Scientists have discovered two species of carnivorous plants, previously unknown to science, that use slime to catch their prey.
Botanists spotted the new species in the Andes mountains of southern Ecuador, not far from the border with Peru.
The plant species – dubbed Pinguicula jimburensis And Pinguicula ombrophilarespectively – were described in an article published in the journal PhytoKeys.
They are part of the genus butterworts, a group of over 100 species of flowering plants, known technically as Pinguicula, which have the ability to catch insects with their slimy leaves. Most members of this genus are found in the northern hemisphere, unlike the two newer members.
The researchers first observed the new species during expeditions to many remote Ecuadorian habitats where little is known about the local flora.
One of the researchers who took part in the expeditions, Alvaro Pérez of the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador in Quito, Ecuador, is the author of the PhytoKeys paper.
Pérez and his companions collected what they thought was a plant with a limited range in certain remote locations.
Pinguicula jimburensis was found on the shore of an upland lagoon at an elevation of about 11,110 feet, while Pinguicula ombrophila was spotted on a nearly vertical rock face at an elevation of approximately 9,500 feet.
Afterwards, Pérez and his colleagues reviewed what they had found and contacted specialists with expertise in the plant groups of which they had limited knowledge.
Among those contacted by Pérez was Tilo Henning – another author of the study with the Leibniz Center for Agricultural Landscape Research in Müncheberg, Germany – who had worked on the genre he Pinguicula previously in northern Peru. Henning helped determine that two of the plants Pérez and his colleagues encountered represented new species.
“It’s always a special feeling when you’re certain that the plant that’s just been discovered is something unknown to science. Especially when you consider how little of the original pristine habitats are left and how point humanity has spread to even the most remote regions of this planet.” Henning said Newsweek.
“There are still many undescribed species in the tropics. Most of course of hyper-diverse groups of organisms such as insects or fungi, but even in flowering plants as in the present case. For me and for many of my colleagues I have worked with Over the years finding and describing new species is the ultimate reward for the exhausting field work we do and is often the exact reason we started a career in a difficult and underfunded field such as biological systematics and taxonomy.”
The two new species are very ornamental plants, as is the whole genus to which they belong, hence the reason why they are sometimes cultivated by amateurs.
Pinguicula the plants are small, usually measuring only a few inches in height and diameter. They grow either on the moist, peat-like soil of their high Andean habitats or, in some cases, on the surface of rock faces, as with P.ombrophila.
They feature a small rosette of a few leaves and produce “beautiful” bluish or purple flowers with an elongated spur that holds the nectar to attract pollinating insects.
The upper side of the leaves of Pinguicula Plants are covered in a sticky, dew-like slime that insects stick to when they land or walk on them.
“They catch small flying or walking insects that land on their leaves or walk on them,” Henning laments. “[The insects] sticking to the slime the leaves produce and while trying to escape, getting stuck in more and more slime glands until they are exhausted and die.
“The leaves can then partly curl up in their margins to [put] the surface in close contact with the body of the insect. In specialized glands, the plants then produce digestive enzymes to dissolve the nutrients in the insect’s body. These nutrients are then taken up by other glands on the surface of the leaves and used by the plants.”
Carnivorous plants are widely distributed around the world but are relatively rare. Being able to eat animals can provide a competitive advantage in certain circumstances, allowing them to thrive in harsh environments, such as the heights of the Andes.
Only one Pinguicula species-P.calyptrata– had been recorded in Ecuador before the last discovery. But the authors of PhytoKeys According to one study, there are likely more to be discovered that are currently unknown to science.
“It will eventually be said in the lab, I think,” Henning said. “There might be a small number of new species appearing somewhere in the remote high Andes of northwestern South America that can be recognized as new species by their outward appearance alone. However, the total number of species could be much higher and somewhat hidden in deceptive morphological similarity between even very distant populations.
“Only molecular analyzes can ultimately reveal their genetic distance between them and therefore their taxonomic affinity and degree of relationship to known species.”
Preliminary results from plant geneticists have already revealed an unexpected and significant genetic distance between some South American species, compared to species complexes in other parts of the world, Henning said. (In biology, a species complex is a group of closely related organisms that are so similar that the boundaries between them are often unclear.)
“Therefore, I think that our two new species will most likely be accompanied by more novelties in the near future,” Henning said. “Unfortunately, the question will probably be whether we find them and protect them before they are destroyed along with their habitats.”
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