I just read an article in the online edition of the British newspaper, The Independent, about Xander van der Burgt, a botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, who over the past few years has discovered 25 new tree species, many in Cameroon and many of these in a small patch of the Korup Forest. I love stories like this because they counter those who say that we know just about all the plants there are to know. To me, this is one more example of scientific hubris, like that displayed by those who thought physics was finished at the end of the 19th century and that infectious disease was a has-been field after the discovery of antibiotics. You think scientists would have wised up after those two rather embarrassing episodes, but no, they keep making such declarations.
While I will admit that it is unlikely that there are many unnamed large mammals still roaming the earth, trees are another thing. This difference could be a result of their lifestyle. Besides the fact that they don’t move–which is how we often catch sight of animals in nature–they don’t use up a lot of visible resources either. Large animals are rare because they eat a great deal; they need to have access to an extensive range with adequate plants or animals or a combination of both. A tree, on the other hand, makes its own food. Yes, it needs water and minerals absorbed through its root system that must be extensive, but it hardly needs the hundred square mile range of a grizzly bear.
In the rainforests of Cameroon where the equatorial climate is relatively constant all year, there is plenty of rain and sunshine and warmth, all of which contribute to the greater diversity found in this and like environments. In fact, the growth is so thick where van der Burgt works that it’s difficult to determine which leaves are on which tree when he looks up into the canopy. Over the years he has been able to identify a dozen new species within one square mile. Some are closely related to each other, suggesting relatively recent species radiation events. This rich diversity–and novelty–suggests that there are many new species yet to be identified in tropical areas around the world. The age of species discovery is hardly over, and since there are often fungi, insects, and other organisms lively on and in these trees, there are undoubtedly many more species in these groups waiting to be noticed.