A scientist discovered a weird tree in the Amazon jungle in 1973 that was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. It was around 20 feet tall and had small orange fruits in the shape of paper lanterns.
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The scientist took samples of the plant’s leaves and fruits, but all of the experts he showed them to were baffled: not only were they unable to identify the plant as a previously documented species, but they couldn’t even proclaim it a new species since they couldn’t tell which family it belonged to. Scientists examined the plant’s DNA and identified where it fits in the tree family tree in recent research published in the journal Taxon, eventually giving it the moniker “Mystery of Manu,” after the Peruvian park where it was discovered.
“It was the fruit – looking like an orange-colored Chinese lantern and juicy when ripe with several seeds – that caught my attention when I first saw this little tree, while out on a forest trail leading from the field station,” says Robin Foster, the scientist who first collected the mystery plant in Peru’s Manu National Park, a retired curator at Chicago’s Field Museum and now a researcher with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
“I didn’t think it was very noteworthy, except for the fact that it exhibited features of plants from a variety of plant families and didn’t fit cleanly into any of them.” Usually, I can tell the family just by looking at them, but I’ll be darned if I can locate this one.”
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Foster wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what was going on. More than 30 years ago, Nancy Hensold, a botanist at the Field Museum, recalls his presenting a dried specimen of the plant. “When I first started working at the Field Museum in 1990, Robin introduced me to this plant. And I tried everything I could think of to identify it, including boiling the ovaries of the flowers and photographing the pollen, but we still didn’t know,” she remembers. “It bothered me a lot.”
The mysterious plant languished in the Field Museum’s herbarium for years, but Hensold and her colleagues didn’t forget about it. “When you have a plant that no one can place in a family, it might slip through the cracks in science. But, she says, “I felt for it.” The team ultimately received a grant from the Field Museum’s Women’s Board to research the plant, and the hunt began.
When that failed, they recruited the aid of Patricia lvarez-Loayza, a biologist who works in the Manu National Park and has spent years studying the forest there to discover a new example of the plant. She did, and the experts at the Field’s Pritzker DNA Laboratory were astounded by what they found when they studied it.
“I informed my colleague Rick Ree that the material must have been tainted when he sequenced it and told me what family it belonged to. Hensold remembers, “I was like, no way, I simply couldn’t believe it.”
The nearest relatives of the mystery plant were in the Picramniaceae family, according to DNA research, which was a massive issue to botanists because it didn’t look anything like its closest relatives, at least at first inspection. “When I looked carefully at the structure of the small little flowers, I realized, yeah, there are some parallels,” Hensold adds, “but given its general characteristics, nobody would have put it in that family.”
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Wayt Thomas, a curator emeritus at The New York Botanical Garden and a Picramniaceae specialist, received specimens from the researchers. “When I initially opened the package and saw the specimens, I said to myself, ‘What the heck?’ “These plants didn’t resemble anything else in the family,” says Thomas, the paper’s main author. “So I decided to take a closer look-once I focused on the small, 2-3 millimeter length blooms, everything came into place.”
The researchers gave the plant a proper scientific name, Aenigmanu alvareziae when the DNA revealed which family it belonged to. The genus name, Aenigmanu, means “mystery of Manu,” The species name, Patricia lvarez-Loayza, is named after Patricia lvarez-Loayza, who gathered the first specimens for genetic research. (It’s worth mentioning that, while scientists are unfamiliar with Aenigmanu alvareziae, the Indigenous Machiguenga have long utilized it.)
The researchers believe that finally, giving Aenigmanu alvareziae a scientific categorization will help safeguard the Amazon rainforest from deforestation and climate change.
“Plants, in general, are understudied. Plants from tropical forests, in particular. Plants from the Amazon, in particular. And, in particular, flora in the Amazon’s higher reaches. Plants are the foundation for everything that lives there and the most important to study,” says Foster. “To understand the changes taking place in the tropics, to protect what remains, and to restore areas that have been wiped out, plants are the foundation for everything that lives there and the most important to study.” “The easiest approach to arrange information about them and draw attention to them is to give them distinctive names. A single uncommon species may not be relevant to an ecosystem on its own, but together they tell us what is going on.”
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