A green discovery

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A new plant species was recently identified in Chandreshwar Hills, South Goa. On World Environment Day, NT BUZZ brings you all the details

ANNA FERNANDES | NT BUZZ

A team of researchers stumbled upon a new plant species in the Chandreshwar Hills of South Goa. The team, comprising PhD student from Calicut University, Kerala, Resmi S; professor and former head of the Department of Botany, University of Calicut, Kerala, Santhosh Nampy; and PhD student at Goa University, Akshatra Pracy Fernandes, documented the discovery in a paper in the international peer-reviewed journal ‘Candollea’ published by the Conservatory and Botanical Garden of the City of Geneva.

The species, belonging to the genus Sonerila and the plant family Melastomataceae, has been named Sonerila konkanensis Resmi & Nampy. The species name ‘konkanensis’ is derived from the locality where it was found, that is, the Konkan, a region of rich biodiversity.

Sonerila konkanensis is described as “a tuberous species with angular stems, lime green leaves, pale pink flowers and acuminate to rostrate anthers”. The species is further characterised by its large, leaf-like, persistent bracts (reduced leaves) – which are not reported in any other Sonerila species from India. “The other species of Sonerila present in India also have angular stems and tuberous rootstocks, but none of them are morphologically closely related to the new taxon,” says Akshatra, who is currently pursuing her PhD under the guidance of professor MK Janarthanam in the Department of Botany.

Akshatra chanced upon this unusual plant in 2018 during a spider trail headed by Prasanna Parab on the Chandreshwar Hills. “It had distinct pink flowers and was hidden among other plants on a vertical wall. When I tried to identify it, I realised it looked a little different from the typical flora of the same genus.” She then contacted Rutuja Kolte who was pursuing her PhD at Goa University who then, on further investigation of this plant, contacted Resmi from Calicut University, an expert on the Sonerila genus of India.

Since 2015, both Resmi and Nampy had been collecting Sonerila in the course of a taxonomic revision of the genus in India. In fact, they had already identified and published three new species in this genus.

In 2019, Resmi visited Goa in search of the new species. Starting in North Goa where Resmi had previously identified Sonerila scapigera in 2017, they then moved to the Chandreshwar Hills in Paroda, South Goa, in search of the new specimen. “It started raining heavily as we walked through the hill exploring the plant populations around. We also searched other hillocks in the area. Drenched in rain among peacocks and peahens, we pushed ourselves to complete the task because Resmi had to return to Kerala as per her schedule,” Akshatra reveals. When they finally found the specimen, they saw that it had marked differences in its leaves, bracts, and petals. Resmi identified the specimen as an altogether different species. “This was a milestone for me; to have found a new plant and to have made a new discovery in science – that too in my favourite place and in my hometown,” says Akshatra.

The plant was found in a very peculiar habitat, she adds. It was growing on rocks and on a vertical wall near a slow flowing stream. “Sonerila generally grows in vertical moist rock-crevices, moist slopes of hills, near waterfalls, grassland-shola margins, road-cuttings of Ghat regions, and exposed lateritic slopes. Due to the isolation of habitats, the genus almost exclusively includes local or regional endemics with very limited distribution and constitutes a noteworthy case of adaptive radiation. The illegal constructions, tourism activities, and red stone mining in the Western Ghats pose a big threat to these species,” say Nampy and Resmi, who are currently focusing on the molecular phylogeny and historical biogeography of the genus Sonerila (Melastomataceae) with special emphasis on India, with funding from the International Association for Plant Taxonomy (IAPT) Research Grant 2020.

A total of only 90 mature individuals of Sonerila konkanensis were found in an area of four-kilometre square. “It is likely that more populations in similar habitats on the same hill are not yet known, and further surveys are needed to determine the exact distribution range of this species,” informs Akshatra. And since the locality is a tourist destination and considering the possibility of further ecological disturbance of this restricted-range species, Sonerila konkanensis has been categorised as vulnerable as per the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List. This, she explains, suggests that there are high chances of this species becoming extinct due to unnecessary road extension, building of concrete walls, and hill cutting.

One interesting feature of the newly-identified species is that it bears small tubers (enlarged structures in some plant species used as storage organs for nutrients), which helps it survive in dry weather – hence, the plant is only visible during the rainy season. Similar plants are present on plateaus and lands. These plants have interesting mechanisms to survive dry seasons such as the formation of tubers, which stay dormant until suitable conditions arise. Sonerila konkanensis may be medicinal too, but phytochemical studies are required to confirm it.

The discovery points to a plethora of undiscovered species in Goa. Akshatra who hails from the village of Paroda, tells us that the Paroda area, especially its hills, is very rich in biodiversity. There have been many different species that have been reported in this area: different species of birds found and reported by eBird, new records of spider species identified by Rupali Pandit and Mangirish Dharwadkar in 2020, and even plant species such as Ceropegia hirsuta, Hugonia mystax, Mytrasacme pygmeae, Pycnospora lutescence, Sonerila rheedei, and Valaris solanacea added to the flora of Goa by A Prabhugaunkar, MM Sardessai, and MK Janarthanam in 2009. The hills here are home to many unidentified species, and more field surveys would surely lead to more discoveries and novelties.

Therefore, protecting our land the way our ancestors did is of utmost importance, she says. On World Environment Day, Akshatra appeals to the public to protect our biodiversity. “We can even try to propagate these native beauties, if possible, which will help beautify the state and conserve the gene pool of the species,” she adds, further emphasising that people should not simply uproot plants as that can damage the plant’s population.

“We have to conserve our biogeographically distinct habitats such as hills, plateaus, and coastlands, all of which have different plant compositions and combinations, producing different kinds of microhabitats for other organisms. Every organism is linked to other organisms for life, including humans, yet we tend to disturb and decrease our assets. Sustainable development is key for successful balance,” she says.

Similarly, in order to increase awareness among the public so that they can be invested in conserving the biodiversity in Goa, Akshatra states that environmental campaigns for children are the need of the hour so that they may learn to revere nature. “Environmental education and our duty towards the earth should be taken seriously right from a very young age. Children and adults should inculcate a habit of waste management and conservation of flora and fauna. If they are not aware, they should be able to seek awareness from experts before destroying nature,” she adds.

What’s in a name?

Sonerila is an old-world genus of the family Melastomataceae (tribe Sonerileae) comprising around 180 taxa and distributed in the Indo-Pacific region. It is the largest genus of the tribe Sonerileae in India with about 62 species having a sizeable percentage (83 per cent) of endemism.

Out of 62 species, 53 are found in the Western Ghats. The name Sonerila is coined from the Malayalam term ‘suwarna’ meaning beautifully coloured, and ‘ila’ meaning leaf, an allusion to the shining leaves of the plant.

The specific epithet, Sonerila konkanensis, refers to the locality where the species was found, that is, the Konkan. As of now, Sonerila konkanensis is reported only in the Chandreshwar Hills and is categorised as vulnerable as per the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List.