This Plant Was Found Hundreds of Kilometers from its Known Range - Observation of the Week, 4/12/20

Our Observation of the Week is this Tiputinia foetida plant, seen by @pbertner in Peru - hundreds of kilometers outside its previously known range!

In addition to sweet photos of a decidedly odd plant, this observation represents the power of iNaturalist’s global community, where a Canadian photographer posted the first record in Peru of a plant previously known only in Ecuador, that was identified by a botany enthusiast in Germany.  

“I knew it [was Tiputinia foetida] right away,” Kai-Philipp Schablewski (@kai_schablewski, iNat’s top identifer of plant observations in South America) told me. Kai had read the original description of this plant from 2007, and until the photo you see above, it had only been found in northeastern Ecuador. “This observation from Peru is a record of a Tiputinia plant that was found nearly 2000 km south of the [known] distribution area in Ecuador,” Kai says. “The question now is if this is a disjunct distribution or if the plant has been overlooked in some parts in between.”

Kai, who resides in Marburg, Germany and studied botany for a time in college, has “always loved plants with special survival strategies such as cacti, alpine plants, parasitic plants, mycoheterotrophic plants, ant plants, or bromeliads.” While he hasn’t visited South America, he finds its flora amazing and does what he can to help identify observations there. And as a curator, he has added distribution maps, new taxa and more in an effort to keep iNat’s taxonomy up to date. 

I did this because I want iNaturalist to become a more powerful global tool for nature conservation and science...I hope I am able to make a small contribution to nature conservation with my help on iNaturalist so that more species can be saved through this difficult time of environmental destruction in that we are in.

If you think Tiputinia foetida (the only known member of its genus) looks a little strange for a plant, you’re right - it’s parasitic, which means it does not photosynthesize and thus lacks chlorophyll. Yet unlike many familiar parasitic plants (eg most species in the Orobanchaceae family), its host is not another plant, but a fungus! That’s right, it’s a myco-heterotroph and the only part of it you’ll see above ground is its flower and related structures.

As you might suspect from its name, this plant’s flower emits a “foul, rotten fish-like odor” to which many insects are attracted, “including flies, beetles, ants, and small wasps.” (Woodward, et al. 2007) It’s not known which if they are pollinators, but it does seem likely. There are even a few insects in Paul Bertner’s photos of it here on iNaturalist.

For his part, Paul (who came across the Tiputinia foetida while photographing army ants) says “I'm rather terrible at taxonomy. 

However, I spend a large amount of time in the field, both day and night...Despite having difficulties with discerning closely related species, I have a good overall idea of rainforest composition such that when I come across something new or different, I can generally recognize its importance, if not actually identify it...I only learned of [this plant’s] importance after posting here to iNat.

In addition to getting ID help (“I have a large number of insect photos from the tropics which could serve as a valuable database online, however, they are only as good as peoples' ability to find and then subsequently to find useful.”), Paul says iNat has helped him network with amateur and professional biologists more broadly. 

And although he has studied cell biology and genetics, Paul (above, placing a camera trap above a peccary wallow) tells me that his current interest is tropical rainforest photography, “especially [that of] insect behaviour.” It’s brought him to tropical areas of the Americas, Africa, and Asia, and remarkably Paul is a Stage IV testicular cancer survivor, having had both hip and shoulder replacement surgeries. As he writes in his Smugmug bio,

I live life now, as only one who has known hopeless hospital wards, and mortal sufferings may. I see beauty in the mosquitoes’ exquisitely crafted stylets. I feel a kinship with the cockroach,  a resilient survivor, and beggary, basking in nature’s majesty. To offer but a keyhole’s view onto this world is to share my life’s story, from plagues to polliwogs, imprinted onto every pixel of every picture I take.

- by Tony Iwane. Some quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.

- In addition to his SmugMug page, Paul is also on Flickr.

- Take a look at our blog post about a fiddler crab observation which also represented a large range extension.

Correction: this blog post originally said the plant was found "thousands" of kilometers from its known range, but it's more in the neighborhood of 1,500 kilometers, so I've changed it to "hundreds of kilometers". Thanks for double-checking, @muir!

Posted by tiwane tiwane, April 13, 2020 03:49




Posted by bosqueaaron about 1 year ago (Flag)

Great find!

Posted by mothmaniac about 1 year ago (Flag)

This deserves to be published! great discovery!

Posted by rafaelacua about 1 year ago (Flag)

Congratulations!!! @kai_schablewski , you should definitely come to (and stay in) South America !!!

Posted by diegoalmendras about 1 year ago (Flag)

Congratulations on a great find!

Posted by carolynstewart about 1 year ago (Flag)


Posted by jasonrgrant about 1 year ago (Flag)

Super special, congratulations!

Posted by kareneichholz about 1 year ago (Flag)

Perhaps it should be noted, that this is not a dicot (like Orobanchaceae), but a family of monocot parasites, that has been around since the Cretaceous. Great find!!

Posted by tonyrebelo about 1 year ago (Flag)

Since this plant is parasitic on a fungus, I assume the same species fungus must be present at that new location. And since fungi often live in symbiosis with some plants, that plant species should be present at the new site as well ... or are my assumptions a bit too wild?

Posted by klauswehrlin about 1 year ago (Flag)

The host fungus (or one of them?) must be present. But if the host fungus is mychorrhizal with other plants, or saprophytic on dead plants (or parasitic on other fungi), it is likely that the relationship will be at the generic or family level, and thus using the Tiputina as an indicator of other very rare species might not follow, based on its fungus.

Assuming that the plant is not undercollected in between, the plant itself might suggest a refugium that might be shared with other species .
However, it is premature to speculate ...

Posted by tonyrebelo about 1 year ago (Flag)

Wow -- congratulations all round on a fascinating and important observation, and double wow at your hanging upside down to set that camera trap -- hope you get some nice images of peccaries!

Posted by susanhewitt about 1 year ago (Flag)

Another amazing find through INaturalist. I always enjoy seeing things like this.

Posted by chrisleearm about 1 year ago (Flag)

Wonderful find! Congrats to everyone involved.

Posted by bdstaylor about 1 year ago (Flag)


Posted by lonniemiller about 1 year ago (Flag)

@pbertner Great idea the Ethical Exif (EE) for wildlife photos.

Posted by langlands about 1 year ago (Flag)

Incredible find. congrats to both of them!!!

Posted by frankdietze about 1 year ago (Flag)

This is such a great find and story!

Posted by aztekium_tutor about 1 year ago (Flag)

Very nice stories about both Paul and Kai, and their connections to iNat. Great find!

Posted by annikaml about 1 year ago (Flag)

seeing Paul hanging on that limb installing the camera trap brought back a flood of memories, I have been in that exact same position a few times only for the limbs to break and I end up on my back like a fish out of water gasping for breath. I don't do that anymore!!!

Posted by william_doc_lingo about 1 year ago (Flag)

Beautiful :) The power of observations :)

Posted by carolr about 1 year ago (Flag)

Wow! So exciting! Thank-you!

Posted by bettysaenz about 1 year ago (Flag)

Wow, very interesting find. Congrats.

Posted by cesarcastillo about 1 year ago (Flag)

Fascinating discovery, with the added interest of a fungus and an insect.

Posted by karen5lund about 1 year ago (Flag)

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