Flamingo Land’s surveys of the forest home of the rare kipunji monkey have led to the discovery of a new species of tree.
While setting up survey plots to better understand the habitat of the endangered kipunji in 2010, Udzungwa Forest Project researchers stumbled across a tree that they could not identify. The initial specimen collections contained leaves and fruits but no flowers, meaning that the tree could not be verified. This led the research team to embark on their annual expedition to the Udzungwa Mountains two months earlier than usual, in an attempt to catch the tree in flower.
The expedition to find the flowers required some careful planning. To begin with, the process for acquiring permission to work in Tanzania’s forest reserves is long and arduous, but the permission came through just in time. The researchers then had to fix up their trusty safari vehicle and haggle in the local markets for 12 days of field supplies. On the way though, the vehicle suffered an explosive puncture in a remote village, which required fixing by torchlight after a delay in the delivery of field supplies delayed the journey into the night. The research team then had to negotiate with villagers to assemble a team of 20 porters to help the field team get to the remote forest camp, two days travel from the nearest big town, and a day’s walk from the nearest village.
Once into the forest the research team just had to hope that the trees were in flower. The first day searching for the trees was a difficult trek through the forest with no paths except those made by elephants, up and down steep terrain and fording rivers along the way. Thankfully though, the team had mapped and labelled around 15 trees during the previous expedition, so they were not too hard to find. Using powerful binoculars the team then scoured the trees one by one to look for the illusive flowers. The first few trees were packed with fruits, but because the flowers were unknown, the researchers did not know what to look for.
After only around half an hour of searching, to the researchers’ delight, the first flower was seen, and it was a bright yellow beauty! However there was still one problem – the flower was 16m up in the canopy of this tree. Among the field assistants was expert tree-climber Richard Mgata. One look at the tree was however enough for Mgata to know that even he could not climb this one – the bark was too smooth and the branches just too high. So agonisingly this flower had to be left where it was and the search continued…
More searching led to the discovery of three more flowers that day. All were high in the trees but Mgata was able to scale them all. Agonisingly, one of these was lost while descending a tree, but the other two were safely carried back to camp, one preserved in alcohol and the other dried over a special stove. For eight more days the researchers continued their search for more trees, as it would have been risky to pin all their hopes on just two flowers. None were seen, and their last chance laid in two days left for searching to the south of the forest camp. On the first of these days the heavens opened and there was solid rain for an entire day, confining the team to camp. The final day also saw rain but the search continued regardless. After a 30 minute climb up the nearest ridge to camp, the rain began to seriously fall down, so the team hunkered down beneath their raincoats and a makeshift umbrella made using a plant collection bag.
The tree is a kind of Polyceratocarpus, a poorly known group of trees for which even the expert botanists are still determining key features for identification. Flamingo Land’s Director of Conservation Science and Lecturer at the University of York Environment Department, Dr. Andy Marshall said, “The tree is a wonderful find for the area. The new species is no inconspicuous tree either. At a whopping 18m tall, the tree is the length of two buses stood end-to-end. A name for the new tree has not been chosen, and will be decided by a team of scientists who will together work towards a full description. We could even call it Polyceratocarpus flamingolandii, perish the thought!”
It is hoped that the discovery of the new tree will bring more attention for this valuable area of forest.