Monday, 22 March 2021

Biodiversity News - 4 New Species of Lichen Found

Micarea stellaris is one of the recently described lichen species. The name refers to ´star´ and comes from intensely shining crystals that are visible when studying it in polarised light.
Scale bar 1 mm.
Vuria, the highest peak in the Taita Hills, reaches to over two Kilometres heigh. Land use has fragmented mountain forests.

Photo: Aannina Kantelinen
Montane cloud forest, Taita Hills, Kenya

Photo: Petri Pellikka
Ngongoni antilopes benefit from the tree cover destroyed by elephants during the dry spells as it increases grasslands in the dry savannah plains surrounding verdant Taita Hills.
Photo: Petri Pellikka
Four lichen species new to science discovered in Kenyan cloud forests | University of Helsinki

The fragility of Earth's biodiversity was highlighted a few days ago by news that researchers from the University of Helsinki Finnish Museum of Natural History, Luomus and the National Museums of Kenya, have recently discovered four new species of lichen, all of the Micrarea genus, growing in the mountain forests in Kenya's Taita Hills. This unique environment is under threat from increasing land use which is fragmenting the forests.

From the University of Helsinki news release:

A new species to science?


Species unknown to science are evolutionary lineages that have not been previously known and named. Systematists, or researchers specialised in the study of species, describe new species by utilising a range of distinguishing characters, such as structural features and DNA sequences.

To avoid overlapping descriptions, new species are carefully compared to their close relatives. Furthermore, type specimens are archived in the collections of museums of natural history for each new species. Those specimens are permanently available to researchers in the field.

Each species description is subject to a scientific peer-review process where independent experts of the field verify the validity and quality of new discoveries.
Some of the newly described lichen species from the Micarea genus may be unique to the biodiversity hotspot that is the Taita Hills in Kenya. The area may contain even more lichen species yet to be discovered.

Researchers from the University of Helsinki’s Finnish Museum of Natural History Luomus and the National Museums of Kenya have discovered four lichen species new to science in the rainforests of the Taita Hills in southeast Kenya.

Micarea pumila, M. stellaris, M. taitensis and M. versicolor are small lichens that grow on the bark of trees and on decaying wood. The species were described based on morphological features and DNA-characters.

“Species that belong to the Micarea genus are known all over the world, including Finland. However, the Micarea species recently described from the Taita Hills have not been seen anywhere else. They are not known even in the relatively close islands of Madagascar or Réunion, where species of the genus have been previously studied,” Postdoctoral Researcher Annina Kantelinen from the Finnish Museum of Natural History says.

Species that belong to the Micarea genus are known all over the world, including Finland. However, the Micarea species recently described from the Taita Hills have not been seen anywhere else. They are not known even in the relatively close islands of Madagascar or Réunion, where species of the genus have been previously studied.

The Taita Hills cloud forests are quite an isolated ecosystem, and at least some of the species now discovered may be native to the area or to eastern Africa. Our preliminary findings also suggest that there are more unknown Micarea lichen species there.

Planted forests have been found to bind less moisture and be more susceptible to forest fires. Therefore, they can make the local ecosystem drier and result in species becoming endangered. Some lichen species are capable of utilising cultivated forests at least temporarily, but indigenous forests have the greatest biodiversity and biomass.

Dr Annina Kantelinen
Postdoctoral Researcher
Finnish Museum of Natural History
Helsiki, Finland
“The Taita Hills cloud forests are quite an isolated ecosystem, and at least some of the species now discovered may be native to the area or to eastern Africa. Our preliminary findings also suggest that there are more unknown Micarea lichen species there.”

Taita Hills are a unique environment


The Taita Hills are part of the Eastern Arc Mountains that range from south-eastern Kenya to eastern Tanzania. The mountains rise abruptly from the surrounding plain, with the tallest peak reaching over two kilometers. Lush indigenous rainforests are mainly found on the mountaintops, capturing precipitation from clouds and mist developed by the relatively cool air rising from the Indian Ocean.

Thanks to ecological isolation and a favourable climate, the area is one of the global hotspots of biodiversity. However, the native cloud forests in the region are shrinking year by year as they are replaced by forest plantations of exotic tree species that are not native to Africa. Compared to 1955, the area of indigenous forests has been diminished to less than half.

“Planted forests have been found to bind less moisture and be more susceptible to forest fires. Therefore, they can make the local ecosystem drier and result in species becoming endangered. Some lichen species are capable of utilising cultivated forests at least temporarily, but indigenous forests have the greatest biodiversity and biomass,” Kantelinen says.
Dr Kantelinen and her team's findings were published in The Lichenologist a few days ago, sadly behind a paywall.

Reference:
Kantelinen, A., Hyvärinen, M., Kirika, P., & Myllys, L. (2021). Four new Micarea species from the montane cloud forests of Taita Hills, Kenya. The Lichenologist, 53(1), 81-94. doi:10.1017/S0024282920000511
The work was done at the Helsinki University Taita Research Station in the Taita Hills. People working at this research station have already:
  • Discovered dozens of new species of lichen.:
    Thousands of lichen specimens were collected from Kenya and Tanzania during 2009–2017. DNA analyses revealed that the dataset on Leptogium included more than 70 different species, of which no more than a dozen or so are previously known.
    Photo: Jouko Rikkinen
  • Filmed a rare dwarf galagos (a small primate) not seen since 2002.
    The dwarf galagos in the Taita Hills live in relatively cool montane forests at the altitude of 1,400–1,950 metres.
    Photo: Hanna Rosti
  • Discovered a probable new species of tree hyrax
    The tree hyrax song may continue for more than twelve minutes, and it consists of different syllables that are combined and repeated in various ways.
    Photo: Hanna Rosti
Clearly, with so many discoveries yet to be made in fragile environments throughout the world, it is vital for the future health of the planet that environments like the cloud forests of Kenya be conserved.









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