Biologists from UP Faculty of Science discover a new plant on Borneo

The team of biologists from the UP Faculty of Science on Borneo. Photo: Martin Dančák
tuesday 23. october 2018, 9:03 – Text: Šárka Chovancová

Another new plant has been found in the tropical rainforests of Borneo by a team of biologists from the Palacký University Faculty of Science and the Crop Research Institute. Thismia kelabitiana, locally called Pa’Umor Fairy Lantern, is the tenth new plant species found by Olomouc and Prague biologists on Borneo. The description of the new species was recently published in the journal PLOS ONE. The discovery of Thismia kelabitiana could contribute to the protection of tropical rainforests not only on Borneo.

Thismia kelabitiana is in many aspects an exceptional plant. Although it is very small, growing to the maximum height of 18 centimetres, with the diameter of its flower less than two centimetres, the flowers of this “starplant”, as goes literally its Czech generic name, are considerably larger than in other related species known in Borneo,” says Michal Hroneš, a member of the biological team from the UP Department of Botany.

“This variety, as well as all the related species, is one of the myco-heterotrophic plants, i.e. non-green plants that feed via fungi fibres growing in the soil,” said the author of its species description, Zuzana Sochorová. This way of life has an impact on the plants’ appearance. “Thismia are not only non-green, but their leaves are rudimentary. The tiny size of the whole plant contrasts with big and often colourful flowers,” adds Michal Sochor from the Crop Research Institute. This also holds true for the “Kelabitian starplant” whose flowers are bright yellow and have a peculiar shape reminiscent of a lantern hemmed with a fringed collar.

The name of the discovered plant refers to the area of the Kelabit Highlands in the Malayan state of Sarawak, inhabited by the Kelabitian nation whose name the plant carries. “This area is one of the few in the Malaysian part of Borneo which has been spared logging, so it is one of the most biologically valuable regions of the entire island. The location of the newly discovered plant falls under a logging concession and is located only a few miles from the closest logging roads,” adds Martin Dančák. Experts hope that discoveries of unique plant species may hinder further progression of logging into local forests and perhaps even stop it.

Just as Thismia kelabitiana may soon become an emblematic species for regions in the Kelabit Highlands which still lack official protection, yet another important discovery by the Olomouc team could promote the local environmental protection. After an unbelievable 151 years, glimpsed for the second time in scientific history only, they managed to re-discover another Thismia species – Thismia neptunis. Despite its size of about nine centimetres, this plant has a bizarre appearance that goes beyond any imagination we have concerning plants. It could become a flagship species, attractive for the wide public, and may serve as an efficient tool of environmental protection in the tropical forest as a whole.