RAINBIO: a mega database improves knowledge on distribution of vascular plants in tropical Africa

Last November, PhytoKeys published an exciting paper on the launch of the first-of-its kind RAINBIO mega database of tropical African vascular plant distributions.

The publication is part of the RAINBIO project (African RAIN forest community dynamics: implications for tropical BIOdiversity conservation and climate change mitigation, http://rainbio.cesab.org) funded by CESAB (CEntre de Synthèse et d’Analyse sur la Biodiversité) of the FRB (Fondation pour la Recherche sur la Biodiversité, France). Making use of the innovative data paper format, offered by most Pensoft journals, the project announced is key product – a state-of-the-art high quality mega database of vascular plant species distribution across tropical Africa.

The RAINBIO mega database is a response to the limited knowledge of plant species distribution patterns when it comes to the tropical vegetation of Africa. Africa’s vegetation is characterised by high levels of species diversity. However, it is now undergoing important shifts in response to the challenges of ongoing climate change and increasing anthropogenic pressures. To better foster conservation and preservation of ecosystems, basic knowledge about plant species distribution is an important prerequisite.

To compile a comprehensive collection of data, RAINBIO merged large publicly available datasets, in combination with smaller private databases, resulting in a mega database containing 609,776 unique georeferenced records allowing the exploration and extraction of distributional data for 22,577 plant species across continental tropical Africa.

After announcing the database with us at the end of last year, the project published a companion research article providing a state-of-the-art synthesis about our understanding of vascular plant distribution across tropical Africa. The paper, published in BMC Biology concludes that botanical exploration of tropical Africa is far from complete, stressing the importance of continued field inventories and herbarium digitization of past collections.

Analysing this unique dataset provides some important insights into African biodiversity. For example, the observed number of tree species for African forests was smaller than those estimated from global tree data, suggesting that a significant number of species are yet to be discovered. The article also contains a comprehensive list of the total number of plant species for 31 countries across tropical Africa.

The data compiled in the RAINBIO database provides a solid basis for a more sustainable management and improved conservation of tropical Africa’s unique flora, and is important for achieving Objective 1 of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation 2011–2020.

Original Sources:

Dauby G, et al. (2016) RAINBIO: a mega-database of tropical African vascular plants distributions. PhytoKeys 74: 1-18. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.74.9723

Sosef M S M, et al. (2016) Exploring the floristic diversity of tropical Africa. BMC Biology 15:15. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12915-017-0356-8

New plant named to honor the peace-making efforts of the Colombian President

Named to honour the peace-making efforts of the Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, recently awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize, a new species of the sunflower family genus Espeletia is described from the Páramo de Presidente. The study was published in the open access journal PhytoKeys.

Located 28 km south from the closest city Chitagá, the Colombian Páramo de Presidente has been considered unsafe for decades due to the country’s turbulent history. Like in many dangerous areas around Colombia, the flora of this páramo has not been studied well yet.

Closed to researchers for decades, the peace agreement opened this and other places for fruitful botanical explorations during the post-conflict times in Colombia. The new species was collected during an expedition of the authors in 2009, in which they met with left-wing armed members.

img_5013“Thanks to the President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, and his persistent efforts to achieve peace with the guerillas FARC in Colombia, after 52 years of conflict, we are now able to explore previously unreachable areas,” comments the lead author, Mauricio Diazgranados, research leader at Kew Gardens, Ardingly, UK.

“Naming our species to honour his peace efforts, we hope that this publication will further inspire the President to continue with more actions for the preservation of Colombian biodiversity.”

The new species is endemic to Colombia and is only known from the Páramo de Presidente, at elevations of 3400-3600 m. Although a large population of several hundreds of individuals growing in the grasslands of the páramo was observed, this particular area is not under any sort of protection, and there are signs of grazing activity. In addition, the proximity of extensive potato plantations suggests that the species is probably Critically Endangered.


