also, the online and open access format is intended to stimulate botanists to author family treatments without the fear of not having their work published online in an academic journal with an Impact Factor,”

says Dr. Jean Michel Onana, editor and reviewer of the Flora, former Director of the National Herbarium of Cameroon, and a researcher at the Université de Yaoundé 1, Cameroon.

“The chosen format marks a qualitative leap in the presentation of the Flora of Cameroon and will be of interest to young botanists, who until now might have found the old presentation of the Flora unrewarding,” adds Prof. Bonaventure Sonké, last author and Head of the Biology Department of the Université de Yaoundé 1, Cameroon.

In the field: Prof. Bonaventure Sonké, last author and Head of the Biology Department of the Université de Yaoundé 1. Photo by Thomas L.P. Couvreur.

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As an extensive contribution to a previously understudied area of research, the value of the new publication goes beyond its appreciation amongst plant taxonomists.

“The Flore du Cameroun series is considered as a showcase of the National Herbarium of Cameroon, which promotes knowledge of the flora of Cameroon at all levels. Being able to identify plants and trees is the first and foremost step to addressing the issue of ill-management of forest regions in Cameroon and the Congo Basin as a whole. If planning continues to rely on badly made identification, the forecasts about our resources are not good at all,” says Prof. Jean Betti Largarde, Head of the National Herbarium of Cameroon, and Editor-in-Chief of the Flora of Cameroon.

Narcisse G. Kamdem, co-author of the Flora of Cameroon. Photo by Thomas L.P. Couvreur.

“Plant taxonomy is the basic discipline for the knowledge, conservation and sustainable management of biodiversity, including animals, plants and habitats. Young Cameroonian botanists, privileged to having such floristic richness in their country, are invited to take an interest in it. This is the field that opens the mind and makes it possible to address all other aspects of botanical research and development in relation to natural resources,”

adds Jean Michel Onana.

Research article:

Specimen of Sirdavidia solanona in its natural habitat. Photo by Thomas L.P. Couvreur.

Couvreur TLP, Dagallier L-PMJ, Crozier F, Ghogue J-P, Hoekstra PH, Kamdem NG, Johnson DM, Murray NA, Sonké B (2022) Flora of Cameroon – Annonaceae Vol 45. PhytoKeys 207: 1-532. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.207.61432

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Celebrating excellence in plant systematics research: Phytokeys’ 200th issue

For almost 12 years now, PhytoKeys has been providing high-quality, peer-reviewed resources on plant taxonomy, phylogeny, biogeography and evolution, freely available open access.

PhytoKeys, Pensoft’s open-access, peer-reviewed botany systematics journal, has been around for over a decade. Since its launch in 2010, it has published almost 30,000 pages in more than 1,200 works. As PhytoKeys hits the milestone of its 200th issue – which presented a monograph of wild and cultivated chili peppers – there’s plenty to look back to.

For almost 12 years now, PhytoKeys has been providing high-quality, peer-reviewed resources on plant taxonomy, phylogeny, biogeography and evolution, freely available open access.

As our flagship botany journal, PhytoKeys is part of our concerted effort to help advance taxonomic studies. The more we know about biodiversity, the better we are equipped to protect it.

This is why, in a time when so many species are getting wiped out from the face of the Earth before we even become aware of their existence, it is truly exciting that we can sometimes be the bearer of good news.

Take the story of Gasteranthus extinctus from Ecuador doesn’t its name sound a lot like extinct to you? That’s because the scientists named it based on specimens collected some 15 years earlier. So, they suspected that during the time in between, the species had already become extinct.

Yet, this is a happy-ending story: in a surprising turn of events, the plant was rediscovered 40 years after its last sighting. Gasteranthus extinctus is the hopeful message that we all needed: there’s still so much we can do to protect biodiversity.

Long believed to have gone extinct, Gasteranthus extinctus was found growing next to a waterfall at Bosque y Cascada Las Rocas, a private reserve in coastal Ecuador containing a large population of the endangered plant. Photo by Riley Fortier.

Over the time, we saw some ground-breaking botany research. We welcomed some record-breaking new plant species, such as the 3.6-meter-tall begonia, and the smallest Rafflesia that measures around 10 cm in diameter.

We witnessed the discoveries of some truly beautiful flowers.

Some of them may have looked like they had a demon’s head hiding in them.

