It all started in 1973, with a botanist. He found a strange tree in the Manu National Park in the Peruvian Amazon. Since then, the species of the tropical plant had not been identified. Almost five decades later, a team of researchers took on the task. And at last, the mystery of the unidentified plant was solved.
The plant was about 20 feet tall. And it had small orange fruits resembling paper lanterns. American botanist Robert Foster collected evidence from the leaves and flowers of the mysterious tree. None of his colleagues could identify the species or the family it belonged to. Nor were they able to sequence the plant’s DNA.
“In 1990, Robin showed me this plant. I tried to identify it without success,” recalls botanist Nancy Hensold. And so it remained for nearly 50 years. Samples of the tree remained at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. But it wasn’t until 2021 that researchers finally managed to classify the plant.
Botanist Patricia Alvarez-Loayza of Manu Park collected new samples of the plant. She sent them to the researchers for re-examination. The results surprised them.
Genetically, the plant belonged to the family of the Picramniaceae. Although it looked nothing like its relatives. The botanists decided to send them to another scientist, an expert in Picramniaceae, Wayt Thomas.
“When I opened the package and saw the specimens, my first reaction was: What on earth? These plants don’t look like any other plant in their family“, he reveals. When he looked more closely at the tiny flowers of the plant, “it all clicked”.
The mystery of the unidentified plant was solved. The plant belonged to a new species. They named the tree Aenigmanu alvareziae. Its name means “the mystery of Manu”. The species name is a tribute to Patricia Alvarez-Loayza, who collected the evidence of the plant.
The find will help draw attention to the Amazon’s flora. “A single rare species may not be important to an ecosystem. But together they tell us what’s going on out there,” they conclude.