Amateur botanists in Brazil discover a genuflexing plant
José Carlos Mendes Santos (a.k.a. Louro) is a handyman in rural northeastern Bahia, Brazil - one of the areas of the world with the highest biodiversity. Two years ago, he found a tiny, inch-high plant with white-and-pink flowers in the backyards of the off-the-grid house of amateur botanist and local plant collector Alex Popovkin. The little plant was brought home to be grown on a window sill for closer observation. In parallel, work on its identification began. Thanks to solar power and a satellite connection, Popovkin had access to the Internet, and as was his habit, he uploaded some photographs of the plant to Flickr and contacted several taxonomic experts around the globe. The family (strychnine family, or Loganiaceae) and genus (Spigelia) of the plant were soon established, with a suggestion from a Brazilian botanist that it might be a new species.
A collaboration was started with Lena Struwe, a specialist of the plant's family at Rutgers University, who had previously described a species in the gentian family from the Andes named after Harry Potter (apparating moon-gentian, Macrocarpaea apparata), and another after the Inca tribe (the Inca ring-gentian, Symbolanthus incaicus). More collections were made, photographs uploaded and specimens deposited at the State University at Feira de Santana (HUEFS) in Bahia, while Mari Carmen Molina, a visiting scientist in Struwe's lab from Spain, extracted the plant's DNA. In collaboration with Katherine Mathews from Western Carolina University, it was confirmed that the genus was indeed Spigelia, to which pinkroot, an old North American herbal remedy against intestinal parasites, also belongs.
Only a few miniscule plants were found in the field the first year. They would die each dry season, only to reappear again at the beginning of the rain season. The plant growing on the window sill soon showed a particular and rare characteristic: after fruits were formed, the fruiting branches would bend down, depositing the capsules with seeds on the ground (and sometimes burying them in the soft cover of moss), thereby ensuring that the seeds would end up as close to the mother plant as possible, facilitating its propagation the following season. This phenomenon, called geocarpy, is a rare adaptation to growing in harsh or ephemeral environments. A famous example of geocarpy is the well-known peanut from the legume family that buries its fruits in the ground. The new species, appropriately named Spigelia genuflexa, is described in an open-access paper published this week by the five collaborators in the taxonomic journal PhytoKeys, from where the article can be downloaded for free.
Mr. Popovkin: This is my first botanical publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Hopefully, there will be more to follow. I had since early adolescence felt attraction to plants, especially tropical plants, when working as a volunteer at the greenhouses of the Botanic Garden of the University of St Petersburg, Russia. It took me 30 years to realize my dream of living in the tropics and studying its plants up close. My daily botanizing walks always bring personal discoveries. My help and local fellow collector Louro has also shown great interest in botany.
This case shows that collaboration between amateurs and professional scientists, using both new molecular and traditional methods and making use of the facilities of the Internet can lead to new discoveries and new efficient ways of documenting the world's biodiversity.