We helped unveil some taxonomic mysteries – like the bamboo fossil that wasn’t a bamboo, or the 30-meter new species of tree that was “hiding in plain sight”.

Then there was the overnight celebrity: the first pitcher plant to form underground insect traps.

Published less than two months ago, Nepenthes pudica broke all kinds of popularity records at PhytoKeys: it became the journal’s all-time most popular work, with thousands of shares on social media, more than 70 news outlets covering its story, and upward of 70,000 views on YouTube.

Publishing in PhytoKeys is always a pleasure. I appreciate the quick but rigorous peer review process and reasonably short time from initial submission to the final publication.

says Martin Dančák of Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic, lead author of the Nepenthes study.

Every week, PhytoKeys publishes dozens of pages of quality botany research. Every week, we’re amazed at the discoveries made by botanists around the world. In a field that is so rapidly evolving, and with so much remaining to be unveiled, the future sure seems promising!

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Redefining genera across the legume subfamily Caesalpinioideae in latest PhytoKeys issue

The Special Issue features 16 papers by 54 authors from 13 countries and forms Part 14(1) of the Advances in Legume Systematics Series.

Blog post by Colin Hughes, University of Zurich

The three most important taxonomic ranks used to classify organisms are family, genus and species, especially the latter two, which make up the scientific binomials used to communicate about biodiversity, and indeed about all aspects of biology. While the description of a new plant family is now a very rare event, the same is not true for genera. Indeed, delimitation of genera within many plant families remains in a state of considerable flux, because many traditionally recognized genera do not correspond to evolutionary groups. This causes unwelcome instability in scientific names of species and is why work to delimit genera lies at the heart of much current research in systematic botany.

This is very much the case for subfamily Caesalpinioideae, the second largest subfamily of the legume family, which is the focus of this new special issue of the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PhytoKeys. With around 4,600 species of mostly trees, shrubs and lianas, distributed right across the tropics in rainforests, dry forests and savannas, Caesalpinioideae represent a spectacularly diverse lineage of tropical woody plants.

New analyses of DNA sequences of 420 species of Caesalpinioideae presented here reveal that 22 of the 152 currently recognized genera do not coincide with natural evolutionary groups, i.e., in phylogenetic terms, they are non-monophyletic. The aim of this special issue is to re-define as many of these problematic genera as possible in order to bring them into line with natural evolutionary lineages. To achieve this, nine new genera of Caesalpinioideae are described, five previously recognized genera are resurrected, and three genera shown to be nested within other genera are consigned to synonymy.

Many of the species in these new genera are important, conspicuous, ecologically abundant, and, in some cases, geographically widespread trees in tropical forests. For example, the three species of the new genus Osodendron  are important large canopy trees in tropical rain forests and riverine gallery forests across a broad swathe of west and central Africa. In recent decades these species have been successively placed in different genera including Cathormion, Samanea and Albizia, among others. The neglected generic placement of these African trees has finally been resolved via analyses of DNA sequences, and a new generic home for them has been established.

In contrast, two of the genera newly described in this special issue, Mezcala  and Boliviadendron, each with just a single species, are much more elusive plants occupying very narrowly restricted geographical ranges. Mezcala occurs across just a few square km of the central Balsas Depression in south-central Mexico and Boliviadendron is known from just two interior valleys of the Bolivian Andes. Establishing these two lineages as distinct genera highlights the importance of conserving these globally rare evolutionary lineages.

Choosing names for new taxa is one of the delights and privileges of the practising taxonomist. Derivations of the names of the nine new genera described in this special issue span features of the plants themselves and the locations where they grow, as well as names of fellow legume researchers honoured with genera named in recognition of their contributions. For example, Osodendron is named after ‘Oso’ a food that is prepared in West Africa from seeds of one of the species now placed in the new genus. Mezcala is named for the indigenous Mezcala culture of the Balsas region in Mexico where the genus is found. Boliviadendron is named as such because it is a tree that grows in Bolivia and nowhere else. The new genus name Heliodendron is derived from the Greek helios (sun) and dendron (tree) because it grows in the sunshine state of Queensland in Australia and its flowers are arranged in sun-like globose heads.