Original Source:

Diazgranados M, Sánchez LR (2017) Espeletia praesidentis, a new species of Espeletiinae (Millerieae, Asteraceae) from northeastern Colombia. PhytoKeys 76: 1-12. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.76.11220

A new species of quillwort named for the US state of Mississippi

Stunningly underwhelming, species of the genus Isoetes, commonly known as quillworts, bear amazing similarity to grass plants with which they are often confused. The US state of Mississippi has now given its name to a new species of the enigmatic quillwort group. The study was published in the open access journal PhytoKeys.

The new species, Isoetes mississippiensis, is an unusually large representative of the genus, first discovered in 1996 by Mr. Steve Leonard. For years it was known by the informal name “Big Dog”, a reference to its size.

Further microscopic and cytological study by Rebecca Bray, Lytton Musselman, and Peter Schafran (Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia, USA); and W. Carl Taylor (National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.) revealed that this is in fact a new species, rather than a strange form of a wide-ranging Midwestern species of Isoetes.

Interestingly, despite considerable field work, only two populations of I. mississippiensis are known from a tributary stream of the Pearl River, suggesting the extreme rarity of this Mississippi endemic, which already puts the new species at risk of extinction from human development.

What is the importance of this discovery and why does this often overlooked group matter? Despite their understated looks, quillworts can have an important role in biodiversity and conservation science, helping us interpret the environment — water quality, phytogeography, and evolution.

image-phytoThe unexpected and unexplored diversity of quillworts in the American South, for example, could be due to the machinations of glaciers, according to scientists. The last glacial epoch pushed northern quillworts south where they could cross with previously isolated species.

“Understanding the diversity of quillworts and their genetic makeup allows making hypotheses as to the movement of these plants and, by extension, to other plants in the same flora,” comments one of the co-authors Dr. Musselman. “We do not know how old this species is but we do know that it has been able to survive in its present habitat despite extensive perturbation of hydrology and natural vegetation.”

“When one southern Senator was told about an endangered quillwort in his state, he made a public statement questioning why anyone would be interested in this “grass”,” shares Musselman. “Despite their ecological importance, quillworts are largely ignored due to their understated appearance. No one knows how many quillworts have been extirpated without being described, and what those could tell us about the past and future of their environment.”


Original source:

Schafran PW, Leonard SW, Bray RD, Taylor WC, Musselman LJ (2016) Isoetes mississippiensis: A new quillwort from Mississippi, USA. PhytoKeys 74: 97-106. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.74.10380

Plants cheat too: A new species of fungus-parasitizing orchid

Plants usually produce their own nutrients by using sun energy, but not all of them. A new ‘cheater’ species of orchid from Japan, lives off nutrients obtained via a special kind of symbiosis with fungi. The study was published in the open access journal PhytoKeys.

The new orchid species, named Lecanorchis tabugawaensis, is by far not on its own in its strange feeding habits. The so called mycoheterotrophic plants are found among all plant species groups.

Mycoheterotrophy is a term derived from Greek to describe the bizarre symbiotic relationship between some plants and fungi, where the plant gets nutrients parasitizing upon fungi, rather than using photosynthesis.

Considered a kind of a cheating relationship, these plants are sometimes informally referred to as “mycorrhizal cheaters”.

Having long attracted the curiosity of botanists and mycologists, a common feature of most mycoheterotrophic plants is their extreme scarcity and small size. In addition, most species are hiding in the dark understory of forests, only discoverable during the flowering and fruiting period when aboveground organs appear through the leaf litter.

%e3%82%bf%e3%83%96%e3%82%ac%e3%83%af%e3%83%a0%e3%83%a8%e3%82%a6%e3%83%a9%e3%83%b3008Despite it seems like these ‘cheating’ plants have it all easy for themselves, in reality they are highly dependent on the activities of both the fungi and the trees that sustain them. Such a strong dependency makes this fascinating plant group particularly sensitive to environmental destruction.

