Guest blog post by Arnold Erdélyi, Judit Hartdégen, Ákos Malatinszky, and Csaba Vadász
Today, almost everyone is familiar with the term “biological invasion”. Countless studies have been carried out to describe the various processes, and explore the cause and effect, and several methods have been developed in order to control certain invasive species. However, one of the biggest puzzles is always the question of how it all happened. It is not always easy to answer, and, in general, the smaller the area, the more difficult or even impossible it is to answer. In the course of our work, we attempted to explore the history of the spread of four, non-indigenous invasive tree species in one of the most important Hungarian forest-steppe forests of high conservation value, the Peszér Forest (approximately 1000 ha). Last week, we published our study in the journal One Ecosystem.
The Far Eastern tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), as well as the North American black cherry (Prunus serotina), the box elder (Acer negundo) and the common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) are among the worst invasive plant species in Hungary. They are also responsible for serious conservation and economic problems in the Peszér Forest.
Historical reconstructions of the spread of invasive species are most often based on only one, or sometimes a few aspects. We used six approaches simultaneously:
we reviewed the published and grey literature,
extracted tree species data from the National Forest Database since 1958,
conducted a field survey with full spatial coverage (16,000 survey units (25×25 m quadrats)) – instead of sampling,
recorded all the largest (and presumably the oldest) individuals for annual ring counts,
performed hotspot analyses on the field data
collected local knowledge.
Our results show that each approach provided some new information, and without any of them the story revealed would have been much shorter and more uncertain. We have also highlighted that at the local level, the use of one or two aspects can be not only inadequate but also misleading.
From the literature it was possible to determine the exact place and date of the first occurrence of the tree of heaven and the black cherry. However, in the case of black cherry, for example, it was only possible to piece together the circumstances of the first plantings by combining three different sources. The first occurrences of box elder were found in forestry data. Finally, in the case of the common hackberry, searching for old individuals and determining their age gave the best results.
A well-explored story of a biological invasion can go a long way in making more and more people understand that controlling these non-indigenous species can only be beneficial. On the other hand, it can also help to strengthen conservation efforts, for example by increasing the volunteer workforce, which can be a major factor in the reduction of certain species. We hope that our work and the approaches we have taken will serve as a good model for exploring other invasion stories around the world.
Erdélyi A, Hartdégen J, Malatinszky Á, Vadász C (2023) Historical reconstruction of the invasions of four non-native tree species at local scale: a detective work on Ailanthus altissima, Celtis occidentalis, Prunus serotina and Acer negundo. One Ecosystem 8: e108683. https://doi.org/10.3897/oneeco.8.e108683
Hundreds of weeds have been found advertised on a public online marketplace in Australia. Cacti and pond plants were among the most frequently advertised illegal weed species. These weeds are prohibited in Australia due to their harmful impact on the country’s environment and agriculture. Despite this, a research team led by Jacob Maher discovered thousands of online advertisements for these weeds. Their study is published in the open access journal NeoBiota.
Trade of ornamental plants, the kind grown in homes and gardens, is the major way weeds are introduced to new places. Some ornamental plants can make their way into the environment and become invasive, negatively impacting native species and agriculture. Increasingly, plants are traded on the internet, allowing a wide variety of plants to be introduced to more distant places. A lack of surveillance and regulation of this trade has resulted in the wide trade of invasive species.
In response, scientists from the University of Adelaide have utilised specialised software called ‘web scrapers’ to monitor trade on public classifieds websites. These web scrapers automate the collection of online advertisements. This allowed the researchers to detect thousands of advertisements for weeds over a 12-month period.
Despite Australia’s laws banning the trade of harmful weeds, advertisements were observed across the country. Some of the weeds advertised were associated with uses by traders, including food and medicine. The most popular uses were associated with pond and aquarium plants such as filtering water and providing fish habitat.
The researchers recommend that governments adopt web scraping technology to assist in regulating online trade of plants. They also highlight increasing public awareness and seeking cooperation from online marketplaces as solutions to this growing problem.
“Currently, these online marketplaces allow people to advertise and purchase invasive species, whether they are aware of it or not,” says Maher. “Regulation is needed, but we also need to cultivate awareness of amongst plant growers of this issues and we need help from marketplaces to regulate trade on their end.”
The technology developed in this study is now being utilised by biosecurity agencies in Australia to monitor and regulate the illegal trade of plants and animals online.
