With 13,634 species, 1,742 genera and 264 families and a lot more, New Guinea has emerged as the most botanically diverse island in the world. The second largest island after Greenland, the island holds a mythical place in most people’s imaginations and has always fascinated naturalists for many centuries.
The checklist was prepared by about a hundred scientists from 56 institutions and 19 countries. Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Prof. Jordi Bascompte in the UZH Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies led the team.
These naturalists are credited with drafting the first expert verified checklist for the 13,634 vascular plant species of New Guinea and its surrounding islands. A globally recognised place of biological and cultural diversity, there has been no attempt to catalogue the entire vascular plant diversity. The region is known for having diverse climate extremes.
Of the catalogued species, the most species rich family are the orchids, A third of the species are trees. Another finding is that is that 68 per cent of the plants are endemic and are found only in this region. Cámara-Leret said that such high endemic species richness was unmatched in tropical Asia.
Noting that New Guinea was like visiting a botanical paradise, Camara Leret said that they knew that the forests had always some surprise when they entered it. He also mentioned that the most remarkable plants that he came across are Musa ingens, which are the largest banana species in the world. It grows more than 20 metres tall.
Camara Leret noted that orchids were the most diverse plant family in New Guinea. Of this 86 per cent were native to the region. This included Bulbophyllum nocturnum, the first known example of an Orchid species. The flowers of this species open after dark and close in the morning.
The scientists also came across an exciting symbiotic mutualism between ants and a tree endemic to New Guinea (Ryparosa amplifolia). The trees provided food and shelter to the ants and in return the ants cleaned the leaves of the plants and protect it from herbivores.
In the research, they also mentioned that many of the species in the region were so varied and unknown to western science. Most of them are under threat from mining, industrial logging and agriculture. Camara Leret noted that some plants even disappeared before one even knew they even existed.
Noting that plants of New Guinea was important because of their uniqueness, Camara Leret said that about 70 per cent of the flora was endemic so it was their duty as scientists to document and understand this region while there is still time. New Guinea along with the Amazon and Congo is one of the last three tropical wilderness areas.
Some of the plants now classified are important for the livelihood of the local population. The scientists and researchers said that they were working with Indigenous communities and policy makers to preserve the region’s ecosystems.