Plant genus named Sirdavidia after Sir David Attenborough by Gabonese and French botanists

In honour of Sir David Attenborough’s influence on their lives and careers, Gabonese and French botanists have named a genus of flowering plants Sirdavidia. The new genus and species of flowering plants come from the custard apple family Annonaceae.

The botanists who made the discovery, published their study in the open access academic journal PhytoKeys (citation below).

What makes this new discovery so special? The new genus was established to accommodate an unusual species found in Monts de Cristal National Park in Gabon. The team had been on an expedition, concentrating on Magnoliidae floral diversity in rain forests, to which the Annonaceae family belongs.

Sirdavidia solannona

Sirdavidia solannona, a new genus and species of flowering plants from the custard apple family, Annonaceae. (Image: PhytoKeys)

The botanists were surprised to discover an unusual Annonaceae not only in one of the best-known botanical areas of Gabon, but also very near to a main road.

Maybe nobody had stumbled upon it before because it is so rare, the authors suggest.

After combing the area thoroughly, looking for more Sirdavidia solannona specimens, the team only found them in two localities. This prompted them to initially class the new species as Endangered.

 

Raoul Niangadouma, senior botanist at the Herbier National du Gabon (National Herbarium of Gabon), Libreville, commented:

“This new discovery underlines once again the importance of the Gabonese national parks for conserving the wonderful yet incompletely known biodiversity for the country and Africa.”

Senior author, Dr. Hervé Sauquet, an Associate Professor at Université Paris-Sud, said:

“The last thing on my mind when starting this expedition was to discover a new species, let alone a new genus!. We aimed for well-known regions in Gabon because we wanted to be sure to find the necessary flowers for our project.”

With its loosely-arranged bright yellow stamens contrasting with its red petals, the flowers of this newly-discovered small tree did not quite fit any of the previously described genera.

Sirdavidia solannona, open flower and flower buds

Sirdavidia solannona, open flower and flower buds. (Image: PhytoKeys)

DNA sequence analyses showed it was a new genus

The botanists said the plant needed to be classified with a completely new genus. Dr. Bonaventure Sonké, Professor at the Université de Yaoundé I in Cameroon, who carried out DNA sequence analyses, proved the researchers right.

The scientists were amazed that Sirdavidia’s closest relative was to be found about 3,000 km (1,864 miles) away in an isolated Tanzanian forest.

Lead author, Dr. Thomas Couvreur, a researcher at Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, France, currently based in Yaoundé, Cameroon, said:

“It is funny that the new genus is a close relative to Mwasumbia, endemic to Tanzania, a genus I also described a few years ago. When I saw the results of the DNA analysis confirming its position I thought someone was pulling my leg. Discovering two new genera on opposite sides of Africa and they turn out to be closely related!”

The botanists decided to commemorate this unique discovery by naming the new genus Sirdavidia, after Sir David Attenborough, the famous English broadcaster and naturalist.

Although several plant species already bear Sir David’s name, Sirdavidia is the first plant genus named after him.

Difference between Species and Genus: Species is the lowest taxonomic rank, and the most basic unit or category of biological classification. Genus is a taxonomic category that is below a family and above a species level.

Dr. Couvreur said:

“Sir David Attenborough has been such a wonderful and important influence in my life and the life of so many. I was really surprised when I realised that no one has named a genus after him before, so I found this discovery an excellent opportunity to honor him with a genus name.”

Dr. Sauquet added:

“I show David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants BBC series every year to my students. This will be a nice story to tell them. David Attenborough’s legacy is exactly about that: stimulating passion and interest about the natural world around us.”

Sir David Attenborough

Sir David, who was “truly thrilled” when he heard about this new genus, said: “I know very well that such a decision is the greatest compliment that a biologist can pay to another and I am truly grateful.”

The researchers say the flowers of Sirdavidia solannona are probably “buzz pollinated”, a technique some bees use to release pollen which is more or less firmly held by the anthers, thus making pollination more efficient – the bees vibrate their wings to extract pollen grains onto their bellies.

The Sirdavidia flowers look very similar to those of the nightshade or Solanaceae family – champions of buzz pollination.

Drs. Sauquet and Couvreur said:

“What is really special about this is that buzz pollination is unknown in Magnoliideae and early divergent angiosperms in general, which represent around 10,000 species worldwide. If confirmed by our further studies, this will prove to be another very exciting aspect of this discovery!”

Citation: Sirdavidia, an extraordinary new genus of Annonaceae from Gabon,” Couvreur TLP, Niangadouma R, & Sonké B, Sauquet H. PhytoKeys 46: 1-19. doi: 10.3897/phytokeys.46.8937.

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