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Strange new cave-dwelling plant thrives with little light

Researchers have found a strange new cave-dwelling plant in China that thrives with little light. The exploration of caves and gorges in South West China, Myanmar and Northern Vietnam has yielded many new planet species in recent years, but this latest discovery may be the most fascinating.

“When my Chinese colleague Wei Yi-Gang from the Guangxi Institute of Botany first mentioned cave-dwelling plants to me, I thought that he was mis-translating a Chinese word into English,” says Alex Monro, a Kew botanist and nettle expert. “When we stepped into our first cave, Yangzi cave, I was spell-bound. It had an eerie moonscape look to it and all I could see were clumps of plants in the nettle family growing in very dark condition.”

According to the researchers, the plants do not grow in complete darkness but do grow in extremely low light levels, deep within the entrance caverns of the caves. Researchers have been gathering plants from the Nettle family in this limestone landscape for several years, but have only recently released a paper discussing three new species, one from a cave and another two from deep gorges.

The new cave-dwelling plant was discovered growing in two caves in the Guangxi province of China. One of the plant species found in the gorges is known from a rock mineral formation called petaloid travertine. This type of rock mineral formation is a form of limestone deposited by mineral springs that over time forms large petals of rock.

Researchers believe that up to one third of the 700 species of Pilea nettles remain undescribed.

The IUCN Red List of endangered species has classified the new species as vulnerable, according to TGDaily. Despite the problematic nature of describing a species based on a single collection, researchers hope that their efforts will help protect the new cave-dwelling plant.

“Describing species based on a single or only two collections is problematic as there is no estimate of variation within the species and so the risk of over recognizing species is greater,” the authors write in their paper. “This is compounded in Floras such as China’s where there has been a tradition of describing species from single collections resulting in a situation whereby the most closely related species may also be known from a single collection. Despite the above we have decided to describe one of the species in this manuscript based on a single collection as we feel that, given China’s fast changing landscape and the fragility of many of the localities, to describe the species now affords the best hope for their conservation.”

The study’s findings were recently published in the open access journal PhytoKeys.

You can read the researchers’ article in PhytoKeys to learn more about the strange new cave-dwelling plant.