Amores Flores

An Academy scientist dedicates a lifetime to understanding Mexico's colorful secrets.


When Academy botanist Tom Daniel first visited Mexico in 1976 as a graduate student researching the country's native plants, he didn't expect to spend much time there. The region was not considered rich in his plants of interest, the shrimp plants (Acanthaceae family), and he didn't speak Spanish. But after spending five months tracking down species, he not only fell in love with a country whose people frequently took him in for a Spanish lesson, but he discovered that Mexico was a shrimp plant biodiversity hotspot, teeming with species found nowhere else in the world.

In the nearly 27 years since then, Daniel has discovered and described shrimp plants from just about every part of the country. And he's still uncovering surprises. Shrimp plants inhabit the wettest rainforests and the driest deserts, and have a diverse array of pollinators including flies, bees, hummingbirds, and bats. Daniel and colleagues recently found that shrimp plants' pollinators can usually be correlated with the sugary makeup of the flower's nectar. Thus, by analyzing the ratio of the nectar's sugars, the scientists can predict pollinators.

He's starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. This February, he's off to the Yucatán Peninsula to explore the last three Mexican states to conclude a survey of the entire country. But his love affair with Mexico is far from over. In upcoming years, he'll be merging decades of data to describe the more than 400 species of Mexican shrimp plants, including their ecological preferences, pollinators, and traditional and modern human uses.

Poikilacanthus macranthus is not a common species,
but is the most widely distributed species in that genus. It occurs from southern Mexico to Panama in moist to wet forests. Pollinators of these flowers have yet to be observed. Photo: Tom Daniel
Map by Colleen Sudukem

 

 

Tom Daniel with Barleria oenotheroides found in northern South America up to Mexico. Photo: Dong Lin
Barranca de Tolantongo, part of the dry Barranca region of central Mexico, is full of endemics such as cacti and agaves. The area is not well known botanically because of difficult access.
Photo: Tom Daniel