Earthwatch Teams Find New Species in Cameroon Rainforest
Volunteers help discover 50 new plant species and varieties in decade-long botanical survey
Rainforests around the world are disappearing at an alarming rate, before scientists can discover all of the species they contain and how they may be valuable to medicine or agriculture. Volunteers from Earthwatch Institute working in Cameroon Rainforests have helped discover 50 endemic plant and fungus species and varieties new to science, a boon to the conservation of these forests.
More than 300 Earthwatch volunteers have helped Dr. Martin Cheek and colleagues at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew survey the plant diversity of highland forests in western Cameroon, some of the most threatened forests in the world. The new species vary from tiny annual mountain pipeworts the size of a thumbnail to huge rainforest canopy trees, and include three new species of coffee and one of ebony.
“Most of these new species have small geographic ranges, so they are highly vulnerable to extinction and thus important for conservation,”¯ said Cheek, principal investigator of Earthwatch’s Cameroon Rainforests project. “One new genus, Kupea, which when published was co-authored by Earthwatch volunteer Sue Williams, is only known from two small patches totalling about 20 meters square in the forest near one village.”¯
Since 1993, Earthwatch teams on Cameroon Rainforests have helped Cheek and colleagues exploring the remote and poorly known highland forests of western Cameroon, aided by local plant experts. They have documented the rare and endemic plants that remain in these dwindling forest habitats, and have provided vital data for forest conservation. To date, teams have collected nearly 50 percent of the plant specimens catalogued from western Cameroon.
One new species, Rhaptopetalum geophylax (literally R. “earth-watch”¯), was named in honor of Earthwatch in a recent publication. Co-author George Gosline of Seattle, Washington, originally joined Cheek’s team as a volunteer, and then decided to specialize in botany at Kew, where he is now a research associate and co-principal investigator of Cameroon Rainforests. Another new species, Impatiens frithii, a flame-flowered impatience, was named after the Earthwatch volunteer who discovered it, Matthew Frith of London, England.
“I never imagined having a plant named after me, but the day I encountered a scarlet-flowered Impatiens on a saunter up a forest stream is one I shall never forget,”¯ said Frith. “The chance to contribute to a greater understanding of the conservation value of these forests and support efforts by local people to sustainably manage their local environment was highly inspirational.”¯
“Earthwatch volunteers have made it possible, providing the hands and eyes necessary to gather the vast amounts of material we need to help local conservation managers prioritize which species most need protection,”¯ said Cheek. “But many more species are still undescribed in the highlands of western Cameroon and given the current pace of habitat degradation, they may face extinction before we have even found them.”¯
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