Washington: Scientists at The New York Botanical Garden have discovered and described 81 new species of plants and fungi in the course of one year.
The palms that Vietnamese villagers weave into hats, many varieties of lichens that depend on the pristine environment of the Great Smoky Mountains, and small, shrub-like trees that are threatened by development and deforestation in Brazil were among the scores of plant and fungus species that Botanical Garden scientists named in 2011 as part of their effort to catalog all plant life on Earth.
They also established four new genera and two new orders of plants and fungi. Genera and orders are groupings of related species.
Working in the field, laboratory, and research collections around the world, Garden scientists found or cataloged new species in a wide variety of familiar plant groups, including South American blueberry relatives and bromeliads; Southeast Asian mushrooms; a Mexican oak; and a Colombian cycad, one of a family of plants often referred to as “living fossils.”
All of the new species, genera, and orders were either published by Garden scientists in scientific journals or books in 2011 or had been accepted for publication by the end of the year. In many cases, Garden scientists collaborated with researchers at other institutions.
The discoveries highlight developments that are shaping botanists’ research in the 21st century not only in the field and in plant collections but also increasingly in the laboratory. In addition, they call attention to the environmental risks that many plant species face.
One of the most intriguing examples of these developments involves the species of palms that are used to make the distinctively wide, conical hats that many Vietnamese wear.
Because of decades of war and isolation, scientists were unable to conduct significant field research in Vietnam for most of the second half of the 20th century. It was not until 2008 that Garden scientist Andrew Henderson, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading palm experts, and his Vietnamese colleagues published a scientific description of the main palm species used in the hats. Based on its physical similarity to species in the genus Licuala, they assigned it to that genus, naming the species Licuala centralis.
However, analysis of DNA samples that Henderson collected during his field research revealed that the plant’s genetic material was not similar to that of other Licuala species. In fact, it and several related species constituted a new genus. Henderson and his collaborator, Christine Bacon of Colorado State University, named the genus Lanonia, from the Vietnamese words for the plants—la non, or “hat palm.”
As a result of their work, Licuala centralis has been renamed Lanonia centralis, illustrating the way in which laboratory research has become a critical complement to work in the field and in plant collections.
In addition to establishing Lanonia as a new genus, last year Dr. Henderson named 19 new species of palms based on extensive research in the Garden’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium and other herbaria in the United States, Central and South America, and Europe.
Twelve of the new species are in the genus Geonoma, whose members are small- to medium-sized plants generally found in the understories of tropical forests in Central and South America. In the course of his research, Dr. Henderson examined nearly 5,000 Geonoma herbarium specimens. He scored each specimen on a series of nearly four dozen physical characteristics to discover similarities and differences among them. That allowed him to identify the new species.
Garden botanists did not have to travel to distant countries to make significant discoveries in the last year. Of the 21 new species of lichens described by James Lendemer, Ph.D., he and his colleagues found 15 of them in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, the most visited national park in the United States. That fact demonstrates that even in an area visited by eight to 10 million people a year, much biodiversity remains to be discovered.
In fact, in the course of five field trips to the Smokies, Lendemer and his colleagues, including Garden curator Richard Harris, discovered that the Smokies were home to many more lichen species than had previously been known, increasing the number of recorded species there by 60 percent.
“Lichens are critical components of terrestrial ecosystems. They’re important in nutrient cycling. Animals and insects eat them and use them for shelter,” said Dr. Lendemer.
Among other new species discovered by Garden scientists in 2011, Benjamin Torke, Ph.D., and collaborators described five new species of Swartzia—a genus of tropical trees—found only in eastern Brazil.
First Published: Wednesday, June 06, 2012, 16:56