Deep in the tropical Andes are hiding plants that were discovered and then forgotten; plants that we knew almost nothing about. Now, thanks to the combined efforts of botanists from Germany, Ecuador, Peru and Costa Rica and amateur plant enthusiasts, these plants have been rediscovered, some of them after more than 100 years. The findings were described in the open-access journal PhytoKeys.
The plants belong to Nasa, a genus from the Blazing Star family (Loasaceae) that has long caused headaches to scientists as its delicate but painfully urticant leaves make it difficult to collect. Most of them are rare, highly endemic, and only around for short periods, which makes them even more unlikely to end up in a herbarium collection.
Luckily, today’s scientists don’t have to rely on herbaria as their sole source of material and clues. Thanks to the advent of global networking and the increasing use of free data repositories, there is a lot more biodiversity data now that is available to use and easily accessible, for example as geo-referenced occurrence records and photos. Citizen science platform iNaturalist, where users can, among others, post photographic occurrence records, has turned into a valuable tool for biodiversity scientists, and plays a significant role in the rediscovery of these Andean plants.
One notable species, Nasa colanii, had only been recorded once, in 1978, until the research team came upon a photograph from 2019. This scarcity in records might have to do with the fact that the plant grows in a highly inaccessible region: in a cloud forest in the buffer zone of Peru’s Cordillera de Colán National Sanctuary, at an elevation of 2605 m.
Another species hadn’t been reported for approximately 130 years when iNaturalist users confirmed its existence in 2022 by uploading photographs. Nasa ferox had been known for centuries, but it didn’t get its scientific description until 2000. “Given the location of the park close to the [Ecuadorian] city of Cuenca, and the fact that the important road 582 goes through the park makes it particularly surprising that the species has not been reported in such a long time, even more so if we consider the numerous botanical expeditions that have been carried out in the general region,” the researchers write in their paper. In fact, only a small population of about ten fertile plants of N. ferox has been found, with the plants always growing in sheltered places such as in rock crevices or at the base of shrubs.
Remarkably, the typical form of Nasa humboldtiana called Nasa humboldtiana subspecies humboldtiana was rediscovered after 162 years, when the research team found a specimen in a conserved remnant of montane Andean forest in the province of Chimborazo, Ecuador.
But probably the most exciting discoveries happened when the team found species that have been considered extinct in the wild. Two species of Nasa, namely N. hastata and N. solaria, were believed to share this fate, both from the Peruvian Department of Lima, a comparably well sampled area, given the proximity to the national capital. Until very recently, both species “remained unknown (or almost so) in the wild.” Earlier attempts to recollect these species near their type localities where they have been found some 100 years ago failed and it needed the help of iNaturalist to reveal that they are still present in the area.
Nasa hastata was recently rediscovered, after, for the first time, photos of living plants showed up taken by the sister of one of the authors. Only a handful of plants have since been reported from two sites, some 7 km apart. Similarly, a few dozens of plants have been found so far from N. solaria occurring in four small relict populations in remnants of forest that once covered larger areas in this region.
Observations uploaded to iNaturalist also revealed important information on another species, Nasa ramirezii,providing the first photographs of living plants from Ecuador and the first data on its exact location.
“All these discoveries serve as a reminder that even well-studied regions harbor diversity that can so easily remain overlooked and unexplored, and point to the role of botanists in documenting biodiversity which is an essential prerequisite for any conservation effort.” leading author Tilo Henning from the Leibniz Center for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) says.
“Hopefully, as more scientists and members of the public contribute to the database, and more professionals get involved in the curation, more undescribed or ‘long lost’ taxa will be found. Our examples of the rediscovery of Nasa ferox after 130 years and Nasa hastata after 100 years, both ‘found’ on iNaturalist underscore this point,” the researchers say in their study.
Henning T, Acuña-Castillo R, Cornejo X, Gonzáles P, Segovia E, Wong Sato AA, Weigend M (2023) When the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence: Nasa (Loasaceae) rediscoveries from Peru and Ecuador, and the contribution of community science networks. PhytoKeys 229: 1-19. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.229.100082
Plant species become exotic after being accidentally or deliberately transported by humans to a new region outside their native range, where they establish self-perpetuating populations that quickly reproduce and spread. This is a complex process mediated by many factors, such as plant traits and genetics, which challenges the creation of general guidelines to predict or manage plant invasions. Scientists from Spanish and Australian institutions have now defined a new framework to find the predictors of invasiveness, investigating species that have succeeded or failed to establish abroad after following similar historical introduction routes.