“Due to the sensitivity of mycoheterotrophic plants it has long been suggested that their species richness provides a useful indicator of the overall floral diversity of forest habitats. A detailed record of the distribution of these vulnerable plants therefore provides crucial data for the conservation of primary forests,” explains leading author Dr Kenji Suetsugu, Kobe University.

Just discovered, the new orchid species has been already assessed with an IUCN status – Critically Endangered. With a distribution restricted to only two locations along the Tabu and Onna Rivers, Yakushima Island, this fungus-eating cheater might need some conservation attention.


Original Source:

Suetsugu K, Fukunaga H (2016) Lecanorchis tabugawaensis (Orchidaceae, Vanilloideae), a new mycoheterotrophic plant from Yakushima Island, Japan. PhytoKeys 73: 125-135. doi: 10.3897/phytokeys.73.10019

A new scientific name for Brazil’s national tree

Scientists have long wondered about the correct taxonomic classification of Pau-brasil, the national tree of Brazil. A new study using DNA sequences to analyze the evolutionary relationships of Pau-brasil and some 200 closely-related plants from right across the tropics (together known as the Caesalpinia group) confirms that Pau-brasil represents a unique and distinct evolutionary lineage, meriting recognition as a distinct genus. Given the cultural and historical importance of the tree for Brazil, the name chosen for this new genus is Paubrasilia, a Latinization of its Portuguese common name.

Scientists Dr Edeline Gagnon (Université de Montréal, Canada), Dr Haroldo Cavalcante de Lima (Instituto de Pesquisas Jardim Botânico do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil) and Dr Gwilym P Lewis (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, United Kingdom) describe the new genus in a paper in the journal Phytokeys, co-authored by Gagnon, and Drs Anne Bruneau (Institut de recherche en biologie végétale, Université de Montréal, Canada), Luciano Paganucci de Queiroz (Universidade Estadual de Feira de Santana, Brazil), Colin E Hughes (Department of Systematic and Evolutionary Botany, University of Zürich, Switzerland), and Gwilym P Lewis, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, U.K.

In the same paper, the authors describe three other new plant genera, namely Hererolandia(for a single species endemic to Hereroland in Namibia), Hultholia (in honor of Cambodian scientist Sovanmoly Hul Thol), and Gelrebia (a Latinization of the Somali word “Gelreb”, signifying “camel trap” in allusion to this impenetrable thorny shrub). Their work also redefines the size of seven other genera, laying out a new generic classification and bringing order to this taxonomically complicated pantropical group of plants.

Pau-brasil was once so common along the Brazilian coast that 16th century merchants referred to the country as “Terra do Brasil”, or Land of Brazilwood. The tree was highly sought-after for its red sap, which was used to dye luxury textiles, and even today its dense heartwood remains highly prized for the manufacture of high quality violin bows.

The authors hope that this emblematic new genus name will draw attention to the fragile state of the highly fragmented and threatened remaining forests of coastal Brazil where this iconic species is endangered. “Less than 7% of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest remains intact and despite the inclusion of the species in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), we have witnessed first-hand evidence of illegal logging of Pau-Brasil during recent field work”, say the authors of the new name.

Original source:

Gagnon E, Bruneau A, Hughes CE, De Queiroz LP, Lewis GP (2016) A new generic system for the pantropical Caesalpinia group (Leguminosae). PhytoKeys 71: 1-160. doi:10.3897/phytokeys.71.9203

A nonet of new plant species from Africa emphasizes the importance of herbaria in botany

Combining modern molecular methods, with more traditional morphological ones, a recent revision of the custard apple genus Monanthotaxis has revealed a nonet of new species.

Lying unnoticed on shelves, some of these species had to wait for many decades to be discovered with methods, unavailable at the time of their collection. Some collected 40 years ago, some as far back as a 100, the nine new species are described in the open access journal Phytokeys to showcase the importance of herbarium collections in Botany.

fruit red“Although for many of the new species good flowering material became available only recently, this does prove the importance of herbaria, and the need for exploring their collections,” explains the lead author, PhD student Paul H. Hoekstra, Naturalis Biodiversity Center and Wageningen University. “On the other hand, using DNA techniques we were able to link recently collected sterile collections to several of these poorly collected species, enabling us to improve their conservation assessment.”

