Species of ethereal fairy lantern rediscovered in Japan after being presumed extinct for 30 years

Scientists have “rediscovered” a species in the genus of the strange and unearthly flowers called Thismia, commonly known as fairy lanterns, which have  abandoned green leaves and photosynthesis in favour of something a little more unusual.

They live entirely underground – except when their lantern-like flowers rise above the soil during the wet season – and are sometimes mistaken for mushrooms.

One species of these unusual and elusive flowers, Thismia kobensis, was originally discovered from a single specimen in Kobe City, Japan, in 1992. But, when scientists failed to find another and its habitat was destroyed during the construction of an industrial complex, it was subsequently presumed extinct.

The elusive species has now been found approximately 30 kilometres away in Sanda City, Hyogo Prefecture, shedding new light on the evolutionary history of this remarkable genus.

The research has been described in a new study in Phytotaxa.

Photographs of thismia kobensis and its stamens
Photograph of the fairy lantern species Thismia kobensis (A) and its stamens (B). Scale bars: 5 mm (A) and 3 mm (B). Credit: Photographed by Kenji Suetsugu

Plants in the Thismia genus are mycoheterotrophic – they are partly or entirely non-photosynthetic and get all of their energy and nutrients from fungi.

“Because most mycoheterotrophic plants obtain their carbon indirectly from photosynthetic plants via shared mycorrhizal networks, they are highly dependent on the activities of both the fungi and trees that sustain them,” the authors write.

Read more: Clap if you believe in robot fairies.

As a result, they are very sensitive to environmental disturbances and are often both rare and endangered.

Around 90 species of Thismia have been identified, but many are only known from the original location in which they were discovered, and some have likely become extinct.

“Here, we have reported a new locality for the presumably extinct species T. kobensis,” the authors write.

Two species of fairy lantern 850
A comparison of two closely related species of fairy lantern: Thismia kobensis (A) and Thismia huangii (B), and their stigma lobes (B) and (D), respectively.

“In June 2021, it was unexpectedly rediscovered by the second author Kohei Yamana in a coniferous plantation in Sanda City, Hyogo Prefecture.

“Our rediscovery of T. kobensis over 30 km away from the type locality suggests that more extensive surveys during the flowering season could provide critical insight into its distribution and rarity, with implications for conservation.”

Read more: Fairy circles: Circular truth.

This newly discovered location of Thismia kobensis makes it the northernmost known Asian fairy lantern species. 

The researchers have since been able to provide an updated description of the species, fleshing out the original detailwhich was based solely on an incomplete museum specimen. Based on their analysis of various characteristics, the researchers determined that Thismia kobensis is a distinct species with unique characteristics and evolutionary history.

A map showing the expansion of fairy lanterns from east asia across the bering land bridge and into north america.
The proposed range expansion mechanism of fairy lanterns in the present study. Credit Kenji Suetsugu

Specifically, the discovery might offer new insights into another mysterious species of fairy lantern, Thismia americana, which was discovered over 100 years ago near Chicago in the US and is now considered extinct.

Detailed morphological investigation suggests that Thismia kobensis is the closest relative of Thismia americana, which is the only North American species of fairy lantern, and may explain how T. americana arrived to the continent from East Asia due to migration through the Bering land bridge.

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