Photo: Courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden
When Peter Lowry and Gordon McPherson explored the rich flora of New Caledonia last May, the last thing they expected to find was a new genus. Discovering new species isn't unusual, but a new genus? "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," admits Lowry, a head curator for the Missouri Botanical Garden. Lowry is based at the Natural History Museum in Paris, while McPherson, also a curator, works out of the Garden's headquarters in St. Louis.
The new genus, Hooglandia, is named for Ru Hoogland, the world's expert on the family Cunoniaceae, to which the genus belongs. The family consists of about 30 genera and 250-350 species distributed in the southern tropics, especially Australia and the Pacific region. So far, the new genus is monotypic, consisting of only one species, a group of trees located on Mt. Ignambi, a 4,300-foot peak in the northeast part of the island.
From the outset, the two botanists knew they had something special, but identifying it wasn't easy. "Gordon knows the flora better than any other active person," says Lowry. Still, "we were unable to assign it to any genus we knew from New Caledonia, and indeed, its characters did not fit those of any of the families with which we were familiar." To complicate matters, "we also could not rule out the possibility that it belonged to a genus present elsewhere, such as Australia."
So, the researchers turned to Patrick Sweeney, a graduate student at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, who analyzed DNA from a preserved leaf. Sweeney's preliminary results showed that the plant belonged to Cunoniaceae, but some of its morphological characteristics were different from other members of the family--a new genus. The researchers will describe their results in papers to be published in Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden.
New Caledonia is a botanist's paradise. Of its 3,500 plant species, more than 75% are endemic--found nowhere else--and many represent ancient lineages. Recently, molecular data identified one of them, Amborella--a single species remnant of a once larger family--as the earliest branch off the flowering plant family tree. "New Caledonia is a center for primitive plant groups that appear to have survived for tens of millions of years, some since the Cretaceous," enthuses Lowry. "If you could predict where a new genus would be lurking, New Caledonia would be one of the places."
As for Hooglandia, Lowry and McPherson found only two individuals, though they think others exist. "It may be very localized," says Lowry, "perhaps restricted to Mt. Ignambi and a few nearby peaks." With so few specimens the plant could easily be endangered, though Lowry thinks the area is in no immediate danger of exploitation.
The new find is doubly exciting because it affirms that field work still pays big dividends. David Giannasi, a University of Georgia taxonomist, agrees: "At a time when so many people, including some biologists, think that every living organism has been discovered, it is refreshing to see the discovery of a new plant or animal species in an exotic location. ... It points out that we have many miles to go in cataloging all of the earth's organisms."
Barry A. Palevitz (email@example.com) is a contributing editor.