Trinity College Dublin

Skip to main content.

Top Level TCD Links


300 Years of Growth

Irish botanist discovers new genus in Honduras jungle (Irish Time Article)

21 October 2010

By Dick Ahlstrom:

Honduran Fruit

A Trinity College Dublin lecturer has discovered a new family of plants while surveying the rainforests of Honduras

IT DOESN’T happen very often so when it does it’s a big deal. An Irish botanist discovered a tree that is so different it deserves its own particular branch on the family tree of plants.

“I am delighted,” says Dr Daniel Kelly, a senior lecturer in Trinity College Dublin’s school of natural sciences. “It is a nice example of how science progresses.”

Kelly first discovered the unusual plant – quickly dubbed “the mystery tree” – while heading up a surveying expedition to the Honduran rain forest. It also turns out that patience is a virtue when it comes to confirming that you have discovered something unique.

He remembers the date – July 12th – when the story begins. “I got involved in this as the leader of a survey in the Cusuco national park in the northwest of Honduras,” he said.

On that day he and some of the students came across a non-descript low-slung tree.

“We found a tree that was completely different to anything we had seen. We just added it to the pile of unknown plants found in the survey.”

Most of the unknowns are later identified and categorised, although occasionally a new species can be discovered, he said. In 2009, for example, plant researchers published details of 145 plant species previously unknown to science.

A specialist, Dr Caroline Whitefoord from London’s Natural History Museum became involved trying to find an existing match for the mystery tree but found none.

“She was the one who said ‘this is something curious’,” Kelly says. The two checked with others, including Kew Gardens in London, but no one knew what it was.

Then Kelly returned to Honduras in 2006 and came across another specimen of the plant, this time complete with flowers and fruit. He took this new information to the world-renowned Missouri Botanical Garden to see whether plant specialist Dr Carmen Ulloa-Ulloa could identify the tree. She was able to confirm it as a previously unknown species, but there was more. The tree was so different that it might also represent a new plant genus, meaning it might be a unique new grouping.

Kelly found himself back in the Honduran rain forest in 2008, this time to collect and preserve DNA samples from the tree.

It had characteristics typical of plants related to the sandalwoods and coincidentally there was a researcher, Dr Daniel Nickrent of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, who was an expert in the genetics of the sandalwood order of plants.

He conducted genetic tests which confirmed that Kelly’s new tree was indeed a new species but also a new genus within the sandalwood order.

It took another two years before the researchers finally published their findings last week in the Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden .

The small tree is now known as Hondurodendron urceolatum , and is the first tree to be categorised within a completely new genus, Hondurodendron , Kelly says.

It was not uncommon to be the first to describe a new species of plant, but identifying a new genus was something else, he adds. “For most botanists that is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

© 2010 The Irish Times

Top of Page


Last updated 24 February 2011 by