Confined to tropical Africa and Madagascar, species from this genus all share similar features such as a typical climbing habit and bluish-green or glaucous leaves.

flowersTwo of the newly described species come from West Africa, four from western Central Africa, and for the remaining three Tanzania, Southern Mozambique and the Comoros host one each. This distribution comes in confirmation of a general pattern in recent revisions of both the custard apple family Annonaceae and other tropical African forest taxa, where most new species are found in western central Africa and Tanzania.

Giving important information about areas of potential botanical and ecological interest, this trend is supported by the high level of conservation concern among the newly described species. With five species classified as critically endangered, two as endangered, one as vulnerable the need of further collecting and studying those species and exploration of the relevant areas is warranted.

“Exploring those areas for new species is rather important if we want to have a real idea of their truly amazing botanical diversity,” explains Hoekstra. “Madagascar, for example, is also an area with many undescribed species, a fact also true for our group of interest,Monanthotaxis, and we anticipate for at least another seven new species to be described from this area.”


Original Source:

Hoekstra PH, Wieringa JJ, Chatrou LW (2016) A nonet of novel species of Monanthotaxis (Annonaceae) from around Africa. PhytoKeys 69: 71-103. doi: 10.3897/phytokeys.69.9292

Orchid or Demon: Flower of a new species of orchid looks like a devil’s head

A lone and unique population of about 30 reddish to dark violet-maroon orchids grows on the small patch of land between the borders of two Colombian departments. However, its extremely small habitat is far from the only striking thing about the new species.

A closer look at its flowers’ heart reveals what appears to be a devil’s head. Named after its demonic patterns, the new orchid species, Telipogon diabolicus, is described in the open access journal PhytoKeys.

Discovered by Dr Marta Kolanowska and Prof Dariusz Szlachetko, both affiliated with University of Gdansk, Poland, together with Dr Ramiro Medina Trejo, Colombia, the new orchid grows a stem measuring between 5.5 – 9 cm in height.

With its only known habitat restricted to a single population spread across a dwarf montane forest at the border between departments Putumayo and Nariño, southern Colombia, the devilish orchid is assigned as a Critically Endangered species in the IUCN Red List.

Although the curious orchid could be mistakenly taken for a few other species, there are still some easy to see physical traits that make the flower stand out. Apart from the demon’s head hidden at the heart of its colours, the petals themselves are characteristically clawed. This feature has not been found in any other Colombian species of the genus.close-up

“In the most recent catalogue of Colombian plants almost 3600 orchid species representing nearly 250 genera are included,” remind the authors. “However, there is no doubt that hundreds of species occurring in this country remain undiscovered. Only in 2015 over 20 novelties were published based on material collected in Colombia.”

Original source:

Kolanowska M, Szlachetko DL, Trejo RM (2016) Telipogon diabolicus (Orchidaceae, Oncidiinae), a new species from southern Colombia. PhytoKeys 65: 113-124. doi:10.3897/phytokeys.65.8674

Botanical diversity unraveled in a previously understudied forest in Angola

Famous for hosting most endemic bird species in Angola, it comes as no surprise that the Kumbira forest in Angola has recently also revealed great botanical diversity. Remaining understudied for a long time, a recent botanical survey in the region revealed impressive numbers of vascular plants including new records for the country and potential new species. The full account of the Kumbira forest diversity is published in the open access journal Phytokeys.

In June 2014, two dedicated botanists has finally headed to the central escarpment of western Angola, to explore and describe flora of the Kumbira forest. Under the framework of bilateral cooperation between Angola and the Republic of South Africa, in collaboration with Kew Herbarium in UK, Dr. David Goyder, Herbarium, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Mr. Francisco M. P. Gonçalves, Herbarium of Lubango, ISCED-Huíla, Lubango, conducted a first of its kind botanical survey in the region.

