KUCHING (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Not only is it tiny and peculiar looking, this plant is so rare that it has only been spotted twice in 151 years.
The thismia neptunis, or better known as fairy lantern, was discovered by Czech researchers in Sarawak’s western region alongside a river at the Matang Massif last year.
The last time it was seen was in 1866 by Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari, whose drawings of the plant helped modern researchers identify specimens found at the same area.
Wildlife Conservation Society director Dr Melvin Gumal, on his Twitter account, described the discovery as “so super cool” and “an X-Files and Alien moment”.
“It definitely needs protection as it is possibly one of the rarest plants found globally,” he wrote.
Thismia neptunis is a myco-heterotroph that needs no sunlight and feeds off fungi for nutrients.
In the Phytotaxa journal published on Feb 21, Czech researchers said they believed the discovery was only the second time the species had been seen.
Based on two flowering individuals and one bud, they provided amended descriptions and drawings of the species in their paper, as well as the “very first available photographs” of the species.
Thismia neptunis, which measures 9cm tall when flowering, grows no functional leaves. It has a small flower that protrudes out from the ground.
The researchers also found flies and a wasp inside the flower.
“Although the braconid (wasp) was probably only a coincidental victim, the flies may represent potential pollinators,” the researchers wrote.
They also said the preferred habitats of the fairy lantern genus – primary tropical rainforests – are facing worldwide decline.
“Many species may therefore already be extinct,” they said.
Sarawak Assistant Minister for Urban Planning, Land Administration and Environment Datuk Len Talif Salleh said the discovery was made possible through the state’s Research for Intensified Management of Bio-rich Areas in Sarawak (Rimba) programme.
“This is an exciting discovery. Further research will definitely be carried out as part of the ongoing initiative by Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC) and Sarawak Forestry Department.
“They will continue to carry out expeditions to national parks and wildlife sanctuaries to discover new flora and fauna,” Len said.
Launched in 2015, the Rimba programme provides a platform for collaborative research between SFC and international institutions such as Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Kew Gardens and other researchers towards practical conservation.