ACADEMY RESEARCH : New Discoveries

Peter Fritsch collecting Styrax
Peter Fritsch collecting Styrax

"To go where no one has gone before" may today seem only to apply to space travel, but that's exactly what Academy botanist Peter Fritsch accomplished recently in Yunnan Province of southwestern China. Fritsch and collections manager Bruce Bartholomew, collaborating with scientists from China's Kunming Institute of Botany, gathered plants from a previously uncollected narrow pass in the Gaoligong mountains, adding over 1,800 new specimens to the Academy's estimated 1.7-million-specimen collection, already one of the largest in the country.

Yunnan is considered a "hotspot," a particularly species-rich region stressed by habitat loss, making it a priority for worldwide conservation efforts.

Returning with a possible new species of mountain ash (genus Sorbus) was exciting, but most gratifying for Fritsch was finding trees of the genus Styrax and their aphid parasites. These aphids modify the tree's tissue into galls, encrusted pods in which their larvae develop. Each aphid species produces a unique gall and parasitizes a specific Styrax species, suggesting that the evolutionary history of the two groups is tightly linked (a process called "coevolution"). By studying this one-to-one relationship, Fritsch hopes to further understanding of how plants and their pathogens interact over time, critical knowledge to help keep our dwindling forests healthy.

aphid gall on Styrax perkinsiae
Close-up of aphid gall on Styrax perkinsiae

Styrax gall formation

Sorbus plant found only at mountain pass
Sorbus plant found only at mountain pass
(Dong Shao Fang-3960 m/11,000 f)