“While current policies exert strong control on the import and export of living organisms, including pests, across countries, until only a few decades ago, very little attention was paid to this issue. This means that many species were translocated to new regions without any consideration of their potential impacts,” says Dr Javier Galán Díaz.
An example of this is the massive plant exchange among Mediterranean‐type regions as a consequence of European colonialism: crops and cattle were exported, along with tools and materials, potentially bringing along the seeds of many plant species.
“So far, most studies on plant invasions have tried to explain the success of exotic species by comparing their traits with those of the native plant communities where they arrive, or by comparing the traits of plant species that have achieved different levels of invasion in the same region. But, if we take into account that the most common plant species from European agricultural landscapes have been in contact with humans and have therefore had the potential to be inadvertently transported to other Mediterranean regions, then only those that have successfully invaded other regions have something different in them that allowed them to establish and spread abroad,” Dr Galán Díaz explains.
Following this approach, the scientists found that, when comparing plant species transported from the Mediterranean Basin to other Mediterranean-climate regions (California, Central Chile, the Cape Region of South Africa and Southwestern and South Australia) in the search of predictors of invasiveness, only those species with large distribution ranges that occupy climatically diverse habitats in their native region became exotic. Also, species with many dispersal vectors (for instance those that have seeds dispersed by animals, water or wind), long bloom periods and acquisitive above- and belowground strategies of resource use are most likely to become exotic. Most of this plant information is readily available or easy to obtain from free and open-access repositories.
“Determining the factors that pre-adapt plant species to successfully establish and spread outside of their native ranges constitutes a powerful approach with great potential for management,” the researchers write in their paper. “This framework has the potential to improve prediction models and management practices to prevent the harmful impacts from species in invaded communities.”
“Using the existing information, we can identify the key species to monitor. This is especially encouraging in the era of Big Data, where observations from citizen science applications add to those of scientists, increasing the potential of screening systems,” Dr Galán Díaz says in conclusion.
One of the most beautiful vanilla orchid species in the Neotropical region grows in one of the most hostile environments in the Brazilian Cerrado, the Brazilian Campos Rupestres of the Espinhaço Range. “The Espinhaço refuges evolved between the Atlantic Forest and Amazonia Biomes as a consequence of extreme environmental conditions and climatic fluctuations during the Tertiary and Quaternary periods,” explains Emerson Ricardo Pansarin, one of the researchers behind the discovery of a new vanilla orchid.
Brazilian Campos Rupestres have many endemic species, and a new study published in the journal PhytoKeys has just added one more.
What makes Vanilla rupicola remarkable is the fact that it grows on rock outcrops. “In this locality, Vanilla rupicola shows a reptant habit on rock outcrops and rooting in rock clefts. The elevation is from 800 to 1300 m a.s.l.,” the researchers write in their paper. Its flowers produce a sweet fragrance that can be noticed during the hottest hours of the day.
“For years we traveled through the mountains of the Espinhaço Range until we found the flowering population,” says Emerson Ricardo Pansarin.
“Vanilla rupicola emerges in an essentially Amazonian clade. It seems plausible that the ancestor of this new taxon derived from an Amazonian taxon adapted to the environmental conditions of the Espinhaço Range and evolved in this particular environment,” he adds.
Vanilla rupicola is a rare species currently known to grow in a mountain-chain of Diamantina, in the ERMG Espinhaço Range, and the researchers tentatively classify it as Endangered.
Pansarin ER, Menezes ELF (2023) A new remarkable Vanilla Mill. (Orchidaceae) species endemic to the Espinhaço Range, Brazil: its phylogenetic position and evolutionary relationships among Neotropical congeners. PhytoKeys 227: 151-165. https://doi.org/10.3897/phytokeys.227.101963
I am a retired government bureaucrat who worked for 40 years as an administrator in state and federal taxation. I have absolutely no formal training in botany, but now I find myself as an active participant in a major taxonomic revision and a coauthor in the publication of 18 new species in a plant family called Costaceae. This is the story of how my gardening hobby turned into an avocation and led me to work with some of the premier botanists in the world. It is also the story of how I have met several other plant enthusiasts from countries throughout the tropics who have contributed so very much to our work. I write this story in the hopes of encouraging more professional scientists to incorporate the observations of such “citizen scientists” in their research, and to encourage these enthusiasts to more carefully document their observations and post their photos and notes to resources like Inaturalist.org.
