Botanists Rediscover Cloud Forest Herb in Ecuador after 37 Years

by johnsmith

Dr. Nigel Pitman from the Field Museum of Natural History and his colleagues from Ecuador, the United States, and France report the rediscovery of the Critically Endangered cloud forest herb Gasteranthus extinctus, not seen since 1985.

Field image of Gasteranthus extinctus. Image credit: R. Fortier.

Field image of Gasteranthus extinctus. Image credit: R. Fortier.

Gasteranthus extinctus is a species of terrestrial herb with uniformly bright orange flowers.

It belongs to Gasteranthus, a genus composed of 26 species currently known to occur in western Ecuador.

“The genus name, Gasteranthus, is Greek for ‘belly flower’,” said Dr. Dawson White, a postdoctoral researcher at the Field Museum of Natural History.

“Their flowers have a big pouch on the underside with a little opening top where pollinators can enter and exit.”

At the time of its description in 2000, the only known records of Gasteranthus extinctus were four collections made between 1977 and 1985 in cloud forests at Centinela, an Andean foothill ridge isolated from the main Andean range farther east by a broad, flat valley about 15 km wide.

“Gasteranthus extinctus was given its striking name in light of the extensive deforestation in western Ecuador,” Dr. White said.

“But if you claim something’s gone, then no one is really going to go out and look for it anymore.”

“There are still a lot of important species that are still out there, even though overall, we’re in this age of extinction.”

“Centinela is a mythical place for tropical botanists,” Dr. Pitman added.

“But because it was described by the top people in the field, no one really double-checked the science.”

“No one went back to confirm that the forest was gone and those things were extinct.”

Since 2009, a few botanists have mounted expeditions looking for Gasteranthus extinctus was still around, but they weren’t successful.

Starting in the summer of 2021, Dr. White and Dr. Pitman began combing through satellite images trying to identify primary rainforest that was still intact.

They assembled a team of ten botanists from six different institutions in Ecuador, the United States, and France, and arrived at Centinela in November of 2021.

“As soon as we got on the ground we found remnants of intact cloud forest, and we spotted Gasteranthus extinctus on the first day, within the first couple hours of searching,” Dr. Pitman said.

“We didn’t have a photo to compare it to, we only had images of dried herbarium specimens, a line drawing, and a written description, but we were pretty sure that we’d found it based on its poky little hairs and showy pot-bellied flowers.”

The researchers took photos and collected some fallen flowers, not wanting to harm the plants if they were the only ones remaining on Earth.

They sent the photos to taxonomic expert John Clark, who confirmed that the flowers were Gasteranthus extinctus.

Thankfully, the team found many more individuals as they visited other forest fragments, and they collected museum specimens to voucher the discovery and leaves for DNA analysis.

“While the flower remains highly endangered, the expedition found plenty of reasons for hope,” Dr. Pitman said.

“We walked into Centinela thinking it was going to break our heart, and instead we ended up falling in love.”

“Finding Gasteranthus extinctus was great, but what we’re even more excited about is finding some spectacular forest in a place where scientists had feared everything was gone.”

The team’s paper was published in the journal PhytoKeys.


N.C.A. Pitman et al. 2022. Rediscovery of Gasteranthus extinctus L.E.Skog & L.P.Kvist (Gesneriaceae) at multiple sites in western Ecuador. PhytoKeys 194: 33-46; doi: 10.3897/phytokeys.194.79638

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