The importance of Kumbira forest has been referred in various sources for hosting the major number of Angolan endemic bird species. Despite its suspected ecological importance, however, the plant diversity knowledge of Kumbira has been unknown so far.

Nowadays, the important Kumbira forest biome is threatened by human activities such as illegal logging, forest slash-and-burn agriculture, poaching, and the increasing distribution area of the invasive alien tree species “pan chock” Inga vera subsp. vera.

“To fill in the knowledge gap and call attention to the importance of Kumbira forest not only as a zoological, but also as a botanical hotspot, we undertook a botanical survey into Kumbira forest.” explains Dr. Francisco M. P. Gonçalves.

During the brief survey period between 10th-18th June 2014, the researchers were amazed to collect over 100 botanical specimens in flower or fruit. Three species collected represent news records for Angola and Guineo-Congolian biome and one is a potential new species.

“More work is planned in the future with the vision to contribute to the creation of a Gabela Natural Reserve, which Kumbira is a part of. Although the plans for this conservation are already proposed, they are not yet implemented and we hope more knowledge of the organism richness of the region will contribute to its realization,” concludes Dr. Gonçalves.


Original source:

Gonçalves FMP, Goyder DJ (2016) A brief botanical survey into Kumbira forest, an isolated patch of Guineo-Congolian biome. PhytoKeys 65: 1-14.doi: 10.3897/phytokeys.65.8679

Curious new bush species growing ‘bleeding’ fruits named by a US class of 150 7th graders

A class of 150 US 7th graders has helped select a name for a newly discovered plant, which amazes with its fruits that appear to be bleeding once they are cut open. Bucknell University biology professor Chris Martine and life science teacher Bradley Catherman challenged the students to come up with ideas for what to call the new Australian species last spring.

Looking for a way to engage local youngsters in biodiversity science, Martine scheduled a presentation to the collective 7th grade life science classes at Donald H. Eichhorn Middle School. As the day of his assembly approached, he started to think that the best way to generate interest might be to somehow allow the students to participate in the actual research he was doing in his lab at the time. Only, he knew there were few things he could do with 150 13- and 14-year olds sitting in a gymnasium.

“I emailed Mr. Catherman and I said, ‘How about we ask them to name a new species for me?’ explained Martine. “And then I showed up with live plants, preserved specimens, and my notes from the Outback – and we said, ‘Go ahead, tell us what to call this thing.'”

Nearly a year later, Martine and his co-authors, including two undergraduate students, have published the new species in the open access journal PhytoKeys. The news is coming just in time for the National Teacher Appreciation Day, thus giving tribute to Bradley Catherman, a life science teacher who is not afraid to step beyond the standard curriculum and make that extra step to actually engage his students with their studies.


“I was really impressed with Mr. Catherman’s willingness to work outside of the typical curriculum on this,” said Martine, “In an age when K-12 teachers are increasingly pressured to ‘teach to the test’ he is still willing to think creatively and try something unusual.”

Curiously, the new flowering bush species ‘behaves’ nothing like an ordinary plant. While its unripened fruits are greenish white on the inside when cut open, they start ‘bleeding’ in no more than two minutes. The scientists have even filmed a video short showing how their insides turn bloody scarlet at first, before growing darker, appearing just like clotting blood.

A week after the presentation, each of the students submitted an essay in which they suggested a name, explained the meaning, and translated it into Latin (the language that scientific names are required to be in). Catherman and Martine then selected the two best essays for the inaugural Discovery Prize, a new middle school science award established by Martine and his wife, Rachel.

“As you might imagine, the suggestions ran the gamut from the silly to the scientific,” said Martine. “But for every request to name the species after a favorite food, family pet, or Taylor Swift, there were many suggestions based on the data the students had been provided.”

