Feb 032009
 
Authors: Natasha Pepperl

Peggy Lyon and Al Schneider weren’t looking for anything new when they were rooting through the flora in Lone Mesa State Park in southern Colorado. They were just writing down the names of all the plant species they were finding in the park.

But the CSU botanist and Colorado Native Plant volunteer stumbled upon a little yellow shrub that was beyond Lyon’s expertise to identify, and when they brought it to the editors of Flora of North America, a botanical resource for identifying plants, they couldn’t identify it either, determining that no one had ever named it before.

Schneider said he remembered thinking, “I got something unusual here,” when he found the new plant in August.

After unsuccessfully trying to identify the plant using numerous books that contain the classification of the known flora, they sent a specimen of their discovery to plant expert Guy Nesom, a University of Texas and Flora of North America contracted botanist.

Schneider said Nesom examined the plant and told him it’s a “100 percent chance that you got yourself a new species.”

Other experts examined the plant as well, all agreeing that this plant was a previously undiscovered species.

“We were very excited,” Lyon said.

Lyon and Schneider discovered the snakeweed species Gutierrezia elegans, which they named from the species’ genus, Gutierrezia, and Latin for elegant, elegans.

“The name describes the overall plant,” Schneider said. “In short, we thought elegant.”

Lyon said the plant’s beauty distinguishes it from other snakeweeds, which include the sunflower.

On his Web site, Schneider described this plant as “delicate with masses of brilliant yellow flowers topping gracefully arching stems that form into a low, domed symmetry.”

“It is an exciting discovery,” said Tim Hogan, an employee of the University of Colorado Herbarium. “(It) points to how little we know about biodiversity.”

Though the specific role these plants play in the environment is still uncertain, Hogan said, “(It’s) quite likely there’s pollinators that interact with the plant.”

Only about 4,000 snakeweeds have been found ranging in a two-mile radius from where they were first discovered.

“It seems to be quite rare. (It) wouldn’t take much at all to eradicate them,” said Schneider. The plants are, therefore, in danger of becoming extinct.

More research is being conducted in order to determine the population size and habitat of the Gutierrezia Elegans and whether measures should be taken to ensure its survival.

“It is one of the limited number of plants that are able to survive in a very harsh environment,” Lyon said, referring to the dry and rocky soil, known as mancos shale, where it takes root.

Two other new species of plants were recently discovered growing in mancos shale as well.

“This just adds to the puzzle of what’s going on with the mancos shale,” Schneider said, adding the discovery is “one of the many pieces . (and) each little piece of knowledge adds to what we understand.”

Staff writer Natasha Pepperl can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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