While carrying out fieldwork in the Indonesian rainforest, near the settlements of Abuki and Kolaka on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, as part of a research trip to Asia, Liam Trethowan (a PhD Ecology student), spotted a group of Kalappia trees around 200km from where it was last sighted back in the 1970s. Trethowan published his findings in Ecology, the journal of the Ecological Society of America, entitled: An enigmatic genus on an enigmatic island: The re‐discovery of Kalappia on Sulawesi.
Speaking about his discovery, Trethowan said: ‘No reports of the tree had been made since the 1970s and experts believed the tree must be extinct. I was really keen to go into under-explored parts of the forest whilst in Indonesia because that is where new or long since lost species can be found. It is also very rare to find rain forest trees in flower, which meant we could photo and closely examine this species for the very first time.’
The Kalappia tree can grow up to 40m tall and has bright yellow flowers that feature a unique spike, known as spurs, that are used by bees when they feed at the flower. The bees create vibrations that cause the flower to release pollen, which they transport to other trees to allow them to reproduce. The Kalappia is part of the Fabaceae or Leguminosae, often referred to as the legume, pea, or bean family, which is an important family of flowering plants and is the third largest land plant family in terms of number of species. It includes around 670 genera and nearly 20,000 species of trees, shrubs, vines and herbs.
For years, Kalappia was exploited for its commercial value. It was used for house construction, shipbuilding, the construction of bridges and furniture manufacture. This practice, as well as nickel mining and gas extraction, led to mass deforestation and to the drastic reduction in numbers of the Kalappia tree. In 1988, the International Union for Conservation of Nature categorised the species as ‘vulnerable’.
Francis Brearley, a senior lecturer in ecology at Manchester Metropolitan University and supervisor of the PhD research project, added: ‘The rediscovery of Kalappia highlights the lack of knowledge and information we have about the forests we have around us – we could be losing species that are actually just hidden in these areas. The failure to collect data is due to difficulties with accessibility in these areas. However, to gather baseline knowledge about rare and threatened species, exploration of remote areas is crucial and should be encouraged and, crucially, financially supported.’
Trethowan’s discovery of Kalappia and its close relatives in the legume family has raised hope among conservationists that many trees thought to be endangered or extinct may still survive in remote and under explored areas. It has offered the chance to learn more about why plants are able to survive in different environments. After closer examination of Kalappia and its relatives, Trethowan found that these species grow in harsh metal-rich environments. For example, Kalapia trees are mainly found on rocky soils containing iron. He suggests that due to this, these trees might also be able to tolerate and survive in the harsh, arid environments of Australia. As the Earth’s climate changes and rain forests experience more droughts and become more difficult habitats for plants to survive in, these findings may help researchers understand which plant groups will survive in the future.
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