- The new species was thought to only be a color variant of a known species
- Thorough analysis revealed that it was actually a separate species of its own
- Unfortunately, it’s possible that the plant is already ‘endangered’
A plant with a rather “otherworldly” vibe found in Japan was thought to be just a variation of an already-known species. The “ethereal” looking plant turned out to be a species of its own.
The Monotropastrum humile is a rather interesting plant. Widespread across East and Southeast Asia, it feeds off of “the hyphae of fungi” instead of using photosynthesis, Kobe University noted in a news release. It was believed to be the only species of the kind in the plant world.
That is, until the discovery of the ethereal-looking plant in Kirishima in Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan. Its look is rather unusual, with “rosy pink petals” and stems that look rather like “milk glass” that Kobe University described its appearance as “otherworldly.” But it was thought to only be a mere color variation of the M. humile.
“However, the flowering seasons for this taxon and M. humile do not overlap, and their mycorrhizal morphology and root systems differ considerably,” researchers wrote in their study, published in the Journal of Plant Research. “Therefore, this unknown taxon may be a cryptic species rather than a color variant.”
Indeed, extensive analysis of the plant revealed that it’s a separate species of its own, distinguishable through various characteristics such as its flowering periods and rootballs. They named it Monotropastrum kirishimense after the Kirishima locality, with its Japanese name being Kirishima-gin-ryo-so.
“Our multifaceted evidence leads us to conclude that this taxon is morphologically, phenologically, phylogenetically, and ecologically distinct, and should, therefore, be recognized as a separate species,” the researchers wrote.
One possible reason for the M. kirishimense and M. humile’s separate evolution could be that they specialize in different fungi, making them both unable to produce offspring together, noted Kobe University. The difference in their flowering periods may also have helped with the process, though this could also have happened after speciation—the formation of distinct species—was already complete.
In any case, the researchers’ years-long work led to the identification of this otherworldly plant as a species of its own — and a beautiful one at that.
Unfortunately, even though the researchers also discovered some previously unknown populations of the species, it is still “much rarer” than the M. humile, with populations often being less than 20 each. The largest population, the researchers noted, was just 50 individuals.
As such, they believe that its conservation status under the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) criteria should be “Endangered.”