Leaves and fruits of the new genus Naiadendron from Amazonian rainforest. Photo by Glocimar Pereira-Silva

Finally, Naiadendron celebrates the Brazilian Amazon where the genus grows, and the famous German botanist Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius (1794–1868), who named the Brazilian Amazon after the Naiads, Greek mythology’s nymphs of freshwater.

Four of the genera newly described in this Special Issue are named after prominent contemporary legume taxonomists, three women and one man: Gretheria for Rosaura Grether, a Mexican specialist on the genus Mimosa, Ricoa  for Lourdes Rico, another Mexican botanist who worked on legumes based at Kew, Marlimorimia, in honour of Marli Pires Morim of the Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in recognition of her contributions to the taxonomy of mimosoid legumes, and Gwilymia named for Gwilym Lewis, in honour of one of the world’s most experienced and productive legume taxonomists who is legume research leader in the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

One of the central achievements of the work on Caesalpinioideae presented in this Special Issue is that for the first time a truly pantropical analysis of this large group of plants has been accomplished. A global synthesis is essential to work out how many genera there are.

For example, by sampling across Asia, Africa, Madagascar, North and South America, it has become clear that the Old World species of the important pantropical genus Albizia are not closely related to Albizia in the Americas, prompting splitting of the genus and resurrection of the name Pseudalbizzia for the New World species. All elements of the former Albizia – the last so-called ‘dustbin’ genus in the mimosoid legumes – are accounted for in this special issue (here, here and here). Similarly, the genus Prosopis, one of the most important silvopastoral tree genera of the dryland tropics, has traditionally encompassed elements spanning the New and Old Worlds that are here shown to comprise four distinct evolutionary lineages, two in the Old World and two in the Americas, here treated as four separate genera.

Changes to the scientific names of species are not always immediately welcomed by users, but over time, establishment of a classification that is based on robust evidence about evolutionary history will result in greater nomenclatural stability and in named taxa that are aligned with natural groups and hence biologically more informative. This special issue, reshaping the generic system of a species-rich group of legumes, is an important step towards that goal.

Photo credits: Globimar Pereira-Silva, Steen Christensen, William Hawthorne, Colin Hughes, Luciano de Queiroz, Marcelo Simon.

Underground carnivore: the first species of pitcher plant to dine on subterranean prey

This is the first pitcher plant known to produce functional underground traps, and the first for which capture of subterranean prey has been observed.

What we thought we knew about carnivorous plants was swiftly called into question after scientists discovered a new species in the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan, on the island of Borneo. Nepenthes pudica is what scientists call a pitcher plant – it has modified leaves known as pitfall traps or pitchers, where it captures its prey. In a strategy so far unknown from any other species of carnivorous plant with pitfall traps, this one operates underground, catching its prey in the soil.

Habitat with a mature plant of Nepenthes pudica lacking pitchers on the aboveground shoot. Photo by Martin Dančák

“We found a pitcher plant which differs markedly from all the other known species,”

says Martin Dančák of Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic, lead author of the study, published in the journal PhytoKeys, where his team described the new species.

“In fact, this species places its up-to-11-cm-long pitchers underground, where they are formed in cavities or directly in the soil and trap animals living underground, usually ants, mites and beetles”, he adds.

A completely buried shoot with a bunch of well-developed pitchers uncovered from beneath a moss cushion. Photo by Martin Dančák

Only three other groups of carnivorous plants are known to trap underground prey, but they all use very different trapping mechanisms and, unlike Nepenthes pudica, can catch only minuscule organisms.

The plant forms specialised underground shoots with entirely white, chlorophyll-free leaves. In addition to lacking their normal green pigmentation, the leaves supporting the pitchers are reduced to a fraction of their normal size. The pitchers, however, retain their size and often also their reddish colour.

If no cavity is available, the shoots grow directly into the soil, as seen here where a bunch of pitchers was excavated from the ground. Photo by Martin Dančák

“Interestingly, we found numerous organisms living inside the pitchers, including mosquito larvae, nematodes and a species of worm which was also described as a new species”,

explains Václav Čermák of the Mendel University in Brno, Czech Republic, who was also part of the research team.

The newly discovered species grows on relatively dry ridge tops at an elevation of 1100–1300 m. According to its discoverers, this might be why it evolved to move its traps underground. “We hypothesise that underground cavities have more stable environmental conditions, including humidity, and there is presumably also more potential prey during dry periods,” adds Michal Golos of the University of Bristol, United Kingdom, who also worked on this curious plant.

