Plants were once thought to only rely on green leaves and photosynthesis. However, some plants, such as the genus Thismia, have abandoned this process and obtain nutrients from other organisms. This unique feature and its complete lack of photosynthesis make the fairy lanterns one of the strangest plants in the world.
Fairy lanterns are rare and grow only in specific locations. They live underground, with colorful flowers rising above the soil, sometimes making them look like mushrooms. There are around 90 known species of Thismia, many of which are only known from their original discovery location, and some have likely become extinct.
Thismia kobensis presumed to be extinct
One of these species, Thismia kobensis, was presumed extinct after its habitat was destroyed by an industrial complex in Kobe City, Japan, where it was initially discovered in 1992. However, after more than 30 years, Professor Kenji Suetsugu and his colleagues found the species in Sanda City, approximately 30 km away. This rediscovery and subsequent investigations have shed new light on fairy lanterns and their evolutionary history.
The researchers provided an updated description of Thismia kobensis based on a close examination, highlighting how it differs from the similar species Thismia huangii. They determined that Thismia kobensis is a distinct species with unique characteristics and evolutionary history. The species can be distinguished by its short and wide ring and the many short hairs on its stigma.
The North American Thismia americana
Thismia americana, a fairy lantern species native to North America, is now considered extinct. However, the discovery of Thismia kobensis, a similar species found in Japan, may provide new insights into the biogeography and evolutionary history of fairy lanterns. Thismia kobensis is now believed to be the closest relative of Thismia americana, despite the fact that Thismia rodwayi, a species found in Australia and New Zealand, was previously thought to be its closest relative. The similarity between Thismia americana and the Australia-New Zealand species may have evolved independently based on pollinator preferences.
Other Fairy Lantern species around the world
Eastern Asian and North American plants having close relationships and disjunct distributions across these regions is not uncommon and can often be attributed to migration through the Beringia land bridge. Therefore, the disjunct distribution of Thismia americana may be due to migration through Beringia. In contrast, the striking similarity in inner floral morphology suggests a closer relationship between Thismia americana and Thismia kobensis.
The rediscovery of Thismia kobensis provides crucial insight into fairy lanterns’ biogeography and evolutionary history. The research was published in Phytotaxa on February 28, 2023. The paper includes information on conservation measures to help protect these rare plants from human activities.
In-Article Image CreditsFairy Lanterns plant via Kobe University by Kenji Suetsugu with usage type - Creative Commons License. Photographed by Kenji Suetsugu.
Featured Image CreditFairy Lanterns plant via Kobe University by Kenji Suetsugu with usage type - Creative Commons License. Photographed by Kenji Suetsugu.