On discovering a new species – Part 2

In early 2014, Navendu Page published a paper describing a new species of woody plant from the Western Ghats. I spoke to him about the discovery of this plant and the work that went into describing it. This is the second part of a two-part interview. The paper is available here: http://biotaxa.org/Phytotaxa/article/view/phytotaxa.158.3.7
(Photo © Navendu Page)

Hari: Louis Pasteur is supposed to have said “Fortune favours the prepared mind”. Do you believe that your knowledge and experience with plants is what led to you making this discovery? I am sure many people – I, for example – would have walked past this plant without realising its importance.

Navendu: Not at all. Anyone could have made this discovery. You don’t need prior knowledge. You just need to be curious and interested. When I went to Canada I didn’t have any idea about the plants there. I took photos and detailed notes of every single plant I saw and tried to identify them with their field guides. I could very well have stumbled upon a new species there. So all it takes is some interest and curiosity and some technical knowledge of floras and the terms in them. Yes, maybe my experience helped me narrow down options and arrive at the new species’ taxonomic position faster. But it is definitely not impossible for a naive person. Especially, in the case of a species as dramatically different from everything else as this one was.

H: Why do you think it hadn’t been discovered till now?

N: I think it is because this species is very narrowly distributed. During my PhD fieldwork, I covered a large portion of the Western Ghats, from north to south, and I didn’t see this plant anywhere else. Not even in the valleys adjoining the Gairsoppa backwaters. So maybe it is because of this narrow distribution that it has been overlooked by other botanists. Although, now, we are aware of another team of botanists from Kerala who found the same species – we don’t know from where – a little after us.

H: Is anything known about its natural history?

N: Nothing. Many Annonaceae members tend to be bat-dispersed, which might also be the case with this species given its fruit morphology. But the lovely scarlet colour of the fruit suggests that it could be attractive to birds, like bulbuls, too. It will be great if we can collect some natural history information on this species.

H: How did you decide on the name sahyadrica for this species? Did you consider other options?

N: Call it lack of creativity, but sahyadrica was the only name I came up with. I thought it would be apt because it is the first record of this genus for peninsular India and the Western Ghats, and it is very unlikely that another member of this genus will be recorded from this area.

H: Are there any rules one needs to follow when picking a name?

N: Unfortunately not. I could have called it anything I wanted – my mother’s name, my sister’s name, my friend’s name, anything – as long as that combination of genus and species name has not already been taken. I don’t think this is wrong per say, but I think its better if a species name conveys something striking about the species – the way it looks, where it came from, something.

H: What got you interested in plants?

N: My interest in nature came from my mother, who, as long as I remember, has been an outdoors person. One thing I realised fairly early was the importance of identification. Everyone around me was obsessed in knowing the names of birds, of insects, and telling each other how many species they saw, what new species they saw. Unless you can put a name to what you see it is very difficult to convey that excitement to others. Like most other people, my first interest was birdwatching. But I realised soon that birds can be very frustrating because most of the time all you get are fleeting glimpses. And often that is just not enough to identify. With plants you can be really slow, take your own time, hold the specimen in your hand and get your identification absolutely right. I think this obsession with identification played an important part in me getting hooked onto plants.


H: How long have you been interested in plants?

N: From around the end of my school years. My mother and sister were doing this course in ecological sustainability and conservation run by Prakash Gole of the Ecological Society of India and this senior botanist called SD Mahajan. SD Mahajan would deal with the botany part and Prakash Gole would deal with the economics and sustainability part. SD Mahajan was a great teacher and made botany very interesting. Initially, I used to just go along for birdwatching but gradually even I got hooked onto plant taxonomy. Going out with my mother from an early age I was already familiar with the common names of many plants. But on these trips I also got to hear all the scientific names from this botanist, which I could relate to the plants I already knew, and I was hooked.

H: Did you expect to find a new plant species in the Western Ghats?

N: I have been dying to find a new species in the Western Ghats! I always wondered when it would happen.

H: It didn’t come as a surprise to you?

