Beneath the cliffs “disappeared” for a hundred years as it first appeared

In 1908, plant hunter Ernest Henry Wilson collected specimens of sharp-toothed spears while collecting plant resources in Washan, Sichuan, all of which were in the fruit stage.

In 1913, botanists Lucenor and Alfred Reddell officially named the species based on specimens collected by Wilson.

In the next hundred years, the species was collected only once, from a young volunteer team sent by Lu Zuofu between 1928 and 1930. However, in this specimen’s account, there are no leaves and no flowers, only fruits, and the “identity” is doubtful.

Many botanists and enthusiasts have followed In Wilson’s footsteps and visited the so-called “Washan Mountain”, just to see the “fang” of the sharp-toothed guard spear, and it is difficult to find it.

But in a canyon in Jiulong County, Sichuan Province, on the southeast slope of Gongga Mountain, it “disappeared” again after a hundred years. On July 5, the Chengdu Institute of Biology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (hereinafter referred to as “Chengdu Institute of Biology”), together with researchers from Chongqing Normal University and Sichuan Academy of Forestry, published a paper entitled “Rediscovery of wild populations of the sharp-toothed Wei spear (Wei Mao family) in the international plant taxonomic journal “Plant Essentials: Flowering Characteristics, Taxonomic Attribution, Naming and Rare Status”.

This is the first time that the species has been investigated by Chinese scientists in the living population after a hundred years of hermitage, and the characteristics of flowers have been recorded for the first time. Based on the morphological evidence and molecular genetic evidence of flowers and fruits, the researchers reconfirmed their taxonomic status, assessed the threat situation by the population and habitat of the sharp-toothed spear, and discussed and determined the correct scientific name terms in accordance with the relevant naming conventions.

Hu Jun, assistant researcher of the forest ecological process and regulation project team of Chengdu Institute of Biology, Zhang Junyi, graduate student of Chongqing Normal University, are the co-first authors, Liu Qing, researcher of Chengdu Institute of Biology, and He Hai, professor of Chongqing Normal University, are co-corresponding authors.

Sharp-toothed guard spear Euonymus aquifolium Loes. Photo of Rehder wax leaf specimen (Main mode specimen collected by A. Wilson B. Hu Jun et al. 2021 newly collected specimen courtesy of the interviewee)

Hidden in the world for a hundred years, there is no trace

When asking his peers about the plants of the Family Venidae, Hu Jun noticed the sharp-toothed spear (holly groove petal) of this species that has been hidden for a hundred years.

According to him, in November 1908, Wilson collected specimens of the sharp-toothed guard spear in Washan, Sichuan. The three specimens collected were duplicate specimens of the same number, but all were in the fruit stage. In 1913, Lucenor and Alfred Reddell officially named the species based on the specimen.

In the flora of Sichuan, volume 4 (1988), experts in the Wei spear family translated it according to the original published text, and Chinese for it to be named The Sharp-toothed Wei Spear, and recorded the distribution location as Washan mountain in Hongya County, Sichuan Province.

More specific geographical locations of species are no longer available for search and traceability through relevant references.

Yin Kaipu, a researcher at the Chengdu Institute of Biology, traced the site called “Washan Mountain” mentioned in Wilson’s monograph to a mountain peak in the Jinkouhe District of Leshan City, Sichuan Province. Over the years, many botanists and enthusiasts have tried to find living populations of this species in this area, but have not found anything. Experts in the preparation of the Wei spear family in volume 45, volume 3 of the Flora of China have recorded another collection of this species (Specimen Qin Peinan et al. No. 104, Ebian Longmengou), but did not mention the herbarium where the specimens were stored. The specimen records only fruit, no flowers and leaves, so it is doubtful whether the specimen is an evergreen thick leather leaf plant such as the sharp-toothed guard spear.

The Young Volunteer Brigade, a team of young volunteers sent by Lu Zuofu, who managed the Beibei Gorge Defense Bureau, from 1928 to 1930, conducted several investigations along the waterway in western Sichuan. Based on the only clues available, the team conducted an extensive search and search, and no other records of the specimen or other species were found.

Does the Sharp-Toothed Spear still have a population in the world? Besides “Washan”, where else will it be “hidden”? Hu Jun paid special attention to this.

Establish a “life and death state” to find flowers under the cliff

In May 2021, a friend of the Sichuan Academy of Forestry took some photos of the plants during a field expedition. Hu Jun stumbled upon 2 photographs of plants with figs and fruits, which were very similar to the sharp-toothed guard spears he remembered when he checked the specimens before, and decided to go looking for them.