A shoot with reduced white leaves and well-developed pitchers extracted from a cavity under a tree. Photo by Martin Dančák

A series of lucky events back in 2012 led to the discovery of the species. Ľuboš Majeský of Palacký University Olomouc, part of the research team, recounts the key moment: “During a several-day trip with our Indonesian colleagues to a previously unexplored mountain, randomly chosen from a number of candidates, we noted plants which were undoubtedly Nepenthes but produced no pitchers. After a careful search, we found a couple of aerial pitchers, a few juvenile terrestrial ones, and one deformed pitcher protruding from the soil.”

“At first, we thought it was an accidentally buried pitcher and that local environmental conditions had caused the lack of other pitchers. Still, as we continued to find other pitcherless plants along the ascent to the summit, we wondered if a species of pitcher plant might have evolved towards loss of carnivory, as seen in some other carnivorous plants. But then, when taking photos, I tore a moss cushion from a tree base revealing a bunch of richly maroon-coloured pitchers growing from a short shoot with reduced leaves entirely lacking chlorophyll.”

The group then checked the other encountered plants and found that all of them had underground shoots with pitchers, confirming that this species specifically targets the underground environment.

The scientific name Nepenthes pudica points to the plant’s curious behaviour: it is derived from the Latin adjective pudicus, which means bashful and reflects the fact that its lower pitchers remain hidden from sight.

Nepenthes pudica is endemic to Borneo.

“This discovery is important for nature conservation in Indonesian Borneo, as it emphasises its significance as a world biodiversity hotspot. We hope that the discovery of this unique carnivorous plant might help protect Bornean rainforests, especially prevent or at least slow the conversion of pristine forests into oil palm plantations,”

concludes Wewin Tjiasmanto of Yayasan Konservasi Biota Lahan Basah, who helped discover the new species.

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Research article

Dančák M, Majeský Ľ, Čermák V, Golos MR, Płachno BJ, Tjiasmanto W (2022) First record of functional underground traps in a pitcher plant: Nepenthes pudica (Nepenthaceae), a new species from North Kalimantan, Borneo. PhytoKeys 201: 77-97. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.201.82872

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Lost South American wildflower “extinctus” rediscovered (but still endangered)

Long believed to have gone extinct, Gasteranthus extinctus was found growing at Bosque y Cascada Las Rocas, a private reserve in coastal Ecuador.

Scientific names get chosen for lots of reasons: they can honor an important person, or hint at what an organism looks like or where it’s from. For a tropical wildflower first described by scientists in 2000, the scientific name “extinctus” was a warning. The orange wildflower had been found 15 years earlier in an Ecuadorian forest that had since been largely destroyed; the scientists who named it suspected that by the time they named it, it had already become extinct. But in a new paper in PhytoKeys, researchers report the first confirmed sightings of Gasteranthus extinctus in 40 years.

Long believed to have gone extinct, Gasteranthus extinctus was found growing next to a waterfall at Bosque y Cascada Las Rocas, a private reserve in coastal Ecuador containing a large population of the endangered plant. Photo by Riley Fortier.

Extinctus was given its striking name in light of the extensive deforestation in western Ecuador,” says Dawson White, a postdoctoral researcher at Chicago’s Field Museum and co-lead author of the paper. “But if you claim something’s gone, then no one is really going to go out and look for it anymore. There are still a lot of important species that are still out there, even though overall, we’re in this age of extinction.”

The bright orange flowers of the Ecuadorian cloud forest herb Gasteranthus extinctus, long believed to have gone extinct, light up the forest understory as if begging to be seen. Photo by Riley Fortier

The rediscovered plant is a small forest floor-dweller with flamboyant neon-orange flowers. 

“The genus name, Gasteranthus, is Greek for ‘belly flower.’ Their flowers have a big pouch on the underside with a little opening top where pollinators can enter and exit,” says White.

Photo by by Riley Fortier

G. extinctus is found in the foothills of the Andes mountains, where the land flattens to a plane that was once covered in cloud forest. The region, called the Centinela Ridge, is notorious among biologists for being home to a unique set of plants that vanished when its forests were almost completely destroyed in the 1980s. The late biologist E. O. Wilson even named the phenomenon of organisms instantly going extinct when their small habitat is destroyed “Centinelan extinction.”

