Perspectives Online

Meet Fontana and Pacifica - Plant biology student and professor describe two vines new to science. By Dee Shore

Amanda Saville looks closely at one of the twining vine samples from South America.
Photo by Becky Kirkland

The world now has two newly recognized South American milkweed vines, thanks to research that Amanda Saville started as a senior plant biology student at N.C. State University.

A "Twining Vine" Sample from South America.
Photo by Becky Kirkland
Saville, now a graduate student, and her faculty mentor, Dr. Alexander Krings, described the twining vines – Matelea fontana and Matelea pacifica – in an article published recently in the journal Systematic Botany.

Their discovery grew out of work that began as an attempt to understand why a certain milkweed called Matelea maritima appeared on many Caribbean Islands while most of the other 37 types of Matelea vines were isolated to one island.

“What I did was I took herbarium specimens of Matalea maritima from different islands, divided them up by islands and essentially looked at the morphology and tried to find out if there was any indication that maybe they were starting to speciate, to divide up,” Saville says.

No luck there.

“From what we found, there wasn’t very much,” she says.

But Saville kept looking even after she graduated. First as assistant curator of the N.C. State University herbarium and then as a graduate student in plant biology, she began looking at M. maritima samples from South America and finding significant differences.

“It wasn’t until we started looking at the South American ones that we started seeing the really weird stuff come up, stuff like, ‘It said maritima, but that doesn’t look like maritima,’” Saville explained.

The plant specimens Saville and Krings used were borrowed from herbaria around the world. Herbaria are collections of plant specimens, and throughout the world there is a network of such institutions that share samples to aid scientists’ understanding of the plant world.

At the university herbarium, Dr. Alexander Krings (right) and Saville study plant specimens from around the world.
Photo by Becky Kirkland
Krings is director of N.C. State’s herbarium, which is 110 years old and contains 130,000 specimens, mainly of species from the Southeastern United States.

“What happens in the herbaria is really the foundation of all plant sciences, because it all comes back down to specimen-based things,” Krings says. “Some of the most important specimens that a herbarium can house are called type specimens, and those are the standards; somewhere there’s a standard that says this is what a meter is or a foot … . It’s the same with plant names or any organism, really. So when somebody describes a new species whose name is Panicum agrostoides, somewhere there’s a type specimen that says, ‘OK, this is the morphology that is associated with this name.’

“If there were no types … associated with a particular morphology, anybody could be making up names for things all over and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I found this huge fruited thing out of the jungle somewhere,’ and our nomenclature would be a complete mess, right? So it all comes back to these sorts of repositories,” Krings says.

In declaring their newly found species, Krings and Saville used the loaned specimens to thoroughly describe what M. fontana and M. pacifica look like. They chose the names because one a part of the flower of M. pacifica resembles a peace sign and because a part of M. fontana’s flower looks like the rising and falling action of a water fountain.

Krings says that discoveries like theirs are important when it comes to gaining a better understanding of the world’s biodiversity. Before a plant species can be protected, it must first be described. And it’s estimated that while there are a half million plant species in the world, only 280,000 are described.

“We describe maybe somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 a year. That’s like the world plant taxonomists’ output,” he says. “So we have a long way to go, but student involvement in this is obviously great because we can help contribute to that, and for students it’s an opportunity to really get into some biodiversity issues.”

Krings says the work also gives students a richer educational experience. “It’s great from a student perspective because they can contribute to research on an international scale by sitting here in North Carolina,” he says. “Travel is always great, but funds are really limited. But because we can just request loans of specimens, students can really get a neat experience working with these things that have international applications, like Amanda ended up doing.”

Saville agrees.

“I like the fact that (the herbarium) is a huge, invaluable resource and that you can see all sorts of really neat things that you wouldn’t be able to see otherwise,” she says.

“Like if you’d never been to Japan. You don’t know what’s in Japan, but you could go and look in the herbarium and find Japanese specimens and see what would be in the area.”