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New plant species discovered in Japan may already be extinct

Scientists at Kobe University have found a new species of plant that has most likely already gone extinct. The single non-photosynthetic plant specimen was discovered in 1992 and preserved in a Japanese natural history museum with no known identity.

When they made the discovery, the researchers were carrying out surveys to classify the taxonomy and ecology of non-photosynthetic plants called mycoheterotrophs.

Instead of photosynthesizing, mycoheterotrophic plants are parasitic and draw nutrients from fungi and tree roots. Many of these species make only a brief appearance above ground during fruiting and flowering periods, which makes them very hard to locate and identify.

As part of the study, lead author Professor Kenji Suetsugu and his team re-examined a plant preserved in the Museum of Nature and Human Activities. The specimen was originally found in 1992 in the Nishi district of Kobe by independent botanists Mr. Osamu Nakanishi and Mr. Tomiki Kobayashi.

When it was first discovered, the plant was identified as belonging to the family Burmanniaceae due to its non-photosynthesizing properties and the unusual shape of its flowers. The specimen was thought to be closely related to the Oxygyne hyodoi species.

In the current study, however, a more detailed analysis of the plant’s characteristics showed that it was not a member of Oxygene but Thismia, mostly because of the position and shape of the anthers.

The team dissected the flower and closely examined the shape of the petals and stamen, and determined that the specimen had features not found in any other species of Thismia. The experts named it Thismia kobensis after its place of discovery, and described it as a new species.

Thismia kobensis was discovered in 1992 as a single specimen, with no further samples of the same species found by the time its known habitat was destroyed in 1999. It was reported as extinct by Hyogo prefecture in 2010, but this is yet to be determined.

“Because it has now been recognized as a new species, we are hopeful that living specimens of T. kobensis can be discovered in other places,” said Professor Suetsugu.

The study is published in the journal Phytotaxa.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Kobe University

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