In the tropical depths of the Andean region, a secretive community of plants which has been lost to science for over a century has been rediscovered.
This remarkable discovery is credited to an international collaboration between botanists from Germany, Ecuador, Peru, 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 (Loasaceae). These flora have long posed challenges to the scientific community due to their delicate yet stinging leaves, which make them challenging to collect.
Furthermore, their fleeting seasonal appearances, coupled with their highly endemic nature, have largely kept them out of herbarium collections.
However, modern scientists are no longer solely dependent on traditional collections for plant specimens and knowledge.
The evolution of global networking and the widespread usage of free data repositories has led to a proliferation of easily accessible biodiversity data. This wealth of information includes geo-referenced occurrence records and photographic evidence.
A key resource in this new age of botanical discovery is the citizen science platform iNaturalist. This platform allows users to post photographic occurrence records, significantly aiding biodiversity scientists in the rediscovery of these tropical plants.
One such plant, Nasa colanii, was only recorded once prior to this study, in 1978. A breakthrough came in 2019 when the research team found a photograph of the plant.
Nasa colanii grows in the cloud forest in the buffer zone of Peru’s Cordillera de Colán National Sanctuary, a region located at an elevation of 2,605 meters, which likely explains its historical scarcity in botanical records.
An even more astonishing find was the rediscovery of a species, Nasa ferox, which had not been reported for an estimated 130 years until 2022. This reemergence came to light when iNaturalist users posted photographs confirming its existence.
Despite having been known for centuries, N. ferox only received its official scientific description in 2000. Experts were particularly surprised by its long absence given the park’s location near the city of Cuenca in Ecuador, and its proximity to the well-traveled road 582.
“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,” wrote the researchers.
Moreover, only a small population of about ten fertile plants of N. ferox has been found, which were nestled in sheltered locations like rock crevices or at the base of shrubs. This observation underscores the elusive nature of these tropical plants and the intricacies involved in their discovery and study.
A major victory in the botanical world came with the rediscovery of Nasa humboldtiana subspecies humboldtiana, a variant that had been missing for a staggering 162 years. The research team finally located a specimen in a preserved fragment of montane Andean forest in the province of Chimborazo, Ecuador.
But the biggest excitement stems from the discovery of species once believed to be extinct in the wild. Two Nasa species, N. hastata and N. solaria, both hailing from the Peruvian Department of Lima, were thought to be extinct.
Past attempts to recollect these tropical plants near their original localities, where they were found about a century ago, were unsuccessful. It was only through the assistance of iNaturalist that these species were rediscovered and confirmed to be present in their respective regions.
One such example is Nasa hastata, which was rediscovered when photos of living plants were posted on iNaturalist by the sister of one of the authors.
Further investigations revealed a handful of plants found at two sites, about seven kilometers apart. Similarly, a few dozen plants of N. solaria were found in four small populations in remnants of forest that once spanned larger areas in this region.
Moreover, information submitted to iNaturalist unearthed crucial details about another species, Nasa ramirezii, providing the first photographs of living plants from Ecuador and pinpointing their 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,” said Tilo Henning, the lead author from the Leibniz Center for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF).
The researchers further emphasized the potential of these collaborative efforts in their study, stating: “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.”
In conclusion, the collaborative efforts of international botanists and citizen scientists, aided by the power of digital platforms like iNaturalist, have breathed new life into the study of long-lost plants, revealing an unexplored realm of botanical diversity. This revolutionary approach underlines the significant potential of global networks and community science in biodiversity conservation.
Image: Flower of Nasa humboldtiana subspecies humboldtiana
Image Credit: X. Cornejo