Part of the team departs the field for the day with bags full of rare plant specimens, surrounded by the typical Centinelan landscape of tall, remnant trees scattered across pasture and farmland. Photo by Dawson White

The story of Centinela was also an alarm to draw attention to the fact that over 97% of the forests in the western half of Ecuador have been felled and converted to farmland. What remains is a fine mosaic of tiny islands of forest within a sea of bananas and a handful of other crops.

Sunset on the peak of Centinela Ridge in coastal Ecuador, near to where the first collections of the endangered wildflower Gasteranthus extinctus were made some 40 years ago. Photo by Nigel Pitman

“Centinela is a mythical place for tropical botanists,” says Pitman. “But because it was described by the top people in the field, no one really double-checked the science. No one went back to confirm that the forest was gone and those things were extinct.”

Part of the team that rediscovered Gasteranthus extinctus traverses steep ravines in the forests of coastal Ecuador in search of rare plants. From left: Washington Santillán, Sr. Hermogenes, Alix Lozinguez, and Nicolás Zapata. Photo by Thomas L.P. Couvruer

But around the time that Gasteranthus extinctus was first described in 2000, scientists were already showing that some victims of Centinelan extinction weren’t really extinct. Since 2009, a few scientists have mounted expeditions looking for G. extinctus was still around, but they weren’t successful. When White and Pitman received funding from the Field Museum’s Women’s Board to visit the Centinela Ridge, the team had a chance to check for themselves. 

Starting in the summer of 2021, they began combing through satellite images trying to identify primary rainforest that was still intact (which was difficult, White recalls, because most of the images of the region were obscured by clouds). They found a few contenders and assembled a team of ten botanists from six different institutions in Ecuador, the US, and France, including Juan Guevara, Thomas Couvreur, Nicolás Zapata, Xavier Cornejo, and Gonzalo Rivas. In November of 2021, they arrived at Centinela.

A sign points out the community of Centinela del Pichincha in coastal Ecuador, likely the namesake of the Centinela Ridge. Photo by Nigel Pitman

“It was my first time planning an expedition where we weren’t sure we’d even enter a forest,” says Pitman. “But as soon as we got on the ground we found remnants of intact cloud forest, and we spotted G. extinctus on the first day, within the first couple hours of searching. We didn’t have a photo to compare it to, we only had images of dried herbarium specimens, a line drawing, and a written description, but we were pretty sure that we’d found it based on its poky little hairs and showy “pot-bellied” flowers.”

Pitman recalls mixed emotions upon the team finding the flower. “We were really excited, but really tentative in our excitement — we thought, ‘Was it really that easy?’” he says. “We knew we needed to check with a specialist.”

From left: Ecuadorian botanists Juan Ernesto Guevara, Xavier Cornejo, and Gonzalo Rivas after a successful day of plant collecting on the Centinela Ridge in coastal Ecuador. Photo by Nigel Pitman

The researchers took photos and collected some fallen flowers, not wanting to harm the plants if they were the only ones remaining on Earth. They sent the photos to taxonomic expert John Clark, who confirmed that, yes, the flowers were the not-so-extinct G. extinctus. Thankfully, the team found many more individuals as they visited other forest fragments, and they collected museum specimens to voucher the discovery and leaves for DNA analysis. The team was also able to validate some unidentified photos posted on the community science app iNaturalist as G. extinctus.

After the field, the work isn’t finished! The team presses and preserves the specimens collected during the day. Photo by Riley Fortier

The plant will keep its name, says Pitman, because biology’s code of nomenclature has very specific rules around renaming an organism, and G. extinctus’s resurrection doesn’t make the cut.

While the flower remains highly endangered, the expedition found plenty of reasons for hope, the researchers say. 

“We walked into Centinela thinking it was going to break our heart, and instead we ended up falling in love,” says Pitman. “Finding G. extinctus was great, but what we’re even more excited about is finding some spectacular forest in a place where scientists had feared everything was gone.”

Botanist Riley Fortier admires the plantations, pastures, and remnants of old cloud forest that cover Centinela Ridge in coastal Ecuador. Photo by Dawson White

The team is now working with Ecuadorian conservationists to protect some of the remaining fragments where G. extinctus and the rest of the spectacular Centinelan flora lives on. 

