Czech botanist discovers new Thismia plant in Borneo rainforest

Thismia Inconspicua, photo: Michal Sochor

Botanists from Palacký University in Olomouc conducting research on the island of Borneo have uncovered a new species of a plant belonging to the Thismiaceae family, small non-green plants living on fungi. To find out more about this discovery and the work of Czech botanists in the rainforests of Borneo, I spoke to Michal Sochor, from Palacky University who made the find last year, and asked him how it all came about.

Thismia Inconspicua,  photo: Michal Sochor
“Well it happened quite by accident, as usual I was helping my colleagues with some ecological research in the tropical rainforests of Borneo in Brunei when I noticed an interesting plant. Unfortunately, it was not flowering, so I spent several hours in the vicinity searching for such a plant in flower and I was successful.”

It is a very tiny plant, apparently?

“Yes, it is just a few centimetres tall and grows on fungus. So it is a parasite of fungus.”

How did you know it was something no one had ever seen before?

“Well, I had some experience, because I had already found two new species in Borneo from this genus. So I knew instantly it was an interesting find. So I spent many hours there, documenting, photographing, measuring and at the end when I thought I was done, I stepped away slightly and at that moment a huge branch fell exactly on the spot where I had been working. So it was very close and I was lucky it missed me.”

What happened to the plants?

“Most of the plants were destroyed unfortunately and so was my backpack with my lunch, but it missed me and that was the important thing.”

“We called it Thismia Inconspicua, which reflects the fact that the plant is brown, very small and inconspicuous on rotting leaves and rotting wood where it grows.”

But you managed to save some specimen of this new plant?

“Yes, one specimen was preserved and it is still preserved at the Brunei National Herbarium, though most of the other plants were destroyed. But hopefully, the population survived. We hope so.”

I assume it is your prerogative to give a plant that you discovered a name?

“Yes, we called it Thismia Inconspicua, which means inconspicuous and reflects the fact that the plant is brown, very small and inconspicuous on rotting leaves and rotting wood where it grows.”

You said you had discovered three new plants from this family, three new Thismias, what does such a discovery entail and how important is it for you personally?

“Well, for me personally, it is a very strong experience. Of course, it is always a good feeling when you find something interesting. Finding a new species –for science it is a very small contribution – but for me personally, it is a very strong experience.”

Michal Sochor,  photo: archive of Michal Sochor
And what does the process entail. Do you need to get it registered or do you just publish something about it?

“Yes, when the plant is well-documented we always write a scientific manuscript and submit it to a scientific journal and when it is accepted and published and from that time the discovery is accepted by scientists.”

So how long does it take for botanists around the world to learn of a discovery after you make it?

“Usually, it is a matter of months or even years. Right now our manuscript has been accepted and it is ready to be published and it is a year since I made the discovery. So it is around one year, usually.”

Tell me about your expeditions to Borneo, how many of you go there, how often do you go, and how did you come to gain access to the area?

“For me the first expedition was part of a university trip on which I helped my colleagues with ecological research and it was this research that started everything. The research involves measuring and quantifying processes in tropical rainforests, like forest dynamics, the rate of growth of trees, measuring the biodiversity in the forests and so on. The Thismia project was only a side-product of this ecological research.”

“The tropics are quite far away and difficult to access, so botanists usually focus on what they see around them.”

A lot of the rainforests on Borneo have been destroyed. I assume you worked in a nature reserve?

“That’s true. A lot of the rainforests in Borneo as well as other parts of south-east Asia are lost. Let us say some 70 to 80 percent of rainforests have been completely or partially destroyed and we are lucky that in Borneo large areas of pristine, primeval forests remain. Unfortunately, there are large areas which are not protected nature reserves so we expect that a lot more rainforests will be destroyed in the near future.”

Do you work in a protected area?

“Yes, usually, in Brunei it is the Ulu Temburong National Park and this area should be protected for a very long time.”

What is your daily life like on such an expedition? Where do you live, eat, do you have local guides in the rainforest?

“In Brunei we use the facilities of the University of Brunei, we live in a very comfortable house with bedrooms, there are laboratories, a local cook prepares a meal three times a day. So there are no problems.”

Thismia Inconspicua,  photo: Michal Sochor
And do you have a guide in the rainforest?

“In Brunei we know the forest well, so we do not need to use guides, but in Malaysia or Indonesia it is necessary to use guides because Europeans get lost very easily in the forests there.”

What are the dangers of working in a rainforest all day? Are there reptiles, spiders?

“I would not say that animals are the biggest danger in the forest, for me the biggest danger is falling branches or falling trees. Of, course there are some poisonous snakes and other animals but during the day they are usually hidden underground or in the canopy, so I think that the main danger are the falling branches.”

What is the environment like for a European?

“For me it is very strong experience. The environment is very special, very rich in biodiversity, it is full of sounds, full of smells ….of course living in such an environment is quite difficult, it is very hot and humid, but it is nice for me as a biologist.”

Are there any other discoveries that your team made?

“Yes, we made some discoveries in the group of mycoheterotrophic plants, which means plants that draw energy from fungi, these are plants from other genera such as Sciaphila or Burmania, but these are quite complicated genera, so we haven’t published these results yet.”

For how long has Palacký University been focussing on this research in the rainforest and for how long will it continue?

The place where Thismia Inconspicua was found,  photo: Michal Sochor
“The ecological project goes back about ten years, the Thismia research only about three or four years. But we hope that we can continue in this research for many more years and hopefully also get some research grants so that the research will not only be done during our holidays.”

What are your own ambitions for the future?

“Well, I hope we can find some more new species of Thismia and of course we are hoping for some nice results from the ecological research which I hope will come very soon.”

When you say nice results – what exactly do you mean? I assume you are talking about the rainforest research, how fast trees grow and so on – how will that be used - to replace lost rainforests?

“Yes, either that or just for a better general understanding of our eco-system, because we still have poor knowledge of how it works and its biodiversity and this information can help us to understand how to preserve it and how to restore it.”

People sometimes compare rainforests to the lungs of the Planet what are our chances of restoring the lost rainforests?

“It depends on the degree of destruction of the forests. There are forests that have been only partly destroyed, meaning that only the biggest trees were logged, such forests can be restored quite easily and successfully, but there are also forests in Borneo which have been destroyed completely, on some there are just palm oil plantations and they cannot be restored completely, if at all.”

In those that have been preserved - are there a lot of botanists working there? Do you meet a lot of colleagues?

“Actually not, because the majority work in temperate regions, in the Western world, Europe, North America, but in the tropics, where the biodiversity is the richest in the world only very few people work, which is bad because we do not get as much information as we need about these rich ecosystems.”

Why is that?

Thismia Inconspicua,  illustration by Kateřina Jánošíková
“That’s easy, because the Western world has the most money for research, while in the tropics countries usually do not invest so much money into science, so there are very few scientists.”

But why do not more Western scientists go to the rainforests to do research there?

“The tropics are quite far away and difficult to access, so scientists usually focus on what they see around them. That’s understandable.”

So how come you are there?

“For me it is partly a traveller’s experience, I like travelling, I like discovering new countries, a new world, let’s say, so I have a personal interest in it, but not everyone does.”