My story started about 30 years ago when my wife gave me a rhizome of the white butterfly ginger (Hedychium coronarium) as a Christmas present. I became interested in gingers, species of the family Zingiberaceae, but soon my interests began to focus almost exclusively on the closely related “spiral gingers” in the family Costaceae. I loved the architecture of the plants with their spiral staircase of leaves leading up to a variety of shapes and colors of bracts and flowers. I started collecting any cultivated Costus plants I could find in nurseries or mail-order catalogues. Soon, I learned that only a few species can survive outdoors in the winter where I live, so built a greenhouse.
My serious interest in Costaceae began after I obtained a copy of the 1972 monograph of New World Costaceae by Dr. Paul Maas. It became my bible.
As I studied his descriptions of the species and applied his identification keys to the cultivated plants, I soon realized that many of the popular Costus species in cultivation had been incorrectly identified. I started doing presentations to garden clubs and posting to online groups. I developed a website called “Gingers ‘R’ Us.”
My “real job” had me traveling to Washington, DC periodically and I always tried to carve out time to visit Mike Bordelon at the Smithsonian Greenhouses in Suitland, Maryland. On one of these trips, I met Dr. Chelsea Specht, who was working at the Smithsonian Institution as a postdoctoral fellow.
She had written what I believe is the first molecular study in Costaceae in 2001.This opened up a whole new world of interest for me as I tried to understand these new-to-me terms, like “clades” and “phylogenetic relationships”. In this paper she introduced the new generic divisions of the family that were solidified five years later in a more complete phylogenetic study . Chelsea very patiently answered my novice questions about phylogenetic trees and how they relate to the taxonomy of the plants.
In 2005 I made my first trip to the New World tropics looking for Costus in its native habitat. On the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica, I was incredibly lucky to meet Reinaldo Aguilar, the world-famous “para-taxonomist” who has studied the plants of the Osa for over 30 years. He is is self-taught like me and does not have a botanical degree, but has coauthored many scientific articles. He worked closely with the late Scott Mori of the New York Botanical Garden and was honored in a 2017 article in NYBG Science Talk.
That first trip to Costa Rica had me hooked. I fell in love with tropical forests and over the next few years made trips to several other Latin American countries as well as back to Costa Rica. Always, my focus was on Costus and the other members of its family.
Along the way, I met several “unsung heroes” in the plant world, like Marco Jiménez Villata, whom I met in the town of Zamora in southern Ecuador. Marco specializes in orchids, but he is also a generalist and knows a lot about the plants of southern Ecuador. He (now retired) was a school administrator and had traveled to many remote villages in the province and was always on the lookout for interesting plants. I have traveled with Marco and his son Marco Jiménez León several other times and we have become good friends.
In 2015 we went to the type locality of the species Costus zamoranus and took the first photographs of this species. At that trip, Marco showed me an area of high elevation near the Podocarpus National Park, where I found an unusual-looking Costus that we are now describing as Costus oreophilus. He also showed me unexplored places where I found another new species, Costus convexus. I made sure we credited him with his role in the discovery and documentation of those new species in our publication in PhytoKeys.
I have also traveled several times in Panama and Ecuador with another very well known, but non-doctorate plant enthusiast – Carla Black. Carla is the president of the Heliconia Society International, an organization uniting enthusiasts (scientists and non-scientists) in the order Zingiberales.
In 2015 we searched for the critically endangered Costus vinosus. We found a few plants growing deep in the forest of the Chagres National Park along an old Spanish trail used to transport gold to the Atlantic coast. There is still a mystery regarding the true form of the flower of C. vinosus, and I am in touch with another Inaturalist observer who has found it (not in flower) in the mountains northeast of Panama City. He will let me know when he finds it in flower!
In 2019 Carla and I visited the “Willie Mazu” site in Panama to photograph and study the new species Costus callosus, and in Santa Fé de Veraguas, we looked for a species proposed by Dr. Maas that is now described as Costus alleniopsis.
My serious collaboration with Dr. Maas began in 2017, when I was preparing for a trip to Oaxaca in southern Mexico. He asked me to be on the lookout for two species of Costus from that region that he had identified as new based solely on his examination of herbarium specimens, without any good data on the floral parts.
