Washington, Jan 17 : Biologists have discovered a completely new species of palm tree in Madagascar, which dies soon after flowering.
This tree is the most massive palm ever to be found in Madagascar, having a huge trunk that towers over 18m high and fan leaves which are 5m in diameter - the largest known in flowering plants.
The startling fact is that the palm is so massive that it can even be seen in Google Earth images.
The plant has quite an unusual and spectacular lifecycle; growing to great heights before the stem tip converts into a giant terminal inflorescence and bursts into branches of hundreds of tiny flowers. Each flower is capable of being pollinated and developing into fruit and soon drips with nectar and is surrounded by swarming insects and birds.
But, the nutrient reserves of the palm become completely depleted as soon as it fruits and the entire tree collapses and dies in a gruesome demise.
"Ever since we started work on the palms of Madagascar in the 1980s, we have made discovery after discovery of new species and new genera, but to me this is probably the most exciting of them all," said John Dransfield, co-author of the "Palms of Madagascar".
"Most particularly it represents an evolutionary line not previously known from the island and one with a highly paradoxical distribution. Coupled with the great scientific interest of the palm is the fact that it is such an amazingly spectacular species and with such an unusual life cycle," he added.
As for the location of the palm, it was concealed at the foot of a limestone outcrop in the rolling hills and flatlands of the Analalava district. This area has eight dry months a year and a mean annual temperature of 27ºC. The palm grows in deep fertile soil at the foot of the limestone hill in ground that is seasonally flooded.
The details of the flowers and inflorescence branches immediately suggested it was a new, undescribed species and genus with an affinity to the palm tribe Chuniophoeniceae.
Leaf fragments were sent to the Jodrell laboratory at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for DNA analysis, where Dransfield concluded that the palm was not just a new species, but an entirely new genus within this tribe.
There are only three other known genera in this tribe, scattered
across Arabia, Thailand and China. The palm is from an evolutionary
line not previously known to exist in Madagascar.