A New Species of Parasite Discovered in Japan

A new species of parasitic plant has been discovered on the Japanese island of Yakushima. A small population was found by Suetsugu Kenji during a survey of the lowland laurel forests that cover much of the island. Despite being an authority on parasitic plants of this region, Professor Suetsugu did not recognize these plants. As such, a specimen was collected for a closer look.

An in depth examination revealed that this was indeed a new species. It has been named Sciaphila yakushimensi in honor of the island on which it was discovered. It belongs to a family of plants called Triuridaceae. They are closely related to the family Alismataceae and many members of this family have foregone photosynthesis for a parasitic lifestyle.

S. yakushimensi is what we call a mycoheterotroph. It parasitizes mycorrhizal fungi, taking the nutrients it needs and giving nothing in return. The fungi themselves are getting their nutrient needs from the trees that grow in the forest. As such, S. yakushimensi could not exist without an intact forest to support its fungal host.

This is the troubling part. Only two populations of S. yakushimensi have been discovered. Its parasitic lifestyle makes it difficult to get an accurate estimation of its numbers. These plants live most of their lives underground, only appearing when it is time to flower. Because of this, researchers are already suggesting that this species be considered endangered.

Sadly, its native forest is under constant threat of logging. Much of this region remains unprotected. Since mycoheterotrophs like S. yakushimensi rely on an intact forest capable of supporting its host fungi, any disturbance that threatens the forest can spell disaster for these parasites. Far from being a detriment to the forests in which they live, parasitic plants like S. yakushimensi can serve as a very important reminder of how crucial it is to preserve entire ecosystems rather than single species.

Photo Credit: Yamashita Hiroaki

Further Reading:

https://www.tsumura.co.jp/english/kampo/plant/090/090_01.html

New Plant Species Discovered on Facebook

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There are many downsides to the amount of time some of us spend on the internet but there is no denying that there are some incredible benefits as well. Never before in human history has information been so readily available to so many people. Without Facebook, In Defense of Plants would not have anywhere near the platform from which I can interact with all of you wonderful plant folk. In what may be one of the coolest uses of social media to date, a new species of carnivorous plant has been discovered using Facebook! 

While exploring a mountain top in Brazil, amateur researcher  Reginaldo Vasconcelos snapped a few shots of a large sundew. Upon returning home, the pictures were uploaded to Facebook for the world to see. It didn't take long for scientists to notice that the plant in the picture was something quite special. 

Indeed, what Vasconcelos had photographed was a species of Drosera completely new to science! This is the first time that a new species has been discovered using social media. Experts have now published the first scientific description of this species. It has been named Drosera magnifica - the magnificent sundew. 

And magnificent it is! According to the authors of the paper, "It is the largest sundew in the Americas, and the second-largest carnivorous plant in the Americas. In this respect it is also a spectacular plant.” The plant was discovered in Minas Gerais, Brazil. Oddly enough, the mountain on which it was found is readily accessible. How this species went undiscovered for so long is quite a mystery. It just goes to show you how little we know about the world we live in. 

That sad part about this discovery is that the mountain it is endemic to is surrounded by cattle ranches as well as coffee and eucalyptus plantations. The future of this brand new species is by no means certain. Researchers have already elevated its status to critically endangered. Unless other populations are found, this species may disappear not long after its discovery. 

Photo Credit: Paulo Gonella

Further Reading:

http://www.mapress.com/phytotaxa/content/2015/f/p00220p267f.pdf