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viernes, 1 de diciembre 2023
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A new tree species was found at UdeA’s herbarium

By the Universidad de Antioquia

A student's interest in the Tournefortiopsis plant species, which is related to another species, resulted in the discovery of a record of an individual collected in 1994 from the Sonsón paramo; as of right now, only the existence of that particular specimen is known. This further demonstrates the importance of herbaria in the discovery of new species. 

The record of this specimen, held at the Universidad de Antioquia's Herbarium since 1994, was annotated with its new classification. Photo: Communications Office at UdeA / Alejandra Uribe Fernández

David Pérez, a biology student at the time, was researching the Universidad de Antioquia’s Herbarium (HUA) between 2021 and 2022 in order to go over all the species of the genus Tournefortiopsis for the neotropics (the region that extends beyond the tropics) that were there, a group that was separated from Guettarda, so he also analyzed some species of this genus. He looked through the collections of the Botanical Garden of Medellín and the National University of Medellín at the same time. 

 During this documentary review, he found something in the HUA that raised questions: an individual tree collected on April 10, 1994, in the Padre Sánchez stream, in the Chaverras village, in the municipality of Sonsón, eastern Antioquia, by Professor Ricardo Callejas Posada.

 "It did not fit the species of the genus Guettarda in which it was classified and was not described for science, which aroused my suspicion that it was a new species. So I proceeded to study it, and when I measured its parts: leaves, petioles, flowers, inflorescence, etc., to serve as comparison with the same parts in other species, I reaffirmed the hypothesis that it was a new species that was not part of the genus in which it had been classified in 1994, the genus Guettarda," said David Perez.

When he examined its characteristics, he discovered that it belonged to the genus Tournefortiopsis, which he was researching for his graduate work, and he named it Tournefortiopsis triflora because its inflorescence, or tiny branches on which the flowers are attached, always had three flowers.

Professor Fernando Alzate, a doctorate in biology and coordinator of the Botanical Studies Research Group, went along with him in this process, recalling that “the discovery of Tournefortiopsis triflora was part of David's undergraduate thesis. David found it in a HUA record of a collection made at the base of the Sonsón paramo. That is a very interesting vein for us because we have discovered many taxonomic novelties: espeletias, orchids, and frogs, and we believe there is still much to be discovered there.”

Researcher Alzate, who in the last decade participated in discoveries of unclassified plant species in the Sonsón paramo, considers that not only field trips but also work in research centers can contribute a lot to this type of project. "Herbaria are another  vein through which a botanist can discover new species," he emphasized.

"There is the genus Guettarda, which is part of the Rubiaceae family (which includes coffee), from which the genus Tournefortiopsis evolved, and it is in this genus that the new species Tournefortiopsis triflora is classified."
Fernando Alzate, coordinator of the Botanical Studies Research Group

Critically endangered species  

Professor Callejas's 1994 data, which biologist David Pérez examined, indicates that the single specimen found at the base of the Sonsón paramo was from a tree approximately eight meters tall. While the HUA file contains the exact coordinates, it has not been possible to locate this specimen or any other member of its species in that area during recent field trips.

The type locality, or the place from which a sample is taken, is the only place where the new species is known to exist, and no additional records have been discovered since the specimen was collected in 1994. It is more complex because it is an area with anthropogenic activities, such as deforestation caused primarily by avocado farming. In August of this year, Pérez and Alzate published an article in the scientific journal “Phytotaxa” that stated that Tournefortiopsis triflora is classified as "Critically Endangered" (CR) based on the criteria of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

David Pérez, a biologist, recalled that he chose to focus on the genus Tournefortiopsis because, ever since he started his graduate studies, it had captured his interest: "I was drawn to these plants because of their forms, colors, and inflorescence shapes. These trees are primarily found in the Andes.”

 And the discovery of Tournefortiopsis triflora made him more than happy. "The axes of the inflorescence of this genus are curled at the end and resemble the tail of a scorpion. The white, millimeter-long flowers are minuscule, and the petals have appendages that are like ornaments that make them more beautiful, and the new species has these characteristics," Pérez said.

However, before suggesting that the HUA record be reclassified as a new species, Pérez resumed his research on both genera records (Tournefortiopsis and Guettarda) in the physical and virtual herbaria collections of the Joaquín Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden, the National University, Medellín and Bogotá, and the University of Missouri, where Professor Callejas keeps a significant portion of his collections in order to confirm that the species had not been recorded.

David Pérez studied the genus Tournefortiopsis for two years. Photo: Communications Office at UdeA / Alejandra Uribe Fernández

Zone of biological interest  

The authors of the scientific publication noted that this municipality in eastern Antioquia, particularly the paramo, has developed into a biologically significant area where new species have been discovered in recent decades, some of which are endemic and for which only a small number of individuals have been seen.

"That endemic feature may be related to the high elevation where these species live because new niches were created for the colonization and speciation of several plant lineages during the Andean uplift. Future biogeographical studies will hopefully explain the processes that led to such a unique biota in that area," according to the journal article published in Phytotaxa.

Professor Alzate, who has spent a significant amount of time conducting botanical research in the Sonsón paramo, added that "the need and demand for a much stronger and more detailed protection measure than the existing one, to preserve a very rare biota there, is increasingly validated." We made these discoveries from 2,400 meters above sea level; the assumption was that no productive activity existed above this level, but this is not always the case."

 That is why he called on the environmental authorities to make a more eminent effort to preserve areas like this one from human activities that put at risk the natural inventory, much of which has yet to be discovered and investigated.

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