By Molly Michelson
From 2000 to 2006, Academy botanist Peter Fritsch visited the Yunnan Province of China on six occasions as part of a multi-disciplinary research project to survey the plants and animals of the Gaoligong Mountains. This range, located on the border of Burma and very near to Tibet, is probably the most biodiverse region in the North Temperate Zone. “It’s a rugged area with steep slopes, raging rivers, and varied habitats,” Fritsch explains. “It is also a biodiversity hotspot.”
In the course of conducting these surveys Fritsch became intrigued by a group of diminutive, high-alpine plants called “wintergreens.” These plants belong to the same family as blueberries, cranberries, and rhododendrons—and the same genus, Gaultheria, from which oil of wintergreen, used in candies and medicines, comes from. The plants are unusual in that the small, unattractive fruit is surrounded by a large fleshy “false” part derived from a distinct part of the flower. These plants come in a variety of shapes and colors and attract mammals and birds who disperse their seeds.
“When these plant specimens are collected for museum storage most characters in the fruit such as color and shape become distorted, so it’s not easy to see the features as they are,” Fritsch says. “As a result, we think that many of these species have been ‘lumped’ incorrectly into only a few.” While he wanted to study these plants more extensively in the field, he never quite had the opportunity.
This fall, he finally got his chance! In collaboration with the Kunming Institute of Botany (KIB), Fritsch received a grant from the National Geographic Society to study the wintergreen plants in detail, and he and his KIB colleagues spent several weeks in September making field observations and collecting specimens.
The team made three trips travelling up and down steep slopes, each time starting at about 6,000 feet and climbing to an elevation of about 14,000 feet. “The conditions are really intense,” says Fritsch. “There’s not a lot of time to go up and come down the passes before dark. There’s rain and less oxygen; it’s steep and slippery; you’re tired, cold, and hungry and sometimes you almost forget why you are there. But you have to focus and carefully observe and collect the plants.”
And at the end of each day, they couldn’t just fall right into their sleeping bags. “We have to process material, and that takes several hours,” Fritsch says. “We have to sort out specimens for the herbarium and molecular testing, take photographs and complete field notes.”
Back at the lab at KIB, Fritsch continued to work on the samples retrieved in the field. “We used high-magnification dissecting scopes because the plants are very small,” Fritsch explains. “The leaves generally don’t exceed 10 mm, and the smallest we found was only 2 mm.
“We look for characters that differentiate them—not just in the scope but in the field photos, too. These varying characters can be tiny hairs that occur on stems and leaves, or the shapes of flower and fruit. The fruit is opened or closed and that’s hard to see in herbarium specimens. ”
Before this trip, there were just seven species known from the region. Fritsch and his KIB colleague Lu Lu now believe there are at least twenty-three!
Up next for the team: publishing their findings, genetic testing to determine where these plants fit in the evolutionary tree, and completing more fieldwork. “Lu Lu has found specimens in Tibet and we want to go back and look at those a little closer. We also want to see some of these in flower,” Fritsch says, meaning he and Lu will make these rough climbs again perhaps as early as next June or July.
Just like any scientific endeavor, species discovery takes time and patience. “It is a process. It takes getting there and observing, with a lot of attention to detail. You can’t just snap your fingers and have the species announce their presence. It takes a lot of background study and knowledge to be able to have the chance for an ‘aha’ moment, to recognize that in fact you found a species new to science.”
Images: Left, Lu Lu, Right, Peter Fritsch