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Seven new tropical forest ferns found hiding in plain sight

Seven new fern species from the rainforests of tropical America have been described by researchers at the University of Turku. The species – six of the genus Danaea and one of the genus Dennstaedtia – were uncovered during ecological research.

“The described species are no tiny or unnoticeable creatures. They range from 20cm to 2m tall, and some of them are very common locally,” explained study lead author Janina Keskiniva.

Species diversity in tropical rainforests is still relatively unknown. Every field trip to a new area can lead to the discovery of unknown species. Understanding how to identify these different species is key for ecological research. 

“Information is also needed for setting conservation priorities, the survival of species depends on the conservation of their natural habitats. To prevent biodiversity loss, it is important to protect areas that have special habitats and unique species,” said study co-author Hanna Tuomisto.

During field research, plant specimens are collected and stored for study. Researchers often assume that the specimens belong to an already known species. A thorough assessment of collected specimens allows researchers to identify new species hiding in plain sight.

“Most of the specimens we used to describe the new Danaea species were collected decades ago, some already in the 1800’s. For all these years, the specimens have been curated in different herbaria. Now we could combine all that accumulated information from the herbaria with fresh insights from field studies made by us and our colleagues,” said Keskiniva.

In fact, the fern specimen that triggered describing the new Dennstaedtia species was collected 15 years ago by Gabriela Zuquim, a researcher at the University of Turku. 

“The place where I collected this species has very different soils than most central Amazonian forests, so I am sure many more discoveries can be made there,” noted Zuquim. 

“Our long-term goal has been to understand more about the biodiversity of Amazonian rainforests. We are especially interested in what factors determine which species grow where and why, and what are the drivers behind the evolution of new species. In the beginning, I was not interested in describing new species, but I soon realised that it is impossible to communicate about ecology and evolution if the species we are studying have no names,” said Tuomisto.

Different soil conditions have a big impact on how species establish and evolve. The area in which the Dennstaedtia species was found is full of largely intact forests with very few people in the area. As a result, this particular species is doing well. However, not all of the newly described species are as lucky. One is already threatened by extinction due to deforestation.

Amazonia is the world’s largest tropical forest area, containing unique biodiversity. It also stores enormous amounts of carbon and regulates both rainfall patterns and global temperature. Conserving Amazonian biodiversity is critically important for the well-being of our planet.

The official scientific descriptions of the Danaea species have been published in the journal Kew Bulletin. The official scientific description of the Dennstaedtia species has been published in the journal Acta Amazonica.

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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