‘Hidden in plain sight’ : new tree genus discovered in South America

Named Incadendron esseri (literally "Esser's tree of the Inca"), the tree is a newly-identified genus and species commonly found along an ancient Inca path in Peru, the Trocha Unión.

It belongs to the spurge family, Euphorbiaceae -- best known for rubber trees, cassava, and poinsettias – and, like many of its relatives, when damaged also bleeds white sap, known as latex, that serves to protect it from insects and diseases. Its ecological success in a difficult environment suggests more study is needed to find the hidden secrets that are often inherent in newly discovered and poorly known biodiversity.

So how could a canopy tree stretching up to 100 feet tall go undetected by the scientific world until published now in the journal PhytoKeys by researchers from the Smithsonian and Wake Forest University?

Professor Miles Silman, the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation Presidential Chair in Conservation Biology at Wake Forest, told Science Daily the discovery tells us a lot about how little we understand life on our planet.

“Here is a tree that ranges from southern Peru to Ecuador, that is abundant on the landscape, and yet it was unknown. Finding this tree isn't like finding another species of oak or another species of hickory -- it's like finding oak or hickory in the first place," he said. 

"While Incadendron has a broad range along the Andes, it is susceptible to climate change because it lives in a narrow band of temperatures. As temperatures rise, the tree populations have to move up to cooler temperatures.”

Currently the Incadendron is common in several research plots under intensive study as part of the Andes Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research Group, an international Andes-to-Amazon ecology program co-founded by Silman. For nearly 25 years, Professor Silman has worked to gain greater understanding of Andean species distributions, biodiversity, and the response of forest ecosystems to climate and land use changes over time.

Image credit: Wake Forest University

Source: Wake Forest University