Researchers discover new tree genus in the Andes

"Incadendron tells us a lot about how little we understand life on our planet," researcher Miles Silman said.
By Brooks Hays   |   Sept. 7, 2017 at 11:40 AM
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Sept. 7 (UPI) -- Researchers have discovered a new species and genus of tree hiding in plain sight in Peru's tropical Andes.

Every year, the forests of South America yield new species. Just this month, a new study detailed the discovery of 381 new species in the Amazonian forests of Brazil.

Most new species, however, are relatively small in stature, living in caves, small streams or especially dense pockets of remote rainforest. It's rare that scientists find 100-foot-tall trees that are undocumented in the scientific literature.

Scientists found the trees along the Trocha Unión, an ancient Incan path winding through the tropical forests of the Peruvian Andes. They named the new species Incadendron esseri, which translates as "Esser's tree of the Inca."

"Incadendron tells us a lot about how little we understand life on our planet," Miles Silman, a conservation biologist at Wake Forest University, said in a news release. "Here is a tree that ranges from southern Peru to Ecuador, that is abundant on the landscape, and yet it was unknown. Finding this tree isn't like finding another species of oak or another species of hickory -- it's like finding oak or hickory in the first place."

The new species and genus belong to the spurge family, or Euphorbiaceae, which includes rubber trees, cassava and poinsettias. Like its relatives, the new species oozes white sap, a defense mechanism to protect wounds from pests and disease.

Researchers described the tree in a new paper published this week in the journal Phytokeys.

Like so many new species, the tree is vulnerable.

Though more research is needed to understand what allowed the species to carve out a niche in the Peruvian forests, it's likely that niche will become stressed as the climate warms.

"While Incadendron has a broad range along the Andes, it is susceptible to climate change because it lives in a narrow band of temperatures," said Silman. "As temperatures rise, the tree populations have to move up to cooler temperatures."

The species is also threatened by deforestation.

"It highlights the imperative role of parks and protected areas where it grows, such as Manu National Park and the Yanachaga-Chemillén National Park," said William Farfan-Rios, a Wake Forest graduate student and native of Peru. "Hopefully our ongoing study of the Incadendron and the intensive long-term forest monitoring will contribute to best practices in reforestation and forest management."

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