October 17, 2011 | 2
The above plant is a sweet little creature, yet may not seem particularly noteworthy. But it did to a handyman named Jose Carlos Mendes Santos, who found it in the backyard of an amateur Russian botanist named Alex Popovkin in northeast Brazil, took the trouble to carefully uproot it, and shared it with his employer. He, in turn, planted it, placed it on a window sill, and shared photographs with botanists. After studying it at length, they determined it was a new species.
And it was a new species in, of all things, the strychnine family (Loganiaceae). Another genus in this family, Strychnos, contains many plants whose bark or seeds contain the poison strychnine, which has been a popular choice in many real and fictitious murders, in spite of the fact its bitter taste is obvious even at low concentrations. Spigelia, the genus of which this little plant proved a member, probably contains nothing of the sort.
The little plant (it’s only an inch high) does, however, have a distinguishing feature. It practices geocarpy. Once its flowers are pollinated and its fruit is ripening, they droop to the ground and deposit their payload, as you can see above. They may even gently bury the seeds in the mosses at the plant’s feet. Awwww. In case you don’t recognize this habit, it is the same one employed by a plant you probably know and love (especially if you are American): the peanut.
But why should you really care about this obscure little plant? I found out about this story through a press release, and though I don’t normally quote press releases as the “quotes” are often, well, a bit suspicious, this one is too genuine not to. It is attributed to a scientist at Rutgers — Lena Struwe — who helped identify the plant:
“It is very easy to think we have found and described most plant species of the world already, but this discovery shows that there are so much left out there without name and recognition … [it] shows that the most amazing living things can be found when you least expect it, during times and places when you really aren’t looking for something new, and suddenly it is right there in front of you. How many of us haven’t had the most brilliant ideas in the shower? The art of taxonomy is finding as well as being able to recognize something as new or different, which is hard when the world is home to millions of species and very few species experts.”
With taxonomists in obscure groups of organisms a vanishing species due to a lack of funding, don’t think you can’t make a worthy contribution to biology just because you’re not a scientist. My friend Nathan Pieplow of earbirding.com has never trained formally in biology (he studied foreign language and speaks several of them) but is a recognized expert in bird song. Another friend, Michael Kuo, teaches english by day but is a university-class mushroom expert by night who’s making a huge contribution to morel taxonomy by helping to sort out the North American species. And then there’s Kerry Knudsen, a retired construction worker, who, after growing bored with retirement, got interested in lichens and decided to volunteer in the University of California at Riverside herbarium. In five years, he described more than 25 new species of lichen and lichenicolous fungi and published more than 70 peer-reviewed papers. He has no academic degrees.
But even if you’re not willing to devote hours to biology in your spare time, remember this next time you’re out in nature or even just in your own back yard: this little flower, now appropriately named Spigelia genuflexa, was discovered by an observant handyman.
The species description was eventually published in the journal Phytokeys; You can read the paper here.
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