In 1973, a scientist stumbled upon a strange tree in the Amazon rainforest, unlike anything he’d ever seen. It was about 20 feet tall, with tiny orange fruits shaped like paper lanterns. He collected samples of the plant’s leaves and fruits, but all the scientists he showed them to wound up scratching their heads– not only were they unable to identify the plant as a species that had previously been described by scientists, but they couldn’t even declare it a new species, because they couldn’t tell what family it belonged to. But in a new study in the journal Taxon, scientists analyzed the plant’s and determined where it belongs in the family tree of trees, finally giving it a name meaning “Mystery of Manu,” after the park in Peru it came from.
“When I first saw this little tree, while out on a forest trail leading from the field station, it was the fruit — looking like an orange-colored Chinese lantern and juicy when ripe with several seeds — that caught my attention,” says Robin Foster, the scientist who originally collected the mystery plant in Peru’s Manu National Park, a retired curator at Chicago’s Field Museum and now a researcher with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. “I didn’t really think it was special, except for the fact that it had characteristics of plants in several different plant families, and didn’t fall neatly into any family. Usually, I can tell the family by a quick glance, but damned if I could place this one.”
Foster wasn’t the only one who couldn’t figure it out. Nancy Hensold, a botanist at the Field Museum, remembers him showing her a dried specimen of the plant more than 30 years ago. “I came to work at the Field Museum in 1990, and Robin showed me this plant. And I tried to get it identified using little fine technical characters like boiling up the ovaries of the flowers and taking pictures of the pollen, and after all that, we still didn’t know,” she recalls. “It really bugged me.”
The mystery plant sat in the Field Museum’s herbarium, a library of dried plant specimens, for years, but Hensold and her colleagues didn’t forget about it. “When you have a plant no one can put in a family, it can fall through the scientific cracks. I felt for it,” she says. The team eventually got a grant to study the plant,… Brinkwire News Summary.