By that time, I was posting my Costus observations on Inaturalist.org and using that resource to look for interesting plants. I also used it to find plant people to contact for local information. For this Mexico trip I found a huge number of observations posted by Manuel Gutiérrez from Oaxaca City.
I found that he had extensive knowledge of the Chinantla region in the mountains east of Oaxaca City and had worked with the indigenous tribe there. Together, we explored the indigenous lands of Santa Cruz Tepetotutla.
We found many plants in flower of what Dr. Maas wanted to describe as Costus alticolus. We also found the species he planned to describe as Costus oaxacus, but I later found the same species in Guatemala, already described as Costus sepacuitensis.
Later I learned of the plans to prepare a complete revision to the taxonomy of the New World Costaceae. Together with Paul and Hiltje Maas, we spent several days at the Naturalis Herbarium in Leiden, comparing my photos against the hundreds of Costus herbarium specimens there. I had a long list of species that was curious about, and we were able to get through it and figure out what questions remained, even though we had not come up with all the answers.
It was soon apparent that there are major changes needed in the taxonomy and nomenclature of these plants, and that information from the field would be an essential supplement to the observations made from the herbarium specimens.
In 2016 I visited the type locality of Costus laevis in central Peru. I was surprised to find that the plants there are nothing at all like the Costus laevis of Central America, but match perfectly to the herbarium specimen that was deposited in Spain over 230 years ago. It was clear to me that the herbarium specimen designated as the type had been misinterpreted. I wrote an article explaining the problem – but I had no idea what the solution might be.
Dr. Maas agreed that there was a problem with that species that we eventually resolved. This resolution will be a part of the forthcoming revision of the New World Costaceae that is in preparation, nearing completion.
Another major problem involved the Costus guanaiensis complex. Paul and Hiltje, along with Chelsea, had visited the New York Botanical Garden Herbarium, where the holotype of that species is held, and realized that it had been misinterpreted due to the lack of a good flower description. What had been identified as Costus guanaiensis in the herbarium was actually a completely different species that Maas had planned to describe as a new species.
The entire C. guanaiensis complex needed name changes and redefinitions of species boundaries, ultimately resulting in the description of Costus gibbosus that is published in PhytoKeys. The resolution of the other members of that complex will be explained in the forthcoming revision. Over the next several years, Paul and I exchanged 1,626 emails (yes, I counted them – with the help of MS Outlook) pounding out the details of the changes needed in the taxonomy of New World Costaceae. In collaboration with him, I made many more field trips to resolve the remaining questions we had.
My extensive collaboration with Paul Maas has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my lifetime. He has taught me so much about the rules of nomenclature and the process of describing a new species. The one thing he could never teach me was his almost uncanny ability to look at a dried herbarium specimen and make a determination of the species. I suppose that only comes from experience as he has examined over 11,000 specimens of Costaceae that will become our list of exxicatae when the full revision is published.
I should not fail to mention my time working with Dr. Thiago André. In 2014 I flew to Rio de Janeiro and then Thi and I, along with his academic advisor and another student, went to the state of Espirito Santo to look for the endangered species Chamaecostus cuspidatus. Thi has been our expert in that genus and has helped with the review of the new species published in PhytoKeys, Chamaecostus manausensis. In 2014 he was still finishing his doctorate and was in process of preparing a molecular phylogeny and morphological study of the species complex of Chamaecostus subsessilis.
Thi and I have stayed in close contact, and he came to Florida one year to visit in my home and see the Costaceae in my private garden, Le Jardín Ombragé. He is now a professor at the Universidade de Brasília.
Finally, I should discuss my collaboration with Eugenio Valderrama and the other members of the Specht Lab at Cornell University. In 2018 I went to Cornell to visit Eugenio and we discussed the sampling to be used in the molecular phylogeny that will be a very important part of the full revision when it is published.
At Cornell, Eugenio produced a novel baiting schema for extracting specific genes from across all Costus species and in 2020 published a paper. With further sampling, another paper was published in 2022 to reveal interesting data on a whole package of pollination-related characters, and how they show evidence of convergent evolution. Eugenio’s phylogenies very well support the new species we are publishing in PhytoKeys, and the full molecular phylogeny will be included in our full revision when it is published.
Just this past December I went to Colombia to attend the Heliconia Society Conference at Quindío, and Eugenio and I each made presentations there about our work with Costaceae. Then we traveled together to investigate several other interesting species of Costaceae, including the new species Costus antioquiensis, and a strange yellow bracted form of Costus comosus found in the species-rich area of San Juan de Arama in Meta.
