Scientists describe new orchid species related to Darwin’s famous orchid

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Giant-spur Solenangis, Solenangis impraedicta, is a new species of orchid described by Missouri Botanical Garden scientists and collaborators from Madagascar. Credit: Marie Savignac

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Giant-spur Solenangis, Solenangis impraedicta, is a new species of orchid described by Missouri Botanical Garden scientists and collaborators from Madagascar. Credit: Marie Savignac

Missouri Botanical Garden scientists and collaborators discovered and described a new species of orchid in Central Madagascar with a record nectar rush and close ties to the famous “Darwin’s orchid.” This new species needs urgent conservation action, scientists say.

“The discovery of a new species of orchid is always an exciting event, but finding such stunning and charismatic species only happens once in a scientist’s career. I really hope that this highly threatened species will draw attention to the urgent crisis that is affecting Madagascar’s biodiversity and help support the Garden’s program there,” said Tariq Stévart, Director of the Garden’s Africa and Madagascar program.

Madagascar’s flora is known for flowers with elongated flower tubes pollinated by long-tongued molluscs. The most famous of these species, Angraecum sesquipedale, is known as Darwin’s orchid, in tribute to Charles Darwin’s theory that the flower was pollinated by an as yet undiscovered moth with a long proboscis. Scientists described the large moth, Xanthopan praedicta, 41 years after its prediction.

A newly published paper, “A new species of orchid expands Darwin’s predicted pollination guild in Madagascar,” reveals an unexpected new case of parallel evolution with Darwin’s orchid in Solenangis impraedicta with the newly described giant nectar spur of which reaches a great length of 33 cm.

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

“The contrast between the tiny 2cm flowers and the incredibly long nectar tube is stunning,” said co-author João Farminhão of the University of Coimbra’s Botanical Garden.

Solenangis impraedicta has the third longest spur ever recorded among flowering plants and the longest nectar spur of any known plant relative to flower size. It is the only new orchid species with such an extreme adaptation to mollusk pollination described since 1965.

Patrice Antilahimena, a field botanist at the Garden, first collected the species during a baseline study of the environmental impact of a mining site in East-Central Madagascar. Ten years later, Garden Botanist Brigitte Ramandimbisoa and Simon Verlynde, Ph.D. student at the New York Botanical Garden, discovered a new location. The novelty belongs to the group of angraecoid orchids that Stévart and an international team of experts have studied extensively. Stévart, an expert in the taxonomy and conservation of African orchids, first identified this species as an undescribed species of Solenangis.


New species of orchid, Solenangis impredicta. Credit: Marie Savignac

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New species of orchid, Solenangis impredicta. Credit: Marie Savignac

This sensational new member of “Darwin’s pollination ward” is threatened by mining activities and potentially by poaching for the orchid trade.

“A precautionary approach is required when releasing such a spectacular new species. Wild populations must be protected and monitored, and detailed information on their exact coordinates must be kept out of the public domain. So don’t ask us to reveal where we found it , somewhere in Madagascar,” added Stévart.

The 15-year gap between the species’ discovery and official description allowed the team to implement conservation measures before the giant-fuelled Solenangis gained stardom. These include ex situ cultivation and seed banking as part of a collaboration between the Garden and the Ambatovy Department of Conservation.

The pollination biology of Solenangis impraedicta was previously studied using camera traps by Marie Savignac in 2019.

The observation period did not result in any definitive pollination events, but the most likely pollinators are the Great Hawks Coelonia solani and Xanthopan praedicta. The species name “impraedicta” (Latin for unforeseen) is a nod to Darwin’s prediction of the orchid star pollinator, which took 130 years to be fully confirmed. Hopefully, this time it won’t take as long to identify the pollinator in the act.

More information:
João Farminhão et al, A new orchid species expands Darwin’s predicted pollination ward in Madagascar, Current Biology (2024). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2024.01.012

Courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden

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