PITTSBURG, Kan. —
An 8-foot by 10-foot office with beige concrete block walls seems an unlikely place for a scientist to discover a new species.
Tucked into a windowless corner of the third floor of Heckert-Wells Hall, the climate-controlled science building on the campus of Pittsburg State University, it is far in both distance and appearance from the tropical rain forests of Madagascar.
At a desk Tuesday morning, Neil Snow, an assistant professor of botany, was focused on a stack of preserved plant specimens carefully attached to tagboard and labeled with collectors’ names and locations. He is aided by a digitized database of thousands of other collected specimens and years of experience in looking at subtle differences like leaf shape, size and vein patterns.
When he finds something unique, a plant that doesn’t resemble any of the other hundreds of specimens, it is new.
In short, he has “discovered” it.
Likely there are 10 new species still waiting to be “discovered” in his stack — species he will get to as time allows.
Since he began, Snow, 53, has identified more than 85 new plant species within the myrtle family, his chosen area of focus within the plant world. This year, he received special recognition: The International Institute for Species Exploration selected one of Snow’s finds as one of the top 10 new species of 2013.
Called Eugenia petrikensis, the small, woody plant from Madagascar joined a charming monkey from Congo, a tiny frog (the world’s smallest vertebrate) and a cockroach that glows in the dark on the annual list of top finds.
But to Snow, this latest discovery pales next to what’s being discovered each and every day.
In 2009, scientists discovered 19,232 new species. That’s about 52 a day. Of those, about 2,000 were plants.
“And that happens year after year,” Snow said.
So he downplays the recognition that this one plant, the Eugenia petrikensis, is bringing him.
“I’m really glad the institute is doing a Top 10 list to bring attention to it,” he said. “The article they publish about it each year is the most visited article on their website.
“To me, the larger story is how much of this is going on and how little the public knows about it.”
For example: A colleague of Snow’s, Tom Croat at the Missouri Botanical Garden, has collected more than 102,000 specimens in his career. Of them, more than 800 have been new discoveries.
“There are at least a couple hundred or more undescribed that he knows of in his cabinets,” Snow said.
Same goes for other species. In Papua New Guinea, for example, scientists continue to find new frogs.
“I think you could write a book a year on new discoveries,” Snow said. “Each one has a story.”
Snow has done scientific collecting and identification in New Caledonia, located in the Southwest Pacific, for the National Geographic Society, and in Australia during post-doctoral work. His chance at discovering new myrtle species in Madagascar came from the Missouri Botanical Garden.
The Missouri Botanical Garden has had a longtime research presence in Madagascar — a country about the size of Texas off the east coast of Africa. Botanists and researchers on the country’s southeastern coast comb the area for specimens and collect four or five samples of each, which then are dried and distributed to Snow, to the botanical garden and to a repository in the Museum of Natural History in Paris.
Using the specimens, taxonomic keys, photographs and recognition derived from years of experience, Snow compares, contrasts and analyzes them until he’s sure he has something new.
“I look at things like leaf shape, the size of the leaf, the vein patterns, the fruit, how the leaves attach to the stem,” he said.
It’s time-consuming and tedious. He receives no money from the Missouri Botanical Garden. But he believes he is contributing to the greater good: Identifying and cataloging new species makes it possible for them to be noted as species in need of conservation.
Eugenia petrikensis, for example, is considered endangered and can be found only in the specialized humid forest that grows on sandy substrate within miles of the shoreline.
“Most of the new things we’re finding — not always, but more often than not — have a very narrow distribution,” Snow said. “If they didn’t, we would have found them a long time ago. I want to see these things preserved. This is the only place they’ll grow.”
NEIL SNOW, who holds a doctorate from Washington University in St. Louis, joined the PSU Department of Biology this fall and was appointed director of PSU’s Sperry Herbarium. It is a regional and historical collection of Kansas vascular plants and bryophytes that Snow plans to make more accessible to a variety of users for research.