According to Martine, a number of the students suggested names based on two characteristics of the plant’s berries: the ‘bleeding’ unripened fruits and the dry and bone-hard mature ones. Based on this, the plant will now be known as Solanum ossicruentum, best translated to Australian blood bone tomato, with “ossi” meaning “bone” and “cruentum” meaning “bloody”. The species belongs to the genus of the tomato.mature fruit

The species is native to the sub-arid tropical zone of northern Australia. Martine collected the seeds, he grew his research plants from, during a 2014 expedition to Western Australia and the Northern Territory. However, specimens of the plant had actually been gathered for years before then.

“This is just one of thousands of unnamed Australian species that have been collected by dedicated field biologists and then stored in museums,” said Martine, who studied specimens of the new species in the Northern Territory Herbarium before hunting for it in the bush.

“There is a wealth of museum material just waiting to be given names – and, of course, the organisms represented by those specimens await that recognition, as well as the attention and protection that come with it.”


IMG_5089Luckily for Solanum ossicruentum, attention and protection are not too much of an issue.

“Not only is it widespread and fairly abundant,” said Martine, “but one of the healthiest populations occurs in Mirima National Park, a popular and easily-accessible natural area just outside the Western Australian town of Kununurra.”

“Plus, middle schoolers can be tough to deal with. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would mess with this plant, now,” the botanist joked.


Original source:

Martine CT, Cantley JT, Frawley ES, Butler AR, Jordon-Thaden IE (2016) New functionally dioecious bush tomato from northwestern Australia, Solanum ossicruentum, may utilize “trample burr” dispersal. PhytoKeys 63: 19-29. doi: 10.3897/phytokeys.63.7743

South African endemic mountain plant gives itself up after 147-year absence

South Africa’s mountains are essential to the economic well-being of the country, providing many goods and services essential for social and economic prosperity. However, the biodiversity value of these mountains is still poorly understood. This is exemplified by the large number of plant species still only known from one or two collections made well over a century ago.

The Great Escarpment Biodiversity Research Programme, led by Prof. Nigel Barker, University of Pretoria, has been systematically documenting plant diversity and endemism along much of the Great Escarpment – southern Africa’s principal mountain system.

“This ‘un-sexy’ foot-slogging research has yielded a number of valuable discoveries and rediscoveries, highlighting the biodiversity value of these mountains,” points lead author Dr Ralph Clark, Rhodes University, South Aftica.

One of these rediscoveries is a plant last seen only by one more person: Mrs Elizabeth Barber, one of South Africa’s finest women botanists of the 19th century. Mrs Barber has been a regular correspondent with Charles Darwin and has provided material of South African plants to numerous institutions in Europe.

“Her discovery – Lotononis harveyi, also known under the common name ‘Mrs Barber’s Beauty’ in her honour, was published in 1862, but unfortunately, as her specimen did not include a date, we do not know the actual year in which she discovered it,” he explains. “What we do know, is that it mysteriously disappeared for at least 147 years, despite attempts to relocate it.”harveyi img2

In 2009, Dr Ralph Clark undertook an extensive collecting trip to the Great Winterberg, where he accidently stumbled across a flowering specimen of ‘Mrs Barber’s Beauty’. It was only in 2014, however, that the plant was properly recognised for what it was, and a second trip was quickly planned.

The results of the second trip included the first photographs and ecological records of this apparently scarce species. Dr Clark’s results have been published in the open access journal PhytoKeys.

“There are currently only six known individuals of this species. The main limiting factors appear to be fire and grazing, the plants only occurring where these two prominent ecological actors have been excluded for some time,” notes Dr Clark.

“However, with much of these mountains still poorly explored by biodiversity scientists, it is possible that additional individuals will come to light. For now the species will be regarded as Critically Endangered.”


Original source:

Clark VR, Bentley J, Dold AP, Zikishe V, Barker NP (2016) The rediscovery of the Great Winterberg endemic Lotononis harveyi B.-E.van Wyk after 147 years, and notes on the poorly known Amathole endemic Macowania revolutaOliv. (southern Great Escarpment, South Africa). PhytoKeys 62: 1-13. doi: 10.3897/phytokeys.62.8348