A new plant genus has been discovered, and that’s strange

When you look at a fairy lantern, you may not realize that it is a plant. These ghostly white botanical specimens haunt the forest floor and provide spooky bioluminescent displays, and now we have a whole new genus to add to the list.

A genus is a taxonomic category that groups species. It represents an entire group, rather than an individual, so finding a new genus of anything is pretty big news. In fact, no one in Japan has found a new plant genus in almost 100 years, which makes the discovery of a new group of fairy lanterns very exciting indeed.

Part of the reason why fairy lanterns look so strange is because, unlike many plants, they do not photosynthesize. That means they lack that classic, cheerful chlorophyll green, but they look like a blob of pickled asparagus.

They can get away with being so ghostly pale because they get their energy from feeding on fungal mycelia in the soil. This is why you usually find them lurking under fallen leaves, spending most of their time barely visible as their flowers only protrude briefly from the surface.

new genus fairy lantern

It’s easy to see why these plants are difficult to find.

Image credit: TAGANE Shuichiro

Fairy lanterns are known as Thismiaceae, but the Japanese name for one of the main groups in the family is “Tanuki-no-shokudai,” which roughly translates to “the candlestick of raccoon dogs.” Despite their name, raccoon dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides) are most closely related to foxes, and in their candlemaking habits? Does not matter.

The elusive lifestyle of these plants means that it is very rare to find them because they are so difficult to spot, but now we have a whole new genus to add to the list of well-known fairy lanterns. The discovery came about thanks to a hobby botanist who found a fairy lantern that a local expert suspected might be a new genus of Tanuki-no-shokudai.

“Currently, approximately 100 species have been identified within the family, almost half of which are known only from their first discovery, sometimes from a single specimen,” explains botanist Suetsugu Kenji of Kobe University, an internationally renowned expert on the area of ​​non-photosynthetic plants. in a statement. “The dedication of Japanese amateur researchers to unveil the hidden flora of these regions has been crucial in identifying species unknown to science.”

After receiving the specimen in the mail, it was clear that it had unique characteristics that set it apart from the other genera, so the researchers set out to find a living specimen. They traveled to Kimotsuki in Kagoshima Prefecture, where the discovery was made, but the first year had no luck. A second trip proved more successful, as they discovered four more plants in the same narrow strip as the original discovery.

new genus fairy lantern

The ghostly white of fairy lanterns is due to their lack of chlorophyll.

Image credit: TAGANE Shuichiro

The new genus is believed to have diverged from Thismiaceae at an earlier stage in the evolution and was given the name “Mujina-no-shokudai” or “badger candle holder”. The Latin name is Relictithismia kimotsukiensiswhich can be translated as “Thismia Relic of Kimotsuki.”

“Japan is one of the regions in the world where botanical research is the most advanced, making the discovery of new plant species extremely rare, and the discovery of a new genus even rarer,” Suetsugu said. “This research could suggest that many other new species may be lurking in regions previously thought to be well studied, and underlines the crucial need for continued exploration and research of the planet’s flora, both abroad and at home. ”

The research has been published in the Journal Of Plant Research.

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