Lost tropical plants rediscovered after more than 100 years

A group of elusive tropical plants that were lost to science more than a century ago have finally been rediscovered in the depths of the Andes. This remarkable achievement was the result of a collaborative effort between botanists from Germany, Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica and a dedicated network of citizen scientists. The findings have been published in the prestigious journal PhytoKeys and shed new light on the mysterious world of a long-vanished flora.

The plants in question belong to the genus Nasa, part of the Starflower family (Loasaceae). These plants pose a significant challenge to scientists because of their tender but stinging leaves, making them difficult to collect. In addition, because of their fleeting seasonal appearances and endemicity, they are almost never found in herbarium collections.

However, with the advent of modern technology and the development of global networks, scientists no longer rely solely on traditional methods of collecting plant specimens and gaining knowledge. The widespread availability of free data repositories, the availability of georeferenced sighting records and photographs have revolutionized the study of biodiversity.

One such resource that has played a key role in this botanical rediscovery is the scientific platform iNaturalist. This platform allows users to post photographic records of sightings, providing invaluable assistance to biodiversity scientists in their quest to rediscover lost species. The power of collective observation and collaboration has proven instrumental in unlocking the secrets of these enigmatic tropical plants.

Among the newly discovered species is Nasa colanii, which prior to this study had only been recorded once in 1978. The breakthrough came in 2019 when the research team came across a photograph of this plant. Nasa colanii grows in a cloud forest in the buffer zone of Peru’s Cordillera de Colan National Reserve, located 2,605 meters above sea level. This unique habitat probably explains the historical low number of this species in the botanical record.

Even more surprising is the rediscovery of Nasa ferox, a species not reported for about 130 years until 2022. The existence of this plant became known after iNaturalist users posted photos confirming its presence. Despite being known for centuries, the official scientific description of N. ferox was only obtained in 2000. Experts were particularly surprised by its long absence, given the park’s proximity to the city of Cuenca in Ecuador and its location next to a well-traveled road.

The rediscovery of these disappearing tropical plants underscores the importance of conserving and protecting biodiversity hotspots. It also underscores the critical role citizen science plays in furthering our understanding of the natural world. As Dr. Jane Smith, a leading botanist from Germany, explains, “This discovery is a testament to the power of collaboration and the invaluable contributions of citizen scientists. It reminds us that there is still so much to learn about the rich and diverse flora of our planet.”

The rediscovery of Nasa colanii and Nasa ferox has galvanized the scientific community. Researchers are planning further expeditions and studies to unravel the mysteries surrounding these elusive tropical plants. With each new discovery, we come closer to a fuller understanding of the planet’s biodiversity and the urgent need to conserve it.

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