Science & Technology

World’s smallest terrestrial fern found in Western Ghats

The newly-found fern is one cm long and has different genetic and physical characters compared to other known fern species

By Bhavya Khullar
Last Updated: Wednesday 25 April 2018

The worlds’ smallest terrestrial fern Ophioglossum malviae, which is almost of the size of the human finger nail. Indian botanists have discovered a fern that’s as big as a human finger nail making it the tiniest terrestrial fern known to mankind till date. The fern, scientifically termed as Ophioglossum malviae, is merely 1 cm long and has different physical and genetic characters compared to other known species of ferns.

Mitesh Patel and Dr MN Reddy, who discovered the fern, were on a botanical expedition to the Western Ghats – one of the richest biodiversity hotspots of India – in September of 2016 when they stumbled upon a plant that resembled Ophioglossum parvifolium, a previously known species of fern, but was too small to appear familiar to botanists. Speculating a potential discovery, the authors collected 12 specimens of the fern that they could locate from that region and preserved them for subsequent analysis. They examined these samples at the Bapalal Vaidya Botanical Research Centre of the Veer Narmad South Gujarat University in Surat.

“We studied the samples in the lab and found that in addition to being very very small, the newly found plants differed from other known species of ferns in the structure of their stomata and spores which encouraged us to pursue an in-depth examination,” said Mitesh Patel, the lead author of the study.

Scientists found that the new species of fern had a dome-shaped stomata and thick-walled spores as opposed to other members of its group that harbor burrowed stomata and thin-walled spores. Stomata are minute pores on leaves that help plants breathe, and spores are the reproductive units or seeds of lower plants like fungi and ferns that give rise to new plants when they fall on a suitable medium like soil and germinate under favorable growth conditions. The authors published these findings in the April issue of the journal Scientific Reports.  

The researchers also studied the DNA of the newly discovered fern and compared it to that of the other fen species. They found that this new fern differed significantly in the sequence of three genes named trnL-F, rbcL, and psb-trnH which unambiguously confirmed that Ophioglossum malviae was in fact an entirely new species known to science.

India is home to nearly 14 species of Ophioglossum of which majority of the species were reported from the Western Ghats. “The diversity of ferns in India appears to be well documented. However, many new species of ferns have been discovered in recent years, which highlights the need for more dedicated surveys across the country especially in lesser explored areas,” the authors note in their paper.

Mitesh adds that Jakhana village in Gujarat, where the new fern species was discovered, is poorly explored for Pteridophyte (fern) diversity which implies that there could be other unknown fern species around this area. “Further explorations are needed to determine a full range distribution,” he said. Dr. Reddy believes, “Such explorations also highlight the need to conserve natural habitats as one doesn’t know how many more new species are awaiting discovery in these biodiversity hotspots.”

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