October 01, 2013 8:30AM
Neil Snow is one of the thousands of scientists who are racing -- against time, against climate change, against the destruction of fragile ecosystems -- to identify our planet’s still poorly understood biodiversity.
Snow, a member of the faculty in Pittsburg State University’s Department of Biology, and others like him are identifying and cataloging a surprising number of new plant and animal species every year. By his own count, Snow has described more than five dozen new plant species within the Myrtle family. This year, one of his discoveries received special recognition.
The International Institute for Species Exploration selected one of Snow’s finds as one of the top 10 new species of 2013. Snow’s Eugenia petrikensis, a small woody plant from Madagascar, joined a charming monkey from the Congo, a tiny frog (the world’s smallest vertebrate), and a cockroach that glows in the dark on the annual list of top finds.
“It was really exciting and professionally satisfying,” Snow said of the work that went into identifying the new species.
It is time consuming and, some would say, tedious work that can focus on small patches of real estate. In the case of Eugenia petrikensis, it was a coastal region in Southeastern Madagascar.
“We’re talking about an area maybe the distance between Fort Scott and Pittsburg,” Snow said, “and we’ve described eight new species from that one small area.”
Because the Missouri Botanical Garden has had a long-running research presence in Madagascar, Snow said, he was able to work with local botanists and researchers to match photographs with dried specimens and thereby determine that Eugenia petrikensis was a species that had not been identified previously.
It isn’t as if no one knows these plants and animals exist, Snow said.
“The local people know them and know what they can be used for,” Snow said. “They have their own names for them.”
Identifying and cataloging new species makes it possible for researchers to add new pieces to Earth’s biological jig saw puzzle, Snow said. It also allows them to send up warning flags when species are threatened.
According to Snow’s paper, Eugenia petrikensis is considered endangered and can be found only in the specialized humid forest that grows on sandy substrate within kilometers of the shoreline in southeastern Madagascar.
“Once forming a continuous band 1,600 km long, the littoral forest has been reduced to isolated, vestigial fragments under pressure from human populations,” he wrote.
Snow, who holds a Ph.D. from Washington University in St. Louis, joined the PSU Department of Biology this fall. He said one of the things that excited him about coming to PSU was the opportunity to serve as director of PSU’s Sperry Herbarium.
“This is an important regional and historical collection of vascular plants and bryophytes,” Snow said.
As director of the herbarium, Snow said he hopes to upgrade and update its collections and make them more accessible to a wider variety of users. He would also like to convert as much of the herbarium’s data to readily accessible formats on-line as possible.
• Eugenia petrikensis photo courtesy of David Rabehevitra.