Researchers from the University of Turku have described seven new species of fern from the rainforests of tropical America. Many of the species were discovered as a by-product of ecological research: species diversity in the rainforest is still so poorly known that field trips and herbarium work continue to uncover previously unknown species.
Researchers from the Amazon Research Team at the University of Turku have a long history of discovering species previously unknown to science. They have now described seven new species of tropical ferns – six from the genus Danae and one of a kind Dennstaedtia.
“The species described are not small or inconspicuous creatures. They range from 20 cm to 2 m in height and some of them are very common locally,” says PhD student Yanina Keskiniva.
Among the six Danae species described by the researchers, one of them caught Professor Hana Tuomisto’s attention back in 1998 by forming dense stands that stretched for kilometers in a little-known region of the Colombian Amazonian lowland forest, where Tuomisto was then fieldwork for few months.
“Because there are few people in the area and the forests are largely intact, the new species seems to be doing well. In contrast, another of the new species is already threatened with extinction due to advancing deforestation in the Colombian coastal rainforest,” says Tuomisto.
Excursions to new areas often reveal new species
The species richness of tropical forests is still poorly known. According to the researchers, every trip to a new area has a high chance of discovering something new.
“Understanding how to identify different species and where each grows is important for ecological and other research. Information is also needed to set conservation priorities, as the long-term survival of species depends on the preservation of their natural habitats. To prevent the loss of biodiversity, it is important to protect areas that have special habitats and unique species,” says Tuomisto.
When researchers collect plant specimens and store them in herbaria, they often assume that the specimens represent one of the already known species. Proper comparison of specimens can reveal that there are new species hiding in plain sight in pre-existing collections.
“We used most of the specimens to describe the new ones Danae species were collected decades ago, some as early as 1800. During all these years, the specimens were stored in various herbaria. Now we can combine all this accumulated information from herbaria with fresh insights from field studies done by us and our colleagues,” says Keskiniva.
The fern specimen that prompted the description of the new one Dennstaedtia species was collected 15 years ago by Gabriela Zukim, a researcher at the University of Turku
“I was taking photos in the forest to create a field guide to ferns. It was already getting dark so I headed back to camp when I saw an unfamiliar fern. I hadn’t seen anything like it before, so I made an extra effort and put it together,” Zuquim recalls.
She has now described the species as new to science along with Brazilian researchers Tulio Peña and Pedro Schavrtsburd, who are sorting out species boundaries and species names in this fern genus.
“The place where I collected this species has very different soils than most of the central Amazon forest, so I’m sure there are many more discoveries to be made there,” adds Zuquim.
Different soil conditions create a mosaic of habitats in Amazonia, which has a major impact on the establishment and evolution of species.
“Our long-term goal is to understand more about the biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest. We are particularly interested in what factors determine which species grow where and why, and what are the drivers behind the evolution of new species. At first I was not interested in describing new species, but I soon realized that it is impossible to communicate about ecology and evolution if the species we study do not have names,” says Tuomisto.
The Amazon is the largest rainforest area in the world and contains much of the global biodiversity. It also stores vast amounts of carbon and regulates both regional and global patterns of precipitation and temperature. Conserving the biodiversity of the Amazon is therefore critical to the well-being of the planet.