N: A new species of woody plant was a complete surprise and I was thrilled to discover it. Most new plant species discovered these days are short-lived herbs which are active for only a very brief period, often in remote places. Ceropegia is a good example. Since I started taking a keen interest in botany, I kept meeting all these taxonomists who wanted to find and describe new Ceropegia species. There is the craze for Ceropegia, much like the craze to describe new frog species in the tropics. I too have always wanted to discover a new Ceropegia species, but that never happened. After a point I gave up on that, and it didn’t matter so much because I was happy just seeing species that were new to me. As a taxonomist you have to keep seeing new things otherwise you get bored. But it was a very pleasant surprise when I stumbled upon this plant. And after that I have come across another 4-5 cases of potential new woody plant species in the Western Ghats. One of them is completely unknown and the others are cases where the northern and southern populations of species are so different that they may need to be made different species. You asked me earlier if knowledge helps in discovering species – this is one example. Only because I sampled plants across the whole of the Western Ghats, was I able to look at the range in morphological variation of species and realise that some species are so different from north to south that they need to be split.

H: Are you involved in describing any of these other species?

N: Yes, but not on my own. The excitement of describing new species has worn off somewhat after I did the first one. Also, I am in the final stages of my PhD and really busy. But there are lots of undergrad/Master’s students and interns who are interested in this who are leading this work. I only guide them. Manuscripts on three potential new species are almost ready to be communicated.

H: This discovery came while you were doing your Phd. Did you welcome the distraction? Did it help your PhD in any way?

N: No matter when it had come, this discovery would have been special. It didn’t help my PhD in any direct way but it did make an important point. When I proposed my work on plants in the Western Ghats, many people said that it was such a well-studied area, that so many people have already worked there, that everything is done. But clearly it is not enough. This discovery and the other new species in the pipeline are signs that there is still so much to be known.

H: How would you compare this discovery to the research you do in your PhD – describing ecological patterns, proposing explanations for them etc.? What do you enjoy more?

N: I have never thought of it in those terms, but since you ask: a new species is of interest usually only to a very small section of people, to taxonomists working on that family. Therefore, while describing a new species gives me great personal satisfaction, I would think that describing and explaining an ecological phenomenon is of much more general importance, and probably a lot more challenging too.

H: Is this discovery a big deal in the field of plant taxonomy?

N: It is a new record for this genus in the Western Ghats. Also, it throws up interesting biogeography questions: How and when did it reach the Western Ghats? Why didn’t it diversify into new species? Why is it so narrowly-distributed?

H: Did you have any difficulty getting this published?

N: We first sent this paper to Kew Bulletin but it was rejected. I don’t remember exactly on what grounds but I recollect being quite upset about it at that time. I think the journal had a problem with all the molecular work and the biogeography in the paper, which they felt was unsuitable in a taxonomic journal. But we believe that that’s what makes this paper interesting. Next, we submitted it to Phytotaxa, where it went through review quite smoothly. The reviewers, and especially the editor, provided really useful suggestions on the manuscript. But this journal too, felt that the biogeography discussion needed to be cut down.

H: For a species to be considered valid, is it enough if the description is accepted by a journal?

N: Yes. It has to only be published in a peer-reviewed journal. It is the journal’s responsibilities to get the paper reviewed by authorities in different taxonomic groups. The handling editor who supervised the review of my paper at Phytotaxa is an expert on primitive angiosperms. He knew who to send it too and was able to provide valuable comments himself. But this only happens in the good journals. I wouldn’t trust all new species descriptions immediately, especially if they are published in journals that aren’t well-established yet.

H: What about the specimens? Where do they need to be deposited?

N: Earlier all new plant specimens were sent to the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. But that is not mandatory anymore. You can send it to any of the recognised herbaria. I will send mine to three places – the CES herbarium, the Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT), and Botanical Survey of India (BSI), Kolkata.

H: Can you give a timeline of the whole process – from discovery to publication?

N: November 2010: First sighting; November 2010- November 2012: checking floras and keys (I did this whenever I could take time off from my PhD work); November 2012: went back to collect samples; first half of 2013: sent photos to expert in Hong Kong, molecular work, got illustrations done, wrote it up; late 2013: submitted to and rejected by Kew Bulletin; early 2014: accepted and published by Phytotaxa.

H: Does it help to be both a taxonomist and an ecologist?

N: More in one direction than the other. Taxonomy is not that crucial for doing ecology. Yes, you require some basic species identification skills, but nothing more than that. But I think taxonomists really benefit in having some grounding in ecology. Attending Praveen’s course on evolution, learning molecular techniques, and the discussions on biogeography in my lab all played a role in shaping this paper.

H: Would you say that interest in taxonomic work is declining?

N: It is not that people aren’t interested. I see a lot of students interested, like the people working on these new species with me. I think it is important that they get the right exposure and encouragement. I was very lucky in that way to have the right people around me to nurture my interest.


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