Botanists Discover Critically Endangered New Species

23 November 2015

Botanists from Trinity College Dublin have discovered a beautiful new tree species from the coffee family. They were conducting an ecological survey in Honduras when making the find, but, sadly, the species has been immediately placed under the critically endangered banner of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The ten-metre-tall tree, which boasts gorgeous cream-coloured flowers and cherry-like fruits, has been named Sommera cusucoana. The name stems from it being found in the Cusuco National Park; it has so far not been recorded growing anywhere else, and is growing less than 0.5 km from clear-fell logging sites.

The find has been recently described in the international journal PhytoKeys. The article can be viewed here.

Dr Daniel Kelly, Professor Emeritus in Trinity’s Botany department in the School of Natural Sciences, led the party that conducted the surveys as part of a broader set coordinated by Operation Wallacea, an international organisation that deals with biodiversity and conservation management research programmes.

He said: “This was a somewhat fortuitous discovery! I had simply wanted to demonstrate how to collect and record a specimen of an unknown plant. My eye caught a tree with big leaves and cherry-red fruits that was growing right beside my tent. Photos were taken, portions were placed in the plant press, and we thought no more about them.”

“Two months later, Dr Charlotte Taylor, an expert based at Missouri Botanical Garden, suggested that Sommera might be the genus. She passed us to Dr David Lorence, based in the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawai’I, who, a few weeks later, confirmed our find didn’t correspond with any known species of Sommera from Honduras - or from anywhere else. We had struck gold!”

Sadly, it is feared that this newly discovered species faces a huge fight to fend off extinction in a world in which tens of thousands lose that battle each year.

Conservationists are growing increasingly concerned by the rate at which extinctions are occurring, particularly in areas where human interventions are changing ecosystems, often without consideration of the consequences.

As well as providing aesthetic value, ecosystems and the species within them provide services of great value to mankind. For example, forests help sequester carbon by taking it from the atmosphere, while also providing food, shelter and plant-derived medicines that are key in fighting many diseases.

That newly discovered species, such as this beautiful tree, are under immediate threat from extinction speaks to the gravity of the conservation crisis which, according to some experts, is underpinning the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history.

Dr Kelly added: “This tree epitomizes the plight of so many species today. This is just one of a number of plant and animal species that are known just from this National Park – and nowhere else in the world. The site where it is growing is also the location of another plant species new to science, also discovered by Trinity’s Forest Botany team.  Swathes of forest were felled in this area in 2011-13, and our site was literally within earshot of the chainsaws!”

“We still know little about this plant, and nothing at all about its possible uses – are those cherry-like fruits edible or poisonous? What secondary compounds are contained in that lush foliage, and could they have medicinal uses – like quinine from the related Cinchona? There is a real danger that this and other species will be lost to the world before they have even been properly investigated. Exploring the rainforest is not just fascinating; it is really, really urgent.”

Media Contact

Thomas Deane, Press Officer for the Faculty of Engineering, Mathematics and Science | deaneth@tcd.ie | 01 896 4685

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