“Rediscovering this flower shows that it’s not too late to turn around even the worst-case biodiversity scenarios, and it shows that there’s value in conserving even the smallest, most degraded areas,” says White. 

“It’s an important piece of evidence that it’s not too late to be exploring and inventorying plants and animals in the heavily degraded forests of western Ecuador. New species are still being found, and we can still save many things that are on the brink of extinction.”

Research article:

Pitman NCA, White DM, Guevara Andino JE, Couvreur TLP, Fortier RP, Zapata JN, Cornejo X, Clark JL, Feeley KJ, Johnston MK, Lozinguez A, Rivas-Torres G (2022) Rediscovery of Gasteranthus extinctus L.E.Skog & L.P.Kvist (Gesneriaceae) at multiple sites in western Ecuador. PhytoKeys 194: 33–46. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.194.79638 

Endangered new orchid discovered in Ecuador

The plant – unique with its showy, intense yellow flowers – was described by Polish orchidologists in collaboration with an Ecuadorian company operating in orchid research, cultivation and supply.

An astounding new species of orchid has been discovered in the cloud rainforest of Northern Ecuador. Scientifically named Maxillaria anacatalina-portillae, the plant – unique with its showy, intense yellow flowers – was described by Polish orchidologists in collaboration with an Ecuadorian company operating in orchid research, cultivation and supply. 

A specimen of the newly described orchid species Maxillaria anacatalina-portillae in its natural habitat. Photо by Alex Portilla

Known from a restricted area in the province of Carchi, the orchid is presumed to be a critically endangered species, as its rare populations already experience the ill-effects of climate change and human activity. The discovery was aided by a local commercial nursery, which was already cultivating these orchids. The study is published in the open-access journal PhytoKeys.

During the past few years, scientists from the University of Gdańsk (Poland) have been working intensely on the classification and species delimitations within the Neotropical genus Maxillaria – one of the biggest in the orchid family. They have investigated materials deposited in most of the world’s herbarium collections across Europe and the Americas, and conducted several field trips in South America in the search of the astonishing plants.

The newly described orchid species Maxillaria anacatalina-portillae. Photо by Hugo Medina

The first specimens of what was to become known as the new to science Maxillaria anacatalina-portillae were collected by Alex Portilla, photographer and sales manager at Ecuagenera, an Ecuadorian company dedicated to orchid research, cultivation and supply, on 11th November 2003 in Maldonado, Carchi Province (northern Ecuador). There, he photographed the orchid in its natural habitat and then brought it to the greenhouses of his company for cultivation. Later, its offspring was offered at the commercial market under the name of a different species of the same genus: Maxillaria sanderiana ‘xanthina’ (‘xanthina’ in Latin means ‘yellow’ or ‘red-yellow’). 

In the meantime, Prof. Dariusz L. Szlachetko and Dr. Monika M. Lipińska would encounter the same intriguing plants with uniquely colored flowers on several different occasions. Suspecting that they may be facing an undescribed taxon, they joined efforts with Dr. Natalia Olędrzyńska and Aidar A. Sumbembayev, to conduct additional morphological and phylogenetic analyses, using samples from both commercial and hobby growers, as well as crucial plants purchased from Ecuagenera that were later cultivated in the greenhouses of the University of Gdańsk.

As their study confirmed that the orchid was indeed a previously unknown species, the scientists honored the original discoverer of the astonishing plant by naming it after his daughter: Ana Catalina Portilla Schröder.

Research paper:

Lipińska MM, Olędrzyńska N, Portilla A, Łuszczek D, Sumbembayev AA, Szlachetko DL (2022) Maxillaria anacatalinaportillae (Orchidaceae, Maxillariinae), a new remarkable species from Ecuador. PhytoKeys 190: 15-33. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.190.77918

A year of biodiversity: Top 10 new species of 2021 from Pensoft journals, Part 1

With 2022 round the corner, we thought we’d start off the celebrations by looking back to some the most memorable discoveries of 2021. And what a year it has been! Many new species made their debuts on the pages of Pensoft journals – here’s our selection of the most exciting animals, plants and fungi that we published in 2021.

With 2022 round the corner, we thought we’d start off the celebrations by looking back to some the most memorable discoveries of 2021. And what a year it has been! Many new species made their debuts on the pages of Pensoft journals – here’s our selection of the most exciting animals, plants and fungi that we published in 2021.

