Colorado amateur botanist discovers species
Aspen, CO Colorado
CORTEZ, Colo. ” Al Schneider, a retired English professor and amateur botanist, bent down to a yellow-flowering plant and introduced himself.
“I shook its hand and said, ‘Hello, I don’t think we’ve met before,'” Schneider said.
Walking among wildflowers, he found, can yield unique discoveries. Like a new plant species.
Schneider was helping Peggy Lyon, another ex-English teacher turned botanist, scour an area 30 miles north of Dolores on Aug. 4, 2008, to catalog various plants. Lyon, who works for the Colorado Natural Heritage Program, received a grant to inventory plants within Lone Mesa State Park before it opens to the public.
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That’s when Schneider discovered “Gutierrezia elegans.”
After meeting his new acquaintance, Schneider set out to solve what type of species the plant was by pulling out a key guide to wildflowers of the Western Slope.
“I still couldn’t figure out what it was, so I called Peggy over and she couldn’t figure it out either,” he said. “So I sent some photographs of it to an expert in this area of plants.”
That expert was Guy Nesom, an independent research botanist based in Forth Worth, Texas. Nesom helped write parts of the “Flora of North America” book and was familiar with this type of plant.
After studying the photographs, Nesom told Schneider he was 95 percent sure it was a new plant species, but “95 percent doesn’t do it.” So Schneider sent physical samples to Texas, and soon Nesom was comparing the plant to notes of similar plants in scientific journals and publications.
“I know that part of the (plant) family very well since I have studied it a long time,” Schneider said.
The plant family is the Asteraceae, or sunflower, family.
“It was clearly in the genus that they thought it was, ‘Gutierrezia,'” he said.
Plants are biologically classified by their genus, followed by the species name. Nesom told Schneider and Lyon they did have a new plant species on their hands.
The plant then had to be given a species name, so as not to be confused with other plants in that genus. Schneider said he and Lyon decided to name the plant “elegans,” for its elegant qualities of symmetry. The plant’s scientific name then became “Gutierrezia elegans,” commonly known as Lone Mesa snakeweed. But naming the plant was only the first step.
“To make the new name legitimately published, there are a set of rules you have to follow,” Nesom said, referring to the international code of botanical nomenclature.
A description of the plant must be written, partially in Latin, and submitted for peer review in a scientific journal. The plant description is then reviewed by other botanists who are familiar with that type of plant, and they provide comments and criticisms on the description. This process can take a year or more.
Nesom, however, knew the editor at the Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, and the editor sent out the plant description to a few peers for review. The description came back with very few critical comments and was published in the botanical journal in early December, just months after the plant was discovered.
Schneider said he and Lyon held their excitement until the description was published. Over a 20-year period, there have only been 29 new plant species discovered in Colorado, according to a survey of North American flora. In the United States, approximately 30 new plant species are found each year.
“If you’re a scientist and use scientific thinking, you know mistakes happen and you have to have a lot of data and input before a decision is made,” Schneider said. “You don’t just hop to conclusions. You take your time, put it out for review, see what the top people in the area say, and then you get excited.”
Excitement over the new plant extended beyond the circle of botanists. Scot Elder, park manager at Lone Mesa State Park, said while it’s too early to tell, the park might receive added protection if the plant is deemed rare to the area.
“Significant surveying needs to take place before this happens, but I certainly believe that it is a blessing if rare plants are found inside the park,” Elder said.
If any new plant species are designated threatened or endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the park will work with the federal agency to protect the rare natural resources, Elder said.
Since that type of designation takes time, Schneider and Lyon will continue to catalog plants in the park, paying special attention to the “elegans.” Schneider said he and his wife, Betty, have found 700 of the Lone Mesa snakeweed plants in a portion of the park, a small number in comparison to other well-known species.
Schneider will continue the inventory when snow melts in the spring. After all, it’s part of his passion.
“On a personal level, it’s the joy in the beauty of the plants,” he said. “I think it’s a natural thing for people to enjoy learning, and I’m happy this learning is environmentally friendly. All you need is a receptive heart, mind and eyes, and to focus on the importance of preserving and enjoying these native plants of Colorado.”
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