Researchers from the University of Turku have described seven new species of ferns from the rainforests of America. Many species have been discovered as a by-product of ecological research: the diversity of species in tropical forests is still so poorly understood that field trips and herbarium work keep finding species hitherto unknown. there unknown.
Researchers from the University of Turku Amazon Research Team have a long history of discovering species previously unknown to science. Now they have described seven new species of tropical ferns — six of the genus Danaea and one of the kind Dennstaedtia.
“The species described are not tiny or imperceptible creatures. They measure 20 cm to 2 m high, and some of them are very common locally,” explains doctoral student Janina Keskiniva.
Among the six Danaea species described by the researchers, one caught the attention of Professor Hanna Tuomisto as early as 1998 by forming dense stands that stretched for miles in a poorly known area of the Colombian Amazon lowland forest, where Tuomisto was then working on the field for a 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 the ‘Advanced Deforestation in Colombia’s Coastal Rainforests’. said Tuomisto.
Field trips to new areas often lead to the discovery of new species
The species richness of tropical rainforests is still poorly understood. According to the researchers, each field trip to a new region has a high chance of finding something new.
“Understanding how to identify different species and where each one grows is important for ecological and other research. Information is also needed to set conservation priorities, because in the long term the survival of species depends on the conservation of their natural habitats.To prevent biodiversity loss, 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 species already known. A good comparison of specimens can reveal that new species are hiding in plain sight in already existing collections.
“Most of the specimens we used to describe the new Danaea species were collected decades ago, some already in the 1800s. During all these years the specimens were kept in different herbaria. Now we could combine all this information accumulated from the herbaria with new information from field studies carried out by us and our colleagues,” says Keskiniva.
The fern specimen that sparked the description of the new Dennstaedtia species was collected 15 years ago by Gabriela Zuquim, a researcher at the University of Turku
“I was taking pictures in the forest to produce a fern field guide. It was already getting dark, so I was walking back to camp when I saw an unfamiliar fern. I had never seen anything like it before, so I went the extra mile and got it back,” Zuquim recalled.
Now she has described the species as new to science with Brazilian researchers Túlio Pena and Pedro Schawrtsburd, who sort out species boundaries and species names in this fern genus.
“The place where I collected this species has very different soils than most central Amazonian forests, so I’m sure a lot more discoveries can be made there,” adds Zuquim.
Different soil conditions create a mosaic of habitats in the Amazon, which has a big impact on how species become established and evolve.
“Our long-term goal has been to better understand the biodiversity of the Amazon rainforests. We are particularly interested in the factors that determine which species grow where and why, and what drives the evolution of new species. I wasn’t interested in describing new species, but I quickly realized that it’s impossible to communicate about ecology and evolution if the species we study don’t have a name,” says Tuomisto.
The Amazon is the largest tropical forest area in the world and it contains much of the world’s biodiversity. It also stores huge amounts of carbon and regulates both regional and global precipitation and temperature patterns. Therefore, the conservation of Amazonian biodiversity is of crucial importance for planetary well-being.