10. The delicious wild oak mushroom

It’s amazing that edible species, long known to local communities, can still present a novelty for science. This was the case with Cantharellus veraecrucis, a chanterelle from – that’s right, Veracruz, Mexico.

During the rainy season, locals harvest this mushroom from tropical oak forests to sell it or enjoy it as a delicacy; this is probably why they’ve dubbed it “Oak mushroom”.

Published in: MycoKeys

9. The master of disguise

If you ever see a leaf insect, there’s a good chance you won’t notice it – these little critters are masters of camouflaging.

This picture was taken in 2014, when Jérôme Constant and Joachim Bresseel from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences were enjoying a night walk in Vietnam’s Nui Chua National Park. It wasn’t until this year, though, that this beauty got its own scientific name: Cryptophyllium nuichuaense. Named after the park where it was found, it is one of 13 new species of leaf insects described in our journal ZooKeys this February.

This leaf insect, like many others, is endemic to Vietnam. This is why the researchers who found itcall for the creation of more protected areas in order to keep this precious biodiversity intact.

Published in: ZooKeys

8. The Neil Gaiman spider

Unlike most spiders, trapdoor spiders don’t use silk to make a web. Instead, they live in burrows lined with silk that they cover with a “trapdoor”. They are relatively widely spread, but you’d rarely encounter one out in the open, because they spend most of their lives underground.

This is probably why arachnologists and spider lovers the world over got so excited when Dr. Rebecca Godwin (Piedmont University, GA) and Dr. Jason Bond (University of California, Davis, CA) described 33 new species of trapdoor spiders from the genus Ummidia – in addition to the 27 already known.

Dr. Rebecca Godwin talks to L. Brian Patrick about her discovery of 33 new species of trapdoor spiders on his podcast New Species.

One of the 33 is Ummidia neilgaimani, named after fantasy and horror writer Neil Gaiman. A particular favorite of Dr. Godwin, Gaiman is the author of a number of books with spider-based characters. His novel American Gods features a character based on the West African spider god Anansi and a World Tree “one hour south of Blacksburg,” not far from the type locality of this species. He’s also part of the documentary Sixteen Legs, in his own words “An amazing film about Tasmanian cave spider sex.”

“I think anything we can do to increase people’s interest in the diversity around them is worthwhile and giving species names that people recognize but that still have relevant meaning is one way to do that,” says Dr. Godwin.

Published in: ZooKeys

7. The deadly Chinese-goddess snake

Bungarus suzhenae was only described as a new species this year, but its reputation preceded it – in a bad way. Researchers were already familiar with a notorious black-and-white banded krait that bit herpetologists on expeditions in Myanmar and China – in one infamous case, to death. After extensive morphological and phylogenetical analysis, the researchers were finally able to confirm it as new to science.

The story behind B. suzhenae’s name is interesting, too: it was named after a character from the traditional Chinese myth ‘Legend of White Snake’. The powerful snake goddess Bai Su Zhen is to this day regarded as a symbol of true love and good-heartedness in China. 

Snakebites from kraits – including this one – are known to have a high mortality. This is why the new knowledge on B. suzhenae and its description as a new species are essential to the research on its venom and an important step in the development of antivenom and improved snakebite treatment.

Published in: ZooKeys

6. The ephemeral fairy lanterns

Commonly known as “fairy lanterns”, plants of the genus Thismia are very rare and small in size. They are mycoheterotrophic, which means they live in close association with fungi from which they acquire most of their nutrition. They’re also very elusive, growing in dark, remote rainforests, and visible only when they emerge to flower and set seed after heavy rain.

In fact, researchers were only able to find one specimen of the new T. sitimeriamiae, which they discovered in the Terengganu State of Malaysia – the rest of the population had been destroyed by wild boars.

Just discovered, T. sitimeriamiae may already be threatened by extinction – which is why the research team that discovered it suggest that this exceptionally rare plant is classified as Critically Endangered.

Published in: PhytoKeys

Part 2 coming soon – stay tuned!

Delicious discoveries: Scientists just described a new onion species from the Himalaya

While the onion, garlic, scallion, shallot and chives have been on our plates for centuries, becoming staple foods around the world, their group, the genus Allium, seems to be a long way from running out of surprises. Recently, a group of researchers from India described a new onion species from the western Himalaya region, long known to the locals as “jambu” and “phran”, in the open-access journal PhytoKeys.