How did I know to look there? An observer, a citizen scientist, had posted his records and photos on Inaturalist.org. I have my account set to filter all Costaceae and send me a daily email with all the new postings of the family, and this plant will now be appearing as a sample in a molecular phylogeny and as an observed species in a monograph.
I hope this blog article will provide some background and insight into what I think must be an unusual collaboration between a citizen scientist and the much more qualified lead authors of our PhytoKeys article describing eighteen new species in Costaceae. It has certainly been a rewarding experience for me, and I hope other plant enthusiasts will be encouraged to share their observations on forums like Inaturalist.org, providing detailed and accurate information and photos. At least for the one plant family I have some expertise in, I will continue to monitor and curate those observations on Inaturalist.
André T, Specht CD, Salzman S, Palma-Silva C, Wendt T (2015) Evolution of species diversity in the genus Chamaecostus (Costaceae): Molecular phylogenetics and morphometric approaches. Phytotaxa 204(4): 265-276. https://doi.org/10.11646/phytotaxa.204.4.3
Maas, P. J. M. (1972). Costoideae (Zingiberaceae). Flora Neotropica 8, 1–139. doi: 10.1093/aob/mch177
Salzman S, Driscoll HE, Renner T, André T, Shen S, Specht CD (2015) Spiraling into history: A molecular phylogeny and investigation of biogeographic origins and floral evolution for the genus Costus. Systematic Botany 40(1): 104–115. https://doi.org/10.1600/036364415X686404
Skinner D (2008) Costus of the Golfo Dulce Region. Heliconia Society Bulletin 14(4):1-6
Skinner D and Jiménez M (2015) Costus zamoranus: An endemic species to Zamora-Chinchipe Province in Southeastern Ecuador. Heliconia Society Bulletin 21(3):4-9
Skinner D (2016) Following Ruiz. Heliconia Society Bulletin 22(4): 7–14.
Skinner D and Black C. (2016) Search for the Mysterious Lost Plant (Costus vinosus). Heliconia Society Bulletin 22(3):1-3
Skinner D (2019) A Tale of Two Costus (Costus sepacuitensis) and Costus cupreifolius) Heliconia Society Bulletin 25(1):1-3
Specht CD, Kress WJ, Stevenson DW, DeSalle R (2001) A molecular phylogeny of Costaceae (Zingiberales). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 21(3): 333–345. https://doi.org/10.1006/mpev.2001.1029
Valderrama E, Sass C, Pinilla-Vargas M, Skinner D, Maas PJM, Maas-van de Kamer H, Landis JB, Guan CJ, AlmeidaA., Specht CD (2020) Unraveling the spiraling radiation: A phylogenomic analysis of neotropical Costus L. Frontiers in Plant Science 11: 1195. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpls.2020.01195
Valderrama E, Landis JB, Skinner D, Maas PJM, Maas-van de Kamer H, Sass C, Pinilla-Vargas M, Guan CJ, Phillips R, Almeida A, Specht CD (2022) The genetic mechanisms underlying the convergent evolution of pollination syndromes in the Neotropical radiation of Costus L.Frontiers in Plant Science 13: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpls.2022.874322
Another year rolled by and we at Pensoft have a lot to celebrate! This year, we marked our 30th birthday, and what a ride it’s been! We thank all of you for sticking around and helping us put biodiversity science in the spotlight where it deserves to be.
The holiday season is always great fun, but for us, every biodiversity or conservation win is reason enough to celebrate. And we’ve had so many this year! We already showed you our top species for the first half of 2022. Here’s an update for the second half with the most exciting new species that we’ve published across our journals:
The elusive owl from a remote island
The Principe scops-owl (Otus bikegila) was discovered on the small island of Príncipe, just off Africa’s western coast. Its existence had been suspected since 1998, but locals said its presence on the island could be traced back to 1928.
The bird is endemic to the island of Príncipe. Furthermore, the research team behind its discovery noted that it can be found only in the remaining old-growth native forest on the island, in an area that largely remains uninhabited.
Otus is the generic name given to a group of small owls sharing a common history, commonly called scops-owls. They are found across Eurasia and Africa, and include such widespread species as the Eurasian scops-owl (Otus scops) and the African scops-owl (Otus senegalensis).