In August 2021, Hu Jun led a team to carry out the second Qinghai-Tibet Plateau scientific expedition research project “Forest and Shrub Ecosystem and Resource Management” in the western Sichuan area, during which he followed the guidance of his colleagues in the Sichuan Academy of Forestry and Came to the possible hiding place of the Sharp Tooth Guard Spear.

It was in the middle of a deep gorge in Jiulong County, Sichuan, on the southeast slope of Gongga Mountain. On both sides are steep cliffs that cover the sky, and at the foot are the tributaries of the Dadu River, which are covered with rubble, and occasionally there are falling rocks passing by.

Because the road to the canyon passes through a mine and is remote, the management has strict control over the local access. In order to enter the canyon, Hu Jun’s team spent half a day grinding with the head of the mine, and finally wrote an affidavit of “safety responsibility and self-responsibility” in the certificate issued by the local government before entering the investigation.

Wearing a hard hat and following the stream, Hu Jun and his teammates cautiously advanced, and the two-kilometer journey took two or three hours. Fortunately, at the bottom of a cliff, the sharp-toothed guard spear was finally found that haunted many botanists.

They counted, and it was a population of about 15 sharp-toothed spears. What pleased them most was that in the damp and dark environment, some plants had purple heads and were blooming. The flower that has been described in all previous data on this species has not been seen, and this is the first time in 110 years that its flower has been observed.

Plants under a cliff (Courtesy of interviewee)

It is indeed a genus of spears

However, in the field observation, the scientific expedition personnel noticed the “contradiction” with the previous identification.

Based on the observation of the morphological characteristics of the sharp-toothed spear, especially the fruit morphology, when compiling the Flora of China, researchers of the family Wei Spear transferred the sharp-toothed spear from the genus Wei Spear to the genus Gully, which was proposed to be called Holly Groove Petal. According to the definition of the genus Groove, it differs from the genus Wei Spear in terms of characteristics such as 4 petal flowers, 1 ovule per chamber in the ovary, and the flower disc is often rolled up and hugged.

Since the publication of the genus Groove, some plant researchers have not recognized the genus Groove, while others have treated the Groove as a separate genus and transferred some of the species previously placed in the genus Venomosa to the genus or describe a subset of new species. There are about 130 species in the genus Wei Spear and about 20 species in the genus Groove.

“The flowers of the sharp-toothed spear are obviously 5 cardinal, with 5 sepals, 5 petals, and 5 stamens, divided into 5 chambers in a well-developed ovary.” Hu Jun said that these morphological characteristics do not match the characteristics of the 4 cardinal number of the genus Groove And should be classified as the genus Wei Spear.

In order to test whether the taxonomic status deduced by the flower features was consistent with the molecular data, Zhang Junyi conducted molecular experiments on the sharp-toothed guard spear and the samples of the morphologically similar spinosa groove flap, combined with the data from the published studies.

Molecular system trees show that the sharp-toothed spear and the 4 species placed in the genus Groove Can get a branch with a higher support rate, but are nested in the genus Venom. This confirms the researchers’ speculative belief that the systematic location of the sharp-toothed spear should be placed in the genus Bulbophyllum, and further demonstrates that species of the genus Groove Should possibly be incorporated into the genus Bulbophyllum.

At the same time, based on the number of living populations and habitat conditions of the sharp-toothed venom spear surveyed, and considering the very small population and the threat of natural disasters, the researchers still assessed the sharp-toothed venom as a critically endangered species (CR) according to the classification and criteria of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (2022) Red List.

“The discovery of the sharp-toothed spear again a hundred years later is already significant in itself, and we have completed the record and corrected previous errors in the understanding of the morphological characteristics of the species.” Due to the living population, the future botanists will no longer face the 3 old specimens stored abroad, but can continue to do in-depth research on domestic specimens and living organisms, introduce breeding, breeding, can be described as ‘carrying on the top and starting down’, and make a little effort for biodiversity conservation. Hu Jun said.

Sharp-toothed guard spear hand painting (li congying painting)

At the same time, he expects that in the future, with the gradual improvement of traffic conditions in the mountainous areas of western Sichuan, after the auxiliary means of scientific expeditions are more advanced and convenient, they will be able to go deep into more inaccessible secret places, explore more hidden plants, and enrich the background information of Sichuan, a province with large plant resources. “I also hope that more colleagues who love plants will join us and strengthen our scientific research strength.” (Source: China Science Daily Yang Chen)

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