- Researchers in Sri Lanka have described a species of flowering plant new to science, categorizing it as critically endangered due to its small and declining population and restricted range.
- Impatiens jacobdevlasii is named for Dutch botanist Jacob de Vlas, co-author of a series of illustrated guides to over 3,000 known flowering plants of Sri Lanka.
- Sri Lanka is among the world’s six impatiens plant hotspots, but many of its endemic species are threatened with extinction, with one considered possibly extinct after not being seen for nearly a century .
- The new discovery also highlights the spirit of collaboration between a young cohort of Sri Lankan botanists, whose work is sparking greater interest in the island’s plant life, and a growing number of new discoveries.
COLOMBO – The Knuckles Mountain Range in central Sri Lanka is a UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site home to a rich diversity of wildflowers. Among them are plants of the genus Impatiensof which a new member has just been described by Sri Lankan researchers in the journal Phytotaxa — and which is already considered critically endangered due to its short-lived rarity.
The road to discovery began in 2016, when researchers Champika Bandara, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Sri Jayawardenepura, and Sanath Bandara Herath from the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL), were exploring plant life along the banks of a stream in the Dothalugala region of the Knuckles Range. It was there that they first spotted a purple impatiens flower neither of them had ever seen before.
Fast forward three years later, and as Bandara and Herath deepen their study of what they suspect to be a species new to science, another researcher, Bhathiya Gopallawa, holds a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Peradeniya, also encountered the same flowering plant.
The discovery of Gopallawa, however, happened on another trail in the mountains, called Thangappuwa, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the previous location.
Realizing he was looking at an undescribed species and aware that Bandara and Herath were also working on an unknown impatiens, Gopallawa contacted the others to compare notes.
The study resulting from their collaboration, published last April, describes a new species that the researchers named Impatiens jacobdevlasiiaccording to Jacob de Vlas, a Dutch botanist best known for having co-authored the Illustrated field guide to the flowers of Sri Lanka with his wife Johanna. Published in three volumes from 2008 to 2019, the guide lists more than 3,000 native and introduced flowering plants found on the island.
“I learned a lot from de Vlas’ field guide and also had the opportunity to get personal advice on becoming a field botanist,” Bandara told Mongabay. He added that the field guide was also invaluable to other young botanists in Sri Lanka.
Newly described, but critically endangered
The new species is classified as critically endangered given its small population, declining trend and limited distribution. Bandara said the Dothalugala people of I. jacobdevlasii has decreased by 80% since this first observation in 2016.
The Dothalugala population is located near a stream along the Deanston–Dothalugala Nature Trail, and the Thangappuwa population is found on wet rocky surfaces along the Thangappuwa–Alugallena Nature Trail. Any clearing, weeding, road building or maintenance efforts by authorities should prioritize the management and conservation of this new species, Bandara said.
The discovery of the Thangappuwa population could potentially lead to the description of new plant species. That’s because Gopallawa’s survey there in 2019 was funded by the Hilltop Flora project and another flowering plant’s recovery plan, Osbeckia lanataboth administered by the Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya.
“The flora of mountain forests is special and also highly threatened, so we started this project to study plants in several mountains in 2013, which is still ongoing,” said Achala Attanayake, deputy director of the botanical gardens and co- author of the I. jacobdevlasii paper. Attanayake added that several other important results of the project are expected to be published.
Global impatiens hotspot
The description of I. jacobdevlasii brings to 25 the number of impatiens species known in Sri Lanka, 18 of which are endemic. Most grow in moist forests near streams and wet rocky areas, and several are endangered due to their restricted range. Outraged I. jacobdevlasiitwo of the endemic species are listed as critically endangered and nine as endangered under the 2021 National Red List. Another, not seen in 95 years, is considered possibly extinct.
“Unfortunately, a site near a waterfall [known to host impatiens plants] has been cleared for tourism activities, indicating the type of threats these plants face,” Gopallawa told Mongabay.
Sri Lanka is considered one of six global hotspots for impatiens species, of which there are over 1,000 worldwide. Other regions with a high diversity of these flowering plants are the eastern Himalayas, southern India, Southeast Asia, tropical Africa and Madagascar.
Collaboration, not competition
The description of the new species also highlights the growing interest of young Sri Lankan researchers in the field of botany, and the spirit of collaboration that animates it.
In many scientific fields around the world, competition for funding and publication weight often pits researchers against each other to be the first to announce a new discovery. But when Gopallawa contacted Bandara and Herath about his discovery in 2019, there was no secret and it was a collaborative effort from the start, Gopallawa said.
“The other two researchers are my good friends and we are not in competition with each other,” he said.
He added that the community of young botanists in Sri Lanka is a close-knit family and shares information about new discoveries, so that they can continue to bring new discoveries like this to the rest of the world.
This same spirit of collaboration was at the origin of the “resurrection” of Impatiens subcordata, a species that had not been seen for over a century and was declared possibly extinct in the 2012 Red List. Gopallawa, Bandara and Herath found the plant in the wild in 2013, and while they had originally planned to include this rediscovery in their latest article, they decided against it as the status of the plant had then been updated in the 2021 red list and De Vlas field. guide.
Sri Lanka is currently experiencing an upsurge in botanical studies, led by dozens of young field researchers such as Bandara, Herath and Gopallawa. Their hope is that working together to shed light on the rich flora of Sri Lanka will spark greater interest and discoveries in the field.
Bandara, C., Herath, SB, Gopallawa, B., & Attanayake, A. (2022). Impatiens jacobdevlasii (Balsaminaceae), a new species from the Knuckles Mountains in Sri Lanka. Phytotaxa, 543(3), 181-187. doi: 10.11646/phytotaxa.543.3.2
Banner image of a Impatiens jacobdevlasii plant near a stream in the Dothalugala site along the Deanston–Dothalugala Nature Trail, courtesy of Sanath Bandara Herath.