The species epithet “bikegila”, in turn, was chosen in homage of Ceciliano do Bom Jesus, nicknamed Bikegila – a former parrot harvester from Príncipe Island and now a park ranger on the island.The new species quickly became insanely popular, generating memes (a true sign of its popularity!). One website even described it as “a flying meme-generator that sounds like a newborn puppy.”
Nepenthes pudicais a carnivorous plant that grows prey-trapping contraptions underground, feeding off subterranean creatures such as worms, larvae and beetles.
It belongs to pitcher plants – a group of carnivorous plants with modified leaves (called pitfall traps or pitchers) that help them catch their prey.
Pitcher plants usually produce pitfall traps above ground at the surface of the soil or on trees. N. pudica is the first pitcher plant known to catch its prey underground.
At first, the researchers thought the deformed pitcher protruding from the soil that they saw had accidentally been buried. Only later, when they found additional pitcherless plants, did they consider the possibility that the pitchers might be buried in the soil.
Then, as one of the researchers was taking photos, he tore some moss off the base of a tree and found a handful of pitchers.
The unique plant, however, could already be under threat. As it only lives in one small area of Indonesia, scientists believe it should be classed as Critically Endangered.
In November 2021, biologist Alejandro Arteaga and his colleagues were traveling through the cloud forests of Ecuador looking for toads, when a local woman told them she had seen odd snakes slithering around a graveyard. Based on her description, the team suspected they might be ground snakes from the genus Atractus, which had never been scientifically recorded in that area of Ecuador.
Indeed, they were able to discover three new snake species living beneath graves and churches in remote towns in the Andes mountains.
The “small, cylindrical, and rather archaic-looking” snakes all belong to a group called ground snakes. In general, not a lot of people are familiar with ground snakes, as they usually remain hidden underground.
All three snakes were named in honor of institutions or people supporting the exploration and conservation of remote cloud forests in the tropics. Atractus zgap, pictured here, was named in honor of theZoological Society for the Conservation of Species and Populations (ZGAP), a program seeking to conserve unknown but highly endangered species and their natural habitats throughout the world.
However, the majority of the native habitat of these new snakes has already been destroyed. As a result of the retreating forest line, the ground snakes find themselves in the need to take refuge in spaces used by humans (both dead and alive), where they usually end up being killed on sight.
Unlike some other participants in this list, this one took a while before it was confirmed as a new species: “We did not discover that it was a new species overnight,” says Oscar Lasso-Alcalá, one of the people behind its discovery.
A. mikoljii is a new species for science, but it is not a “new species” for people who already knew it locally under the name of Pavona, Vieja, or Cupaneca in Venezuela or Pavo Real, Carabazú, Mojarra and Mojarra Negra in Colombia. Nor for the aquarium trade, where it is highly appreciated and has been known by the common name of Oscar.
Moreover, the species has been of great food importance for thousands of years for at least nine indigenous ethnic groups, and for more than 500 years to the hundreds of human communities of locals who inhabit the Orinoco River basin in Venezuela and Colombia. In the plains of Orinoco, it is considered a delicacy “due to its pleasant taste and enhanced texture”.
Oscar Lasso-Alcalá has a special relationship with this fish. “It is more than just a fish in an aquarium since it is considered a true pet,” he says.
Recently, Javier Lobon-Rovira, one of the people behind the discovery of this new gecko, told us what it was like to find this exciting new species: “That night we were tired, so we decided to have a short walk around the camp. And… there it was…! Like a ghost, this small, cryptic, and elusive gecko started showing up in every big rock boulder.”
Kolekanos spinicaudusis part of Kolekanos, a unique and iconic gecko genus that is only known from southwestern Angola.
Until this discovery, Kolekanos only had one species in the genus, known only from ~200km south of the new discovery, but that species had feathers on its tail, not spines like K. spinicaudus. Immediately, the researchers knew they were dealing with a Kolekanos… but they were astonished to see the spines.
The scientific name “spinicaudus” refers to the unique appearance of the tail of this new species.
K. spinicaudus’s home in southern Angola remains poorly explored, even as it has been considered as an important source of diversification and endemism in West Africa.
“Insects in general are so diverse and so important, yet we don’t have scientific descriptions or names for so many of them,” says Dr Kit Prendergast, from the Curtin School of Molecular and Life Sciences.
The new bee species she discovered, Leioproctus zephyris excellent proof that we still have a lot to learn about bee biodiversity.
