Suddenly one day scientists realized that a great hulking tree that every Incan and his Andean dog had known about forever was an unknown species. Or, more accurately perhaps, unnoticed.
Incadendron esseri is not exactly rare. But this canopy tree just lives off the beaten track, in a narrow band of altitude between 1,000 to 2,400 meters' elevation, in the mountain cloud forest of Ecuador and Peru. It was finally noticed by researchers from the Smithsonian and Wake Forest University, who described the new genus in PhytoKeys.
It is true that Incadendron’s preferable habitat range is rather remote, but the Andes are not exactly unexplored. How could a tree that can easily reach 100 feet in height, with a broad canopy, and some weird characteristics including slime-secreting sheathing stipules (small leaflike appendages at the base of the leaf stalk), remain unknown all this time?
Because the Andean cloud forest remains understudied and under-collected, a fact that applies in particular to the elevation range where Incadendron thrives, explains grad student William Farfan-Rios of Wake Forest University, which is located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Actually, it was noticed well over a decade ago, but conclusions took their time, elaborates Kenneth Wurdack, research scientist and associate curator at the Smithsonian.
“The tree appears to have been discovered in 2003 (we know of no earlier collections) and its discovery coincides with new botanical exploration of several remote regions,” Wurdack told Haaretz. When a new species is discovered in the wild, it takes time to complete its analysis and classification, and for the experts to figure out what to do – determine if it really is new and how to classify it. Also, scientific research articles don’t get written, peer-reviewed and published overnight, the researcher points out.
Lurking in plain sight
When it comes to groups of organisms that almost nobody cares about (“that have few experts”) like Andean trees, as opposed to Asian tigers, for instance, the lag time can be decades, Wurdack explains. “A new bird or mammal usually gets recognized and worked on very quickly, but an obscure tropical plant, not so fast.”
So the Incadendron was noticed in 2003, until which time, the tree had simply been misidentified, or samples sat languishing in a backlog awaiting expert identification, Wurdack explains. It being a rare tree (globally speaking) living in clouds on Andean mountains, more samples were needed for the experts to weigh in, and with those, and – finally – genetic evidence, the truth became clear.
To be fair to the botanists of the world, one doesn’t often find oneself trekking the Inca path in Peru, the Trocha Unión, where Incadendron is common. The cloud forest is a very wet, cool place that is even more challenging than a typical tropical rainforest, which is usually less wet and hotter, Wurdack explains. This tree would probably not do well in other conditions – anybody who has tried to nurture a carnivorous plant from a cloud forest can tell you, he points out.
Suicide palms and ants
Another weird thing to incognoscenti is that trees “unknown to science,” or, unnoticed by science, are not that unusual.
“One of the most sensational recent new trees of the past decade, also a new genus and species, is a giant palm in a remote part of Madagascar, Tahina spectabilis, that can be seen from Google Earth space images. The palm dies after flowering (hence the term “suicidal” but many plants do that, even parsley) which added to the public imagination,” Wurdack helpfully shares.
Indeed, it is impressively enormous – in fact it’s the biggest fan palm on the island nation, according to its discoverers. And like Incadendron, part of the reason it remained “unknown” is that it grows off the Madagascarian beaten track.
Another new tree described in 2015 is Guatteria cuscoensis, which was collected in 2006 in the Manu National Park, at 1,650 meters of elevation. Like Incadendron, it took years to realize it was an unknown species, says Farfan-Rios.
Not only trees but animals keep getting discovered, though ironically, many new discoveries are already on the brink of extinction. Some of the more notable ones include the white-cheeked macaque of southeastern Tibet, which scientists realized was not the same as other macaques mainly due to its unusual junk. To wit, it has a round-headed penis, while the others have arrow-shaped penises, and also sported a dark, hairy scrotum – the others had white testicle-sacs.
Less adorable are the 33 species of ants discovered thriving on the rainforest floor of Central America and in the Caribbean.
Even little Israel has its share of suddenly-discovered species, including ones trapped in caves for thousands or even millions of years, and a species of garlic. However, the ultimate unknown species has to be the leopard frog discovered living in the heart of New York City in 2014. Lo, it proved not to be like other leopard frogs living in New York City, but in that case science has no excuse. None.
The long and short of it is that precious few people care about the minutiae of tree classification, and would know or care whether or not a tree was known or not. Also, the botany of the cloud forests of the eastern Andes has not been vastly studied, points out Miles Silman of Wake Forest. And thus a towering tree looming 100 feet over your head with weird woody fruit went unnoticed and uncared for all these years, and there may be many more.