A truly bizarre subterranean plant from the rainforests of Malaysia has been rediscovered after it was presumed extinct for the last 151 years.
The plant was first discovered by an Italian botanist called Odoardo Beccari in the year the US Civil War officially ended (1866) during an expedition to the Gunung Matang massif in western Sarawak, Malaysia. He recorded, drew, and described the new species as Thismia neptunis a couple of years later, but since this initial observation, no one has seen the plant since.
That is until January of last year, when biologists from the Crop Research Institution in the Czech Republic were exploring the same region of rainforest and stumbled across a T. neptunis flowering in the leaf litter, although not many would know what they were looking at. The first people to have recorded the plant in over 150 years, they were also the first to ever photograph it. Their discovery is published in Phototaxa.
Belonging to a group known as mycoheterotrophs, not much about them makes them sound like plants. Spending their entire lives underground, they have done away with photosynthesis altogether, having lost both their leaves and chlorophyll. Instead, they parasitize fungi, which are living in symbiotic relationships with other, above-ground plants, exchanging water and nutrients for food. This means that in a weird, roundabout way, T. neptunis is getting its nutrition from photosynthesizing plants.
By their very nature, mycoheterotrophic plants are a pretty cryptic species. Tending to live in more tropical environments, and with most of their structure underground, the plants only appear above soil when they flower – and even these look super odd and could be easily mistaken for an insect. Only in bloom for a few weeks at a time, and even then not every single year, it is easy to see why so little is known about the group or why many species have only been seen once.
For this reason, it is near impossible to declare any of them extinct with much confidence, or to figure out just how common or rare one species might be. In fact, some evidence suggests the plants might be much more common than is generally assumed, and it is not unusual for some species to be rediscovered after a pretty long period.
But even among these weird organisms, 151 years is a good whack of time to remain hidden in the dense jungles of Southeast Asia.
[H/T: New Scientist]