The story behind L. zephyr’s name is quite interesting – it was named after Zephyr the Maremma dog, Dr Prendergast’s fellow companion. The researcher says Zephyr played an important role in providing emotional support during her PhD. The name also references the dog-like “snout” in the bee’s anatomy that she found rather unusual.
The bee species was in fact first collected in 1979, but it had to wait until 2022 to be officially described.
However, Dr Prendergast says its future remains uncertain, as it is highly specialised, and has a very restricted, fragmented distribution.
“The Leioproctus zephyr has a highly restricted distribution, only occurring in seven locations across the southwest WA to date, and have not been collected from their original location. They were entirely absent from residential gardens and only present at five urban bushland remnants that I surveyed, where they foraged on two plant species of Jacksonia.”
Honorable mention: Two scorpion species described by high-school citizen scientists
In 2019, California teenagers Harper Forbes and Prakrit Jain were looking at entries on the naturalist social network iNaturalist, when they noticed a mysterious scorpion that a citizen scientist had encountered near a lake in theMojave Desert. The species had remained unidentified since it was uploaded six years earlier.
The entry that they were looking at was a yet undescribed scorpion species whose name they would add to the fauna of California. Shortly after, they found another entry on iNaturalist that also appeared to be an unknown scorpion species.
The new species, Paruroctonus soda and Paruroctonus conclusus, are playa scorpions, meaning they can only be found around dry lake beds, or playas, from the deserts of Central and Southern California.
“These kids can find anything,” Dr Esposito told The Guardian. “You set them out in a landscape and they’re like: ‘Here’s every species of snake, here’s every scorpion, every butterfly,’ and it’s kind of incredible.”
Forbes and Jain were still in high school when they made their groundbreaking discoveries. Now they are in college: Forbes at the University of Arizona studying evolutionary biology and Jain at the University of California, Berkeley, for integrative biology.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Although they have not been around for long, microplastics have found their way to almost every ecosystem on the planet. They have been discovered in the soil, in rivers, in our food and bottled water, and even in the human body. Recently, a team of researchers found, for the first time, microplastics in water trapped in plant leaf axils.
Katarína Fogašová, Peter Manko, and Jozef Obona of the University of Prešov, Slovakia, initially set out to Eastern Slovakia to study the organisms living in the little water puddles forming in teasel leaf axils.
Teasels of the genus Dipsacus have characteristic opposite leaves that grow on the stem above each other in several levels. As they clasp the stem, they form cup-like structures that collect water, known as telmata.
“Teasel phytotelmata are a relatively common but overlooked aquatic microcosm with a very short-term occurrence of only 3 to 4 months.“
To their surprise, they found differently coloured fragments and fibers, some reaching 2.4 mm in length, which were identified as microplastics.
“These phytotelmata are very small and have a short lifespan,” the researchers write in their paper, which was published in the journal BioRisk. “The question is, therefore, how were they polluted with microplastics?”
No other sources of contaminants were found in the studied area, so the fragments and fibers most likely came from polluted atmosphere, they suggest. Another theory is that snails may have transported them from the soil or from other plants, in or on their bodies.
“The first finding of microplastics in small short-term water reservoirs created by plants is further evidence that contamination of this kind spreads through various pathways and probably no environment on Earth is safe, which of course makes our discovery quite disheartening,” the researchers say.
“On the other hand, the results of our research of teasel phytotelmata, as a very unusual and highly specific natural environment, offer many possibilities for use in researching the spatio-temporal characteristics of the spread of microplastic pollution and its potential impact on the plants themselves, as well as organisms bound to them by ecological relations.”
They suggest that, due to their abundance and theoretical ability to capture microplastics in several ways from the environment, teasel phytotelmata could be a good indicator of microplastic presence.
“Our publication therefore not only brings the first discovery of microplastic pollution of habitats of this type, but also the first proposal of a new approach to the use of teasel phytotelmata and similar micro-ecosystems provided by plants (or artificially created), as bioindicators of the presence of microplastics in the environment, possible sources and pathways of their spread through the environment and spatio-temporal changes in microplastic contamination.”
Fogašová K, Manko P, Oboňa J (2022) The first evidence of microplastics in plant-formed fresh-water micro-ecosystems: Dipsacus teasel phytotelmata in Slovakia contaminated with MPs. BioRisk 18: 133-143. https://doi.org/10.3897/biorisk.18.87433
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.
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.
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.
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!