New species of genuflecting plant buries its own seeds

A newly discovered plant species, appropriately named Spigelia genuflexa (Image: Alex Popovkin) Spigelia genuflexa bends over to release its seeds to the ground

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A new plant that "bends down" to deposit its seeds has been discovered in the Atlantic forest in the state of Bahia, northeastern Brazil.

The new species has been named Spigelia genuflexa after its unusual adaptation.

After fruits are formed, the fruiting branches bend down, depositing the capsules of seeds on the ground and sometimes burying them in the soft cover of moss

The discovery is reported in the journal PhytoKeys.

S. genuflexa was described by Alex Popovkin, an amateur botanist who has catalogued and photographed over 800 species in his property in Bahia.

A friend of Mr Popovkin's noticed the unusual plant, and brought it to his attention.

In his efforts to identify it, Popovkin contacted experts in several countries. Finally, a botanist named Lena Struwe from Rutgers University in New Jersey, US, offered to help Popovkin study the new species.

'Short-lived'

Dr Struwe told the BBC that the the plant could have evolved its remarkable seed-planting ability for several reasons.

Start Quote

New species are discovered every day, but so many more are not yet known.”

End Quote Lena Struwe Rutgers University

"In this species, it is most likely that because it is so short-lived (just a few months) and lives in small fragments of suitable environments, the mother plant is most successful if she deposits her seeds right next to herself, [rather than] spreading them around far into less suitable environments," Dr Struwe told the BBC.

"Since the plant only survives for one season, the mother plant will not compete with her daughter plants either, which can be a problem for more long-lived plants."

Dr Struwe explained that other plants have evolved this same ability in order to survive on cliff walls - to deposit their seeds safely into cracks - or to avoid seed predators.

Mr Popovkin, a Russian emigre who lived in the US before moving to Brazil, said the discovery was a dream come true.

"I went to Salvador, Bahia, for the first time on a vacation," he recalled.

"At that time, in 1985, I was living in New York, [but] I fell in love with the place, climate and nature, and started thinking of one day moving there to live."

He finally made the move in 1991, settling in a rural area of northeastern Bahia, 130 km from Salvador.

"I started serious collecting and photographing at about five years ago," he said.

"I have collected over 900 [specimens] so far, of about 800 different species, including some rare ones that have not been collected in Brazil for over 60 years.

"It's taken me 30 years, from my days as a volunteer at the greenhouses of the botanic garden of the University of St Petersburg, Russia, to realise my dream of living in the tropics and studying its plants up close."

Endangered forest

Dr Struwe said: "This story shows that scientists need amateurs, naturalists, and citizen scientists to help discover and describe the amazing biodiversity that has evolved on Earth.

"New species are discovered every day, but so many more are not yet known."

The discovery also highlights the urgent need to protect the Atlantic Forest, which is under threat from deforestation.

"The Atlantic Forest has among the highest biodiversity in the world, with many species that are found only there," said Dr Struwe

"It is also one of the most endangered areas."

"Large areas have already been cut down and changed into agricultural land by humans, so the small remnants that are left need to be protected and preserved."

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