New flower species discovered in Davao Oriental uses fungi instead of chlorophyll to survive – and it’s purple

Add another item to the already massive list of wildlife only found in the Philippines.

In May 2020, a team of biologists and researchers from the United States and the Philippines discovered a new species of purple flowers high up Mt. Hamiguitan in Davao Oriental.

This new flower is now formally known as Gymnosiphon syceorosensis and is part of a family of other flowering plants called Burmanniaceae.

These are often mistaken as orchids because of their similar appearance and how they both hide microscopic seeds inside their fruits.

Quick note: Because Gymnosiphon syceorosensis isn’t the easiest name to say, it will be referred to as Syro from here on out. This is 100% a made up nickname, so don’t use it around your biologist friends if you don’t want to get judged.

What’s special about the newly discovered Syro flower?

Syro is a holo-mycoheterotrophic plant. This means that it relies on fungi to get the nutrients it needs to survive, instead of using chlorophyll and photosynthesis like other trees and flowers.

Now if you’re like most people who were forced to draw examples of a food chain too many times in grade 4 science class, then you might also remember that plants are usually on the bottom. This is because many plants are autotrophs – they make their own food.

But Syro is not about that life.

The new species above is a holo-mycoheterotroph. I didn’t know what that meant either, but breaking it down makes the term a bit easier to understand:

  • Holo meaning full or whole, describes the lifetime of Syro
  • Myco is a prefix that refers to mushrooms and other fungi
  • Hetero means different or other
  • Trophic refers to nutrition or food

Put it all together and you get: a plant that depends on fungi to get nutrition throughout its entire life as a flower.

This isn’t entirely new because you likely already know about other heterotophic plants in the Philippines.

Heterotrophs include carnivorous species that feed on insects like the Pitcher Plant (which are also in Mt Hamiguitan), and parasitic plants that suck nutrients from their host such as the giant Rafflesia.

Where was it discovered in the Philippines?

Syro was first discovered during a scientific expedition more than 1,180 up the slopes of the Mt Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary in Davao Oriental, Mindanao. The wildlife survey was conducted in December 2019 with the official research findings published in May 2020.

The Hamiguitan mountain range is one of 6 UNESCO heritage sites in the Philippines (alongside the Tubbataha Reefs, Cordillera Rice Terraces, and others). It was declared a nationally protected area in 2003 because of its extremely high concentration of unique biodiversity.

This mountain range alone contains at least 341 species of trees, flowers, birds, reptiles, and amphibians that are endemic – meaning they are only found in the Philippines and nowhere else in the world.

It is one of the few remaining habitats for many endangered and threatened flora (plants) and fauna (animals), including the critically endangered Philippine Eagle.

Who made the discovery?

The scientific study in Mt Hamiguitan was led and publsihed by Daniel Lee Nickrent, a botanist from the University of Illinois, alongside local researchers from the Philippine DENR-Biodiversity Management Bureau.

Nickrent’s focus is on plant biology and specializes on examining their molecular anatomy and morphology (the inside structure of plants).

In the case of Syro, a combination of DNA analysis and a comparison of its anatomy to other related flowers helped conclude there were enough differences to declare it as a new previously undiscovered species.

Who sponsored the study in Mt Hamiguitan?

The study was supported by the Global Environment Facility through the United Nations Environmental Fund with a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation Biodiversity: Discovery & Analysis program.

Other contributing researchers, scientists, and officials include: Victor Amoroso, Fulgent Coritico, Jorgen Abellera, Mescel Sarmiento Acola, Joevine Caballero Nobleza, Yvonne Love CariƱo, Peter Fritsch, Michael Galindon, Alice Gerlach, Vanessa Handley, Lydia Marie Hicks, April Joie Lagumbay, Noel Lagunday, Jef Mancera, Jennifer G. Opiso, Gordon McPherson, Noe Shaw Mendez, Darin Penneys, McAndrew K. Pranada, Peter Quackenbush, Maverick N. Tamayo, Danilo Tandang, and Aimanuelzon Yorong.

You can download the full published study with some of the images used above with the complete description of how Syro was identified here on ResearchGate.

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