A. minimus, courtesy of Leonardo C. Udasco, Jr/DENR.

  • A maroon plant with a small, phallic-shaped flower and a putrid odor has been identified as a species new to science, Amorphophallus minimus.
  • The plant was first collected in 2019 by a team of foresters conducting a biodiversity study in Pantabangan-Carranglan Watershed Forest Reserve in the Philippines’ Nueva Ecija province.
  • Due to threats including logging and increasing human settlement in its sole known habitat, researchers have recommended the plant be listed as critically endangered.

Forester Leonardo Udasco Jr. and his team were deep in the forests of the northern Philippines in 2019 when they first spotted a plant they’d never seen before: a small, phallic-shaped flower with a putrid odor of rotting flesh.

Fast-forward two years, and that plant they found while conducting a biodiversity assessment in Pantabangan-Carranglan Watershed Forest Reserve (PCWFR), in Nueva Ecija province, has now officially been described as a species new to science. With the help of botanists from the Philippine Taxonomic Initiative (PTI), Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU), the University of the Philippines (UP) Baguio and the University of Hamburg, this regal maroon plant was identified as a previously unknown member of the Amorphophallus genus, many of which are also known as “corpse flowers” because of the smell they emit.

Named Amorphophallus minimus, the new plant is described in a recently published paper in the Nordic Journal of Botany. The researchers noted that it has an overall resemblance to A. palawanensis, a species found in the western province of Palawan. But a closer and careful examination reveals that A. minimus is different from all Amorphophallus species in this mega diverse country.

“It’s 24 cm, or less than a foot, in height, making it the smallest Amorphophallus species in the Philippines,” PTI research director Maverick Tamayo and co-author of the new paper told Mongabay. It’s also the 17th Fknown Amorphophallus species endemic to the Philippines, and the 198th in the world. minimus’s uniqueness can be seen in its appendix, or the protruding part in the center of the flower. The apex of the appendix is clavate, or slightly swollen. Zooming in, it has an uneven surface, bumpy surface, described as colliculate.

“The foliage is sometimes eaten by herbivores. The flower, when in bloom, attracts pollinators, mostly flies and beetles,” said Tamayo, who is also a biology instructor at UP Baguio. He added that A. minimus also has “a rust-colored coloration with lichen-like pattern” petioles, or stalks that link the leaf to its stem. This mimics its background to avoid being discerned and eaten by predators.

Amorphophallus minimus in vegetative and flowering stage. Image courtesy of Leonardo C. Udasco, Jr/DENR.

High-elevation plant
A. minimus is currently the only corpse flower in the Philippines known to inhabit a montane forest ecosystem, specifically in PCWFR on Luzon Island. The three known populations of the plant, each with fewer than 50 mature individuals, were observed to be flowering between May and June. They dwell near seasonal streams within PCWFR’s secondary, mostly dipterocarp forest, at an elevation of 950 to 1,400 meters (3,100 to 4,600 feet). “This Amorphophallus species is remarkable given its overall small habit, both in the vegetative and the flowering phase,” the paper says.

Protecting plant species unknown to science can be challenging, and doing so requires the crucial step of identifying them. “The common adage ‘we cannot manage what we cannot measure’ applies well here,” said co-author John Altomonte from ADMU. “Environmental management and conservation are complex and difficult, especially when data is lacking.”

“This case is a great opportunity in conserving the unique and smallest Amorphophallus ever found in the province of Nueva Ecija because no one knows if this newly discovered species is the only remaining population of its kind in Central Luzon,” added co-author Udasco, from the local office of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

PCWFR straddles the border region between the provinces of Nueva Ecija, Nueva Vizcaya and Aurora. It serves as the primary source of water for irrigation and hydroelectric power plants in the plains of Central Luzon. This 94,000-hectare (232,000-acre) critical sanctuary is home to a rich diversity of life, and serves as an important biogeographic link between the Sierra Madre and Cordillera mountain ranges.

Forest lost to fire in the Pantabangan-Carranglan Watershed Forest Reserve. Although the area is legally established as a forest reserve, human activities such as logging, land clearing, agriculture and establishment of settlements are ongoing. Image courtesy of Leonardo C. Udasco, Jr/DENR

Continued deforestation
Researchers say this botanical find suggests that more Amorphophallus species await discovery in the Philippines’ remaining pristine forests yet to be fully explored by science. But a major concern, they say, is the incessant illegal logging, even in protected areas.

Despite PCWFR being designated a forest reserve since 1969, it continues to experience slash-and-burn farming, illegal logging, and encroachment by settlers. These activities threaten A. minimus and other species of plants and animals it hosts, scientists say. “Dipterocarp forest is the most threatened habitat in the Philippines,” Tamayo said. From 2001 to 2020, Global Forest Watch data show that Nueva Ecija’s Carranglan municipality, where this watershed is situated, lost 492 hectares (1,216 acres) of tree cover, out of 17,900 hectares (44,200 acres) of  natural forest recorded in 2000.

Udasco said he hopes the discovery of A. minimus will prompt the Philippine government to “invest more in conservation efforts,” particularly in areas like PCWFR that suffer from limited funding.

Other pressures that could potentially induce higher decline rates for A. minimus, according to the researchers, are the presence of illegal wildlife poaching and trade, and forest litter in PCWFR. These are aggravated by increasingly severe weather events and conditions driven by climate change, making A. minimus habitat prone to landslides, wildfires and typhoons, Tamayo said.

Amorphophallus minimus in flower. Image courtesy of Leonardo C. Udasco, Jr/DENR

Species on the brink
Considering the risks facing the plant, and its limited range and extremely small population, researchers have recommended A. minimus be listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List, which means it’s on the edge of extinction and requires immediate conservation action. “Its occurrence in areas relatively near potential logging sites makes it an important species to consider in any environmental management plans,” Altomonte said.

“We plan on revisiting the site, as there are still so many species left to describe,” he added. “We will be working closely with the regional DENR team to ensure that any environmental management plans for the area factor in the richness of biodiversity, including the newly described species.”

Udasco said the data on the newly discovered species would form part of efforts to upgrade the forest reserve’s legislation, ultimately helping legitimize and strengthen its protection. The researchers will also assist the local environmental authorities and Indigenous community in crafting science-based policies for the “greater understanding of the importance of the intricate relationship of every living organism” found in PCWFR.

This article https://news.mongabay.com/2021/09/new-philippine-corpse-flower-is-phallic-shaped-funky-smelling-and-nearly-extinct/ with permission from Mongabay.