February 18, 2014
Tulane University biologist John J. Schenk has discovered a previously unknown flowering plant in a remote corner of the Grand Canyon. (Photo by Ryan Rivet)
A research team lead by Tulane University biologist John J. Schenk has discovered a previously unknown flowering plant in a remote corner of the Grand Canyon.
“The tropics are considered a biodiversity hotspot containing many undiscovered species,” says Schenk. “However, there are many species left to be discovered even in our own backyards.”
For several years Schenk and fellow researchers have been searching for new plant species in the vast maze of channels and ravines that make up the Grand Canyon of Arizona. The team’s discovery is described in a recent article by Schenk and his colleagues, Wendy Hodgson and Larry Hufford, in Brittonia, a journal devoted to systematic biology.
“The Grand Canyon is biologically important with numerous species that have locally evolved within the highly dissected canyon,” says Schenk. “Many plant species there have narrow distributions and occur only in very specific habitats. The obvious challenge to conducting fieldwork in the canyon is the rugged terrain.”
The newly discovered plant has white to light yellow flowers that bloom from May through November. It is a shrubby perennial herb with a taproot adapted to finding moisture in the loose, rocky soils of the canyon’s arid landscape. The discoverers named it Mentzelia canyonensis after the Grand Canyon, the only place it is known to exist.
"With more time in the field coupled with more tools such as molecular DNA technologies, we can only expect to increase the number of new species,” says Hodgson.
“As threats to plant communities increase due to urbanization, habitat alteration, and climate change, describing Earth's biodiversity is increasingly imperative before these species are lost to extinction and gone forever,” says Schenk. “Many of the new species to be discovered are likely to be cryptic, very localized and rare.”
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