The genus Allium contains about 1,100 species worldwide, including many staple foods like onion, garlic, scallion, shallot and chives. Even though this group of vegetables has been making appearances at family dinners for centuries, it turns out that it is a long way from running out of surprises, as a group of researchers from India recently found out.

The flower of Allium negianum

In 2019, Dr. Anjula Pandey, Principal Scientist at ICAR-National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources in New Delhi, together with scientists, Drs K Madhav Rai, Pavan Kumar Malav and S Rajkumar, was working on the systematic botany of the genus Allium for the Indian region, when the team came across plants of what would soon be confirmed as a new species for science in the open-access journal PhytoKeys.

The plant, called Allium negianum, was discovered in the Indo-Tibetan border area of Malari village, Niti valley of Chamoli district in Uttarakhand. It grows at 3000 to 4800 m above sea level and can be found along open grassy meadows, sandy soils along rivers, and streams forming in snow pasture lands along alpine meadows (locally known as “bugyal” or “bugial”), where the melting snow actually helps carry its seeds to more favourable areas. With a pretty narrow distribution, this newly described speciesis restricted to the region of western Himalaya and hasn’t yet been reported from anywhere else in the world. The scientific name Allium negianum honours the late Dr. Kuldeep Singh Negi, an eminent explorer and Allium collector from India.

Although new to science, this species has long been known under domestic cultivation to local communities. While working on this group, the research team heard of  phran, jambu, sakua, sungdung, and kacho – different local names for seasoning onions. According to locals, the one from Niti valley was particularly good, even deemed the best on the market.

The bulb and underground parts of Allium negianum.

So far only known from the western Himalaya region, Allium negianum might be under pressure from people looking to taste it: the researchers fear that indiscriminate harvest of its leaves and bulbs for seasoning may pose a threat to its wild populations.

Research article:

Pandey A, Rai KM, Malav PK, Rajkumar S (2021) Allium negianum (Amaryllidaceae): a new species under subg. Rhizirideum from Uttarakhand Himalaya, India. PhytoKeys 183: 77-93. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.183.65433

Two new tree species discovered in Colombia

Trees of the genus Otoba have small, foul-smelling flowers coloured in yellow or greenish yellow, and round, aromatic fruits. Toucans, monkeys, or small terrestrial animals sometimes feed on their fruits, while herbivorous insects have developed a taste for their leaves. Part of the nutmeg family, Otoba trees are widely distributed from Nicaragua to Brazil, with as many as nine species native to Colombia.

Fruits of Otoba from Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica. Photo by Reinaldo Aguilar

Despite this apparent abundance, though, scientific knowledge on their biology is very limited.

Thanks to researchers from the Louisiana State University and the Missouri Botanical Garden, we now know more about these interesting trees, as Daniel Santamaría-Aguilar and Laura P. Lagomarsino recently described two new species of Otoba in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PhytoKeys.

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic meant limited access to physical specimens, the research team were able to identify the two new species while investigating herbaria samples. This discovery helps clear some taxonomic confusions in the genus, as both of these new species had often been mistaken for other Otoba members.

The newly described Otoba scottmorii and Otoba squamosa can be found in Colombia’s Antioquia department, growing in premontane and humid forests. Known from the premontane forests of Cordillera Occidental in Colombia, Otoba squamosa grows at 1330–1450 m, while Otoba scottmorii, locally known as Cuángare otobo, grows in the humid forests in the Department of Antioquia, northwestern Colombia.

Staminate flowers of Otoba from Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica. Photo by Reinaldo Aguilar

The scientific name scotmorii is a tribute to Dr. Scott A. Mori (1941–2020), “a wonderful person and skilled botanist; a dedicated explorer of Central and South America humid forests (where this species occurs), especially in the Guianas and the Amazon basin; and an authority on Neotropical Lecythidaceae,” who inspired and personally supported Daniel Santamaría-Aguilar in his botanical work.

Because their habitats are threatened by deforestation, both tree species are preliminarily assessed as Endangered according to the criteria of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Research article:

Santamaría-Aguilar D, Lagomarsino LP (2021) Two new species of Otoba (Myristicaceae) from Colombia. PhytoKeys 178: 147-170. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.178.64564