University of Oxford

The so-called “fairy lanterns” (genus Thismia), are among the most unusual-looking flowering plants.

These unusual, leafless plants thrive in the darkness of remote rainforests, where it is difficult to see them.

There are about 90 species found worldwide. These species can be found in the forests of South America, Australasia, South America, the USA, and Asia. All of them lack true leaves and chlorophyll. They eat root-associated fungal fungi that are often found in the same environment as other green plants.

Their mysterious flowers emerge just briefly, and often under leaf litter, so few people are lucky enough to encounter them.

Scientists in Malaysia and Oxford have just described a fairy lantern species that is completely new to science. Dome Nikong (a rainforest explorer) discovered it in 2019 and found it growing along Gunung Sarut. This mountain is located in the Hulu Nerus Forest Reserve of the state Terengganu.

University of Oxford

In February of 2020, Dome Nikong was joined by a team of botanists including researcher Siti-Munirah. The wild boars had destroyed all known fairy lantern plants, except one fruiting specimen. This shocked them.

Siti Murielah and Dr Chris Thorogood (Deputy Director and Head of Science, Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum) were able to identify and illustrate the new species by examining the material.

They studied the architecture of the flowers, such as its shape, colour and surface characteristics. They discovered that the flower has a peculiar, orange-colored lantern-like shape with pillars supporting a so-called “mitre”–an umbrella-like structure whose function is still unknown.

Together, the scientists named Thismia Sitimeriamiae after Dome’s mother Sitimeriam to honor her support in his dedication to conservation work at Terengganu, Malaysia.

Thismia sitimeriamiae’s remarkable’mitre, color and surface texture make it one of the most striking plants to be found in Peninsular Malaysia.

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Dr Chris Thorogood stated, “The amazing architecture of the flowers raises interesting questions regarding how they are pollinated.”

Some species may have been visited and pollinated in the past by little fungus bugs, but we are not sure what their ecology is. This is a very rare plant. The plant has been seen twice before and it may have already become extinct.

The plant’s conservation status has been declared Critically Endangered (CR), according to IUCN criteria.

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The scientists recommend in their paper, published in the journal Phytokeys, that further survey work is needed to bring fairy lanterns out of obscurity and inform the conservation priorities for these mysterious plants–many of which have been seen only once, and some of which may never be seen again.

The new species was published in Phytokeys. It can be viewed here.

( WATCH Below is the Oxford video.


Source: University of Oxford

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