Where in the World - China Expedition 2002

Photos from the Field - updated October 15, 2002

China Expedition Team from California Academy of Sciences Finds Extraordinary Plant

As part of a global collaborative effort to preserve biodiversity in China, the California Academy of Sciences launched the China Natural History Project (CNHP) in May, 1998. The pilot project of CNHP involved a biodiversity survey of the Gaoligongshan region of northwestern Yunnan Province. A second expedition took place in 2000, with Academy botanists, ichthyologists, and a herpetologist and mammalogist returning to join their Chinese colleagues to undertake further biodiversity survey work. Results of the field work from those expeditions, as well as the 2002 expedition presently under way, will be of major interest to policy-makers, conservationists, students and scholars.

Since late September and through October, Academy and Chinese scientists are collaborating in three separate expeditions in Yunnan Province: botany/entomology together are in the northern part of the Gaoligongshan mountain range out of the town of Binzhonglou; the vertebrate team is based in Liuku in the middle of the range; and the paleovertebrate team is exploring limestone caves in the Gaoligongshan. What follows is the first dispatch from botanist Peter Fritsch, the expedition leader, and member of the botany/entomology team.

"During our inventory of the Gaoligongshan in Yunnan Province, China, the project team discovered a population of a bizarre plant, Balanophora involucrata. Looking more like a fungus than a flowering plant, Balanophora is an obligate parasite on other plants. It attaches its rhizomes to the roots of its host, deriving all its nutrition by this mechanism. Unlike typical plants, the small proportion of holoparasitic flowering plants such as Balanophora do not possess chlorophyll, the molecule that is critical for converting the energy of the sun into food. Its leaves are highly reduced, existing only as scale-like objects hugging the thick stem. Its flowers are also highly reduced and the male and female parts occur on separate flowers.

Only 16 species in the genus Balanophora are known, occurring in Africa and Australia as well as eastern Asia. This and their relative rarity and inconspicuous nature (they need no sunlight and thus can occur in the deep shade of their hosts) make the discovery of these plants in the field a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a North American scientist."

Back at the Academy, Frank Almeda, curator of botany, added that the species Balanophora involucrata is found only in continental Asia extending in a rather distributional line from the Himalayas east into China. The famous botanist and explorer J.D. Hooker, in a paper published back in 1856, commented on B. involucrata as follows: "…this parasite causes large knots up to 10 cm in diameter to form on the roots of oaks and maples, and these are much sought by the natives for the manufacture of the wooden cups in general use throughout the Himalaya and Tibet."

 

Web Resources

Biotic Survey of the Gaoligong Shan
http://research.calacademy.org/yunnan/

Academy Expedition to China
http://www.calacademy.org/research
/cnhp/html/index_main.php

Academy Research - New Discoveries http://www.calacademy.org/science_now/
archive/academy_research/peter_fritsch.php

A Love for China
http://www.calacademy.org/science_now/
archive/academy_research/
bruce_bartholomew.php

Stroll Through a Chinese Painting
http://www.calacademy.org/calwild/
winter2001/china2.php

 

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Academy and Chinese scientists gather in Gongshan China. Photo Dong Lin.

Balanophora involucrata. Photo Dong Lin.
 
Preparing for the expedition. Photo Dong Lin.
The Salween River begins in the eastern highlands of the Tibetan Plateau and eventually enters the Andaman Sea in eastern Myanmar. Photo Dong Lin.
 
Botanists Peter Fritsch and Bruce Barthalomew. Photo Dong Lin.
 
Entomologists Dave Kavanaugh, Liang Hongbin and graduate student Paul Marek. Photo Dong Lin.
 
Botanical specimens collected during the expedition. (Top-left, Impatiens, top-right, Luculia, bottom-left, Gesneriad, bottom right, Arisaema. Photos Dong Lin.