Scientists just rediscovered a rare, fungi-eating ‘fairy lantern’

The genus Thismia’s biogeographical spread is still baffling botanists.
A moniker fairy lantern plant detonates, with its petals unfurling.
As the moniker fairy lantern denotes, it looks like a tiny lantern that illuminates the dark forest floor. Kenji Suetsugu

In a phenomenon that sounds straight out of a sci-fi movie or kooky musical, there are some plants on Earth that actually eat other organisms. The genus Thismia, commonly called fairy lanterns, is a rare but widely dispersed plant genus that is primarily spread across tropical regions of Asia, Australia, and South America and the subtropical and temperate regions in Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States. 

Despite being found in forests and multiple regions, scientists know very little about the mysterious flora’s ecology. They live underground, have colorful flowers that rise about the soil, and lack green leaves and chlorophyll to make their own food using photosynthesis like the vast majority of plants.Instead, they snack on fungi like arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi.

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Only 90 species have been found, but one that was believed to be extinct has been rediscovered. A team of scientists describe the rediscovery of a Thismia species in a study published February 27 in the journal Phytotaxa. The species named Thismia kobensis was originally discovered in Kobe City, Japan in 1992, but the building of an industrial complex supposedly destroyed the entire population. Thirty years later, biologist Kenji Suetsugu from Kobe University and his colleagues rediscovered the plant in Sanda City, about 18 miles away. 

The team describes Thismia kobensis in new detail, adding on to the original description that was only based on an incomplete museum specimen instead of a plant found in nature. Their examination found that Thismia kobensis is different from a similar species called Thismia huangii. It has a short and wide ring and many short hairs on its stigma–the female part of a flower where pollen lands. Their study argues that Thismia kobensis is its own distinct species, with unique characteristics and evolutionary history.

Thismia kobensis is also the northernmost known Asian fairy lantern species, and its rediscovery could offer new insights in the biogeography of a strange and mysterious fairy lantern called Thismia americana, which was originally thought to be related to some species in Australia and New Zealand. 

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The study suggests that Thismia kobensis is the closest relative of Thismia americana, which has only been found near Chicago and may have evolved independently from other Australia-New Zealand species because of how its outer flowers appear. The similar inner flower construction of Thismia americana–like a lack of nectar glands–shows a closer relationship between it and Thismia kobensis

The strange distribution pattern is still puzzling botanists, but one possible reason for its distribution and close relationship might be migration through Beringia–or the Bering Strait Land Bridge that once connected eastern Asia with North America during the last Ice Age.

This rediscovery after three decades has helped scientists better understand fairy lanterns and their evolution and biogeography as a whole. The team assessed that the species is critically endangered based on IUCN red list criteria and the team recommends more logging regulations to protect the forests it lives in.