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Jungle still beckons desk-bound Chinese botanist

Botanist Yin Jiantao is bitten by fewer mosquitoes nowadays, and that makes him feel a bit uncomfortable. Sitting in a clean, air-conditioned office at the Tropical Botanical Garden in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan province, he misses the wet shirts, dirty boots and dim rainforest of field trips. Yin is kept busy as executive deputy director of the Xishuangbanna herbarium, one of China’s largest collections of plant specimens, and administrative obligations mean he cannot venture out into the field for long. But he still succumbs to the lure of the jungle from time to time.

Your latest paper reported a new species, Amorphophallus bubenensis , in the journal Phytotaxa’s August issue. You found the plant on a field trip eight years ago. What took you so long to determine the species was new?

Amorphophallus plants do not flower very often. Some species blossom only once a decade – a strategy they use to compete with other plants in the dimly lit tropical forest. Most of the time, the Amorphophallus grows plain-looking leaves to conduct photosynthesis and stock up energy in its enlarging roots in the form of starch. Only when the root crop is large enough will the Amorphophallus shed its leaves and grow a large, single flower for reproduction.

We collected the first sample of bubenensis in 2008, and it had only a leaf. I brought the root home and cultivated it in the hope of seeing its flower, which would tell us the uniqueness of the species. Four years later it blossomed and died. We did not have a chance to collect the leaf, which could only regrow after flowering. So we went out again to collect more samples. It took us a long time to complete the record with flower and leaf. We are now sure that bubenensis stands as a completely new species.

Amorphophallus noodles are a popular choice in Chinese hotpot menus. What does the new species taste like?

I don’t know, unfortunately. We never cooked it. But I suspect the taste would not be bad because we have seen local farmers grinding the starchy roots to make tofu. The starch in Amorphophallus increases 500 times in size when it meets water, so a person who easts it would quickly feel full while the calorie intake would remain small. It’s perfect food for a diet.

It’s been a long time, do you still remember the field trip eight years ago? How did you discover the plant?

Of course I do. It was a weekend, and I and several colleagues at the research station in Bubeng town headed to the nearest mountains. We did not go out with a purpose. We just felt bored. We were just planning to have some fun by checking up on the plants in the wild. The bubenensis caught my attention with its leaves, which varied from the leaves of other, more common Amorphophallus species. We ran into the first one in a valley, and soon found others on the lower slope of the mountain.

China’s plant record is one of the most complete in the world. Is it possible to discover a new species on a weekend trip?

Xishuangbanna is a special place. It accounts for just 0.5 per cent of China’s landmass but provides a home to more than 17 per cent of its plant species. Its biodiversity is unmatched anywhere else in the nation.

But that was eight years ago. How about now?

There are indeed some alarming changes. An increasing number of plants in our herbarium records have become difficult to spot in the wild in recent years. One important reason is the under-forest economy. Some local authorities encouraged farmers to make use of the land under the forest for plantations, without felling the big trees. As economic plants replaced natural ones under the trees, they altered the environment in Xishuangbanna. The practice occurs in many places, even in the heart of protection zones. As scientists we believe the practice should be carefully evaluated for its benefits and negative impact on the natural environment before mass implementation. Some native plants will quickly go extinct because they can no longer fit in to the altered environment. This will hurt the rich biodiversity in Xishuangbanna.

Do you still return to the Xishuangbanna forest?

In the past I could spend half of the year in the forest. Now that has been reduced to about two months, only enough for some short field trips. It’s the excitement of discovery that draws me back. It’s so much fun to watch the plants playing active roles in the ecological system. One species of Amorphophallus, for example, has developed a tricky mechanism for pollination. Its flower has a delicate structure with fine, downward-growing hairs which can trap a pollinating insect, such as a fruit fly, inside the flower. But after the insect has put pollen all over its body, the hairs change structure to release the fly from the trap. We suspected the plant has a mechanism to identify an inspect with pollen and one without.

The flower also provides the insects with a “honeymoon suite” where they can mate. It maintains the temperature inside to the level comfortable for the insects while protecting them from assault by invaders. After the insects lay eggs in the flower, the plant produces a highly acid chemical to prevent predators such as ants from nearing the larva. You must see to believe how smart and sophisticated the plants have become over millions of years of evolution.

How does the lab versus field paradox affect funding?

As a scientist I do find it is becoming challenging to get stable funding for field trips nowadays. Sometimes you just don’t know what you may find before a trip, and sometimes fund managers do not like this kind of uncertainty. Lab work is important, many scientific discoveries are achieved in laboratory nowadays, but discoveries in the field provide the lead and inspiration to the research in laboratories. That we can keep discovering news species in Xishuangbanna shows that an unknown world is still out there waiting for patient explorers.

I see signs of hope though, as the government is increasing funding for fundamental research. With an the increasing number of young researchers in China interested in and curious about new discoveries, the funding for expeditions may increase as well. I hope the funding will be more stable, so researchers can spend a decade or more to concentrate on a specific research topic and go deep – deep enough to produce high-quality work that can withstand the test of time.