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Scientists discover a new species of paddle pod plant in Coastal Karnataka

Photo : Dr. RamachandraRao, Dr. Navendu V. Page and Ms. Mansa Srivastav.

In the coastal parts of Karnataka, we now have a new species of Mopane paddle pod plant, which was left unnoticed all these years. A woody climber with looping branchlets and tiny green flowers, the Mopane paddle pod plant is found in parts of Africa and south-east Asia. The newly discovered species, fit to be classified as critically endangered, is endemic to the coastal regions of Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka and is not found anywhere else on the planet. This species was discovered by the collective efforts of a team of researchers from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, - Dr. Navendu Page, Dr. G. Ramachandra Rao and Ms. Mansa Srivastav.

This new plant species is considered to be a sister species of the locally found ‘Kagunaballi’ or the Mopane paddle pod (Reissantia indica), and is classified under the genus Reissantia. This species, unlike all the other species in the genus Reissantia, has flowers without any stalk i.e they are all sessile. Hence, the discoverers have named the new species Reissantia sessiliflora. They have also recommend the common name for this plant to be ‘Sessile flowered Mopane paddle-pod’

Reissantia sessiliflora is known to be found only in the sea facing lateritic scrubs of Uttara Kannada district with an estimated extent of occurrence to be less than 100 sq km. Being a rare plant species, it has a slightly erratic flowering and fruiting season which makes it harder to discover.

When asked about how this species was discovered, Dr. Rao narrated an interesting tale behind its discovery.  “I and Navendu had collected the plant from Honnavar and Bhatkal areas respectively. At the first look, the plant looked very similar to R. indica. However, due to its sessile flowers, leathery leaves, coiled nature of branchlets, and entire leaf margin, we had reservations about it being R. indica. These features stood out when compared to R.indica, and we could arrive at the uniqueness of this species. The flowers are small, beautiful, greenish-yellow or rust coloured and the fruits are probably the biggest in the  genera”, he says.

Ecologically, this new species plays an active role by hosting the larvae of many butterflies, moths and other insects. The plant, belonging to the family Celastaceae, is known to be used widely in Indian folk medicine for the treatment of respiratory troubles and injuries.

While the complete list of possible medicinal and ecological values of this plant can be revealed with further research, most of the areas where this plant has been found are already been destroyed by human disturbances, which has forced the categorisation of this species as critically endangered.

“We have been able to locate only a few populations of Reissantia sessiliflora, growing sparsely in coastal sea facing-lateritic scrub and nearby fringes of semi-evergreen and moist deciduous forest. Many of these areas are now in their last phases of death due to heavy human disturbances and if immediate steps are not taken to protect and restore these last remaining patches, we have little chances in protecting it”, explains Dr. Rao voicing his concerns.

The researchers also suggest a way to protect this species and others that may be lurking in the forests of this region. “These are one of the few species that is peculiar and endemic to these highly fragmented and scattered coastal vegetation patches. These coastal habitats and forests are not part of the existing protected area network and are under tremendous pressure from anthropogenic activities. Hence many of these areas have to be immediately brought under community reserve and sufficient awareness given to local public about the threatened nature of this plant”, recommends Dr. Rao.

On the brighter side, this plant is a climber with attractive flowers and fruits, making it a good candidate for ornamental plants in households. So how can the public help in its conservation? “People should take pride in this fact and try to ensure that any development activity does not jeopardize the survival of their unique neighbours. Local public can collect its seeds/saplings and plant this species in their homes or gardens. By doing so, they may very well save a new species from extinction in the absence of any current protection efforts by the government. Local schools can also carry out plantation drives of these rare plants so that they get new homes and hence better chances of survival. Such plants also make up for great gifts”, signs off Dr. Rao.