Researchers from the University of Turku have described seven new species of ferns from the rainforests of America. Many of the species were discovered as a byproduct 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 University of Turku’s Amazon Research Group have a long history of discovering species previously unknown to science. They have now described seven new species of tropical ferns – six from this genus Given and one of a kind Dennstaedtia.
“The described species are not tiny or inconspicuous creatures. Their height varies from 20 cm to 2 m, and some of them are very common in the area,” says doctoral student Janina Keskiniva.
Among the six Given species described by researchers, one of them attracted the attention of Professor Hanna Tuamisto back in 1998, forming dense stands that stretched for kilometers in a row in a little-known area of the Colombian Amazonian lowland forest, where Tuamisto spent several months conducting fieldwork.
“Because there are few people in the area and the forests are mostly untouched, the new species seems to be doing well. In contrast, another of the new species is already threatened with extinction due to progressive deforestation in the Colombian coastal rainforest,” says Tuomista.
Excursions to new areas often reveal new species
The species richness of tropical forests is still poorly known. According to the researchers, every excursion to a new area 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. The 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 Tuomista.
When researchers collect plant specimens and store them in herbariums, they often assume that the specimens represent one of the already known species. Proper comparison of specimens can reveal new species hiding in plain sight in existing collections.
“We used most of the samples to describe the new Given species were collected decades ago, some as early as the 1800s. All these years, samples were kept in different herbariums. Now we can combine all this information gathered from herbariums with fresh information from field research conducted by us and our colleagues,” says Keskiniva.
A specimen of a fern which caused the description of a new one Dennstaedtia the species was collected 15 years ago by Gabriela Zuk, a researcher at the University of Turku
“Photographed in the forest to make a field guide to ferns. It was getting dark, so I was walking back to camp when I saw an unfamiliar fern. I had never seen anything like this before, so I took a picture. made an extra effort and collected it,” recalls Zukim.
She has now described the species as new to science, along with Brazilian researchers Tulio Pena and Pedro Shortburd, who are clarifying species boundaries and species names for this fern genus.
“The place where I collected this species has completely different soils than most of the central Amazon forest, so I’m sure there are many more discoveries to be made there,” Zukim adds.
Different soil conditions create a mosaic of habitats in the Amazon, which has a major impact on how species establish and develop.
“Our long-term goal was to learn more about the biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest. We are particularly interested in what factors determine what species grow where and why, and what driving forces underlie the evolution of new species. In the beginning, 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 Tuomista.
Amazonia is the world’s largest area of rainforest and contains much of the world’s biodiversity. It also stores vast amounts of carbon and regulates regional and global patterns of precipitation and temperature. Therefore, preserving Amazonian biodiversity is critical to the planet’s well-being.