July 08, 2013

What sparked the richest diversity of plants on earth?

Richard G. Olmstead with Citharexylum
argutidentaum in cloud forests of southern Peru.
By Richard Olmstead
Burke Museum Herbarium Curator

I recently visited San Jose, Costa Rica, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Organization for Tropical Studies, founded by the UW and six other universities, but also to collect plants for my studies of Neotropical plant diversity.

The New World tropics, or Neotropics, extend from central Mexico and the Caribbean islands to northern-most Argentina and Chile, and contain more than 100,000 species of flowering plants, or one-third of all plants on earth.

From Amazonian jungles to high Andean paramo, from Argentina to Mexico, the diversity of these ecosystems is unrivaled. It is home to the greatest mosaic of biodiversity on earth.

Central America occupies an important piece in the puzzle of Neotropic diversification. For more than 50 million years, South America was isolated until the uplift of the Isthmus of Panama formed a connection to North America. A unique tropical flora existed in southern North America before the Isthmus of Panama, but the connection sent a rush of plants from the greater store of diversity in South America north into Central America.

The genus Citharexylum (a group of plants in the verbena family), has spread to colonize most of the Neotropics, including Central American and high Andean ecosystems. Most groups of plants stick to one type of habitat, so Citharexylum presents a rare opportunity to study how diversification might have occurred throughout the Neotropics.

In past fieldtrips, I collected Citharexylum in Argentina, Cuba, Florida, Nicaragua, and Puerto Rico, where all of the species I saw had similar characteristics: large trees with typical broad, tropical-forest leaves, and long inflorescences with many flowers and fruits. 
Leaves and fruits of Citharexylum donnell-smithii.

However, in 2009, I traveled to Peru to collect in the high Andean cloud forests, and was surprised to find stunted trees with small, leathery leaves, and small flowering shoots with only a few flowers. 
Flowers and fruits of Citharexylum argutidentatum.
Back in my lab, we studied DNA sequences from all of the specimens and noticed a surprisingly ancient split between the South and Central American species, with the Andean species arising from low elevation South American ancestors. 

These results were based on a mere handful of the nearly 130 species in this genus, and many more species will need to be included to be able to determine how and when the colonization took place. We also hope to address the important question of whether evolution into different habitats (e.g., Andean cloud forests), or migration to new continents (e.g., Central America) leads to accelerated diversification.

In the coming years, Laura Frost, a first-year Ph.D. student in my lab, will take this project on as her dissertation research and will travel throughout the Neotropics to collect more pieces of this puzzle.

Through this collecting and research, we’ll move one step closer to understanding how the Neotropics came to have the richest diversity of plants on earth. 

For more information, visit the Burke’s “Why Study Evolution” exhibit.