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COLUMBUS, Ga. — During a spring break expedition to the Amazon, a scientific team from Columbus State University collected the first-ever flowering samples of a new tree species in Ecuador’s Yasuní National Park.
The discoverers were Samantha Worthy, a master’s student in CSU’s Natural Sciences Program; Kevin Burgess, professor of ecological genetics in CSU’s biology department, and botanist Alvaro Pérez, a professor from Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador (PUCE) in Quito and CSU’s 16th annual Elena Diaz Verson Amos Eminent Scholar in Latin American Studies. Pérez also serves as the curator of angiosperms (flowering plants) in PUCE’s world renowned herbarium.
“This was an amazing find and would not have happened if not for Professor Pérez’s experience and knowledge of the Ecuadorian Amazon,” Burgess said. “We were in a canoe on the river when he spotted a tree in flower that he had never seen before. This new species is to be classified in the genus Myrcia and represents an immediate need for further plant discovery in this region.”
The Yasuní National Park is the most biologically diverse place on earth, he said. Over the last 50 years, botanists have documented more than 4,000 plant species from this region with potentially hundreds of new species just waiting to be discovered.
“Unfortunately, much of the Amazon rainforest is also under threat by local development, which has created an urgent need to document these plant species before they disappear,” Pérez said.
Burgess and Pérez, along with groups of students from both universities, are also at the forefront of documenting plant genetic diversity through their work on plant DNA barcoding. “DNA barcoding is a great tool for assessing genetic relationships among the plants we collect in the Amazon,” Worthy said. “This project has been an amazing experience and has provided me with a unique set of skills that I plan to use in future research in the area.”
The team is preparing to expand their research with a botanical expedition along the Yasuní River of the Ecuadorian Amazon, an area that has never been fully explored by botanists.
Burgess and Pérez are organizing an international team of 12 researchers comprised of faculty, staff and students from CSU and PUCE to travel the remote river in two canoes. The team hopes to spend two weeks collecting, photographing and identifying plant species in this secluded area to start an unprecedented plant inventory for future research opportunities.
“The expedition is the first phase of a long-term initiative to conserve, discover and better understand the plant diversity of the Yasuní,” Burgess said. “We hope that this research will enable students and faculty at both our institutions to not only preserve and record the biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest but also provide unparalleled opportunities in research and training for future undergraduate and graduate students.”