In the tropical depths of the Andean region, a secret community of plants lost to science for more than a century has been rediscovered.
This remarkable discovery is an international collaboration between botanists from Germany, Ecuador, Peru and Costa Rica and a dedicated network of citizen scientists. The research is published in the journal Phytokeys.
The once-elusive tropical plants belong to the genus Nasa, part of the Blazing Star family (Losaceae). These plants have long posed challenges to the scientific community due to their delicate but prickly leaves, which make them challenging to collect.
Furthermore, their transient seasonal appearances combined with their highly endemic nature have kept them out of herbarium collections.
However, modern scientists do not rely solely on traditional collections for plant specimens and knowledge.
The evolution of global networking and widespread use of free data repositories has led to the proliferation of easily accessible biodiversity data. This wealth of information includes geo-referenced event records and photographic evidence.
A key resource in this new era of botanical discovery is the Citizen Science Platform. iNaturalist. This platform allows users to post records of photographic events, significantly assisting biodiversity scientists in the reconstruction of these tropical plants.
The plant, a NASA colony, had only been recorded once before this study, in 1978. A breakthrough came in 2019 when the research team found a photo of the plant.
The NASA colony grows in cloud forest in the buffer zone of Peru’s Cordillera de Colón National Sanctuary at an elevation of 2,605 m, which explains its historical paucity in botanical records.
An even more surprising discovery is that until 2022, NASA rediscovered a species called Ferox that hadn’t been reported for nearly 130 years. The reconstruction was revealed when iNaturalist users posted photographs confirming its existence.
Although known for centuries, it was only in 2000 that N. Ferox has received its official scientific description. Experts were particularly surprised by the park’s location near the city of Cuenca, Ecuador, and its proximity to the well-traveled road 582.
“Given the park’s location near the (Ecuadorian) city of Cuenca, where the important road 582 passes through the park, it is surprising that this species has not been reported for so long, even more so considering the many botanical expeditions we have conducted in the public domain,” the researchers wrote.
Moreover, only about ten fertile plants of N. ferox were found in rock crevices or sheltered under shrubs. This observation underscores the elusive nature of these tropical plants and the complexities involved in their discovery and study.
A major victory in the botanical world is NASA’s rediscovery of the Humboldtiana subspecies Humboldtiana, a species that had disappeared for 162 years. The research team finally found a specimen in a protected part of the mountainous Andean forest in Ecuador’s Chimborazo province.
But the greatest excitement comes from the discovery of species believed to be extinct in the wild. N. from the Peruvian department of Lima. Hastata, n. Two NASA species, Solaria, are thought to be extinct.
Previous attempts to recall these tropical plants, discovered a century ago, near their original regions have been unsuccessful. It was only with the help of iNaturalist that these species were rediscovered and confirmed as present in their respective regions.
More exciting discoveries
One such example is the NASA hand that was rediscovered when photos of living plants were posted on iNaturalist by the sister of one of the authors.
Further investigation revealed a few plants found at two locations seven kilometers apart. Similarly, a few dozen plants of N. solaria were found in four small populations in forest remnants spread over large areas of the region.
In addition, data submitted to iNaturalist revealed crucial details about another species, Nasa Ramirezii, providing the first photographs of living plants from Ecuador and pinpointing their exact location.
“All these findings are a reminder that even well-studied areas contain diversity that can easily remain neglected and underexplored, and point to the role of botanists in documenting biodiversity, which is essential for any conservation effort,” said lead author Tilo Henning of the Leibniz Research Center for Agriculture (ZAL).
Implications of the study
The researchers further emphasize the potential of these collaborative efforts in their study: “As more scientists and the public contribute to the database and more professionals become involved in curation, it is expected that more undescribed or ‘long-lost’ taxa will be discovered. Examples of the rediscovery of Ferox after 130 years by NASA and Hasta after 100 years, both ‘found’ on iNaturalist, underscore this point.
In conclusion, the collective efforts of international botanists and citizen scientists, aided by the power of digital platforms like iNaturalist, have given new life to the study of long-lost plants, revealing an unexplored area of botanical diversity. This revolutionary approach underscores the considerable potential of global networks and community science in biodiversity conservation.
Image: Nasa humboltiana flower of subspecies humboltiana
Image credit: X. Cornejo
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