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New Species of Fairy Lantern Found

A new species of fairy lantern (Thismia rodwayi) has been discovered in Japan, marking the first rare botanical discovery in a country without a previous occurrence of new plant genus in nearly 100 years. Fairy lanterns, which are members of the Thismiaceae family, are noted for their bell-shaped flowers that have a glass-like appearance. They are a mycoheterotrophic species, meaning that they obtain nourishment by feeding on the symbiotic interactions between fungi and trees that share the mycorrhizal network that weave their way under the soil.

The scientific name for this family of plants is "tanuki-no-shokudai," which translates from Japanese to mean "raccoon dog's [badger] candle holder," a descriptive phrase that refers to their unusual shape and distribution underground. The proposed name for this new species is Relictithismia kimotsukiensis.

There are approximately 100 known species in this family (now, it would seem, 101). Because the entire plant is void of chlorophyll, the flowers have a translucence reminiscent of glass. They are an extremely rare sight because they are typically found under fallen leaves and their flowers only briefly poke above the ground for a very brief period.

Of course, with its food source limited to local fungi, its spread is limited as well. But the discovery of this species makes Kobe University botanist Suetsugu Kenji, an internationally renowned expert on non-photosynthetic plants, hopeful that it may lead to the discovery of other previously unknown species of fairy lantern and a better understanding of how they develop and interact with other plants in the mycorrhizal network .

"This research," Suetsugu says, "might suggest that many other new species may be hiding in regions previously thought to be well-studied and underscores the critical need for ongoing exploration and investigation of the planet's flora both abroad and at home. A segment of our future research will be dedicated to ecological studies aimed at deciphering the interactions between Relictithismia and its fungal hosts, in addition to assessing the impact of environmental alterations on these associations."

by Karyn Maier


Kenji Suetsugu, Yasunori Nakamura, Takafumi Nakano, Shuichiro Tagane. Relictithismia kimotsukiensis, a new genus and species of Thismiaceae from southern Japan with discussions on its phylogenetic relationship. Journal of Plant Research, 2024


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