Samford, West Alabama professors help identify new botanical species

Samford, West Alabama professors help identify new botanical species
In a lab at the University of West Alabama, Professor Brian Keener holds the two variations of the plant he discovered. The plants, Stachys nelsonii, left, and Stachys alabamica, have been found in only one area of the state. (Gary Cosby Jr./The Tuscaloosa News)

Alabama’s biodiversity is extremely rich.

“You don’t have to go to the Amazon rainforest for a trip to find new species,” said Lawrence J. Davenport, a Samford University professor. “I think of Alabama as a semi-tropical jungle. It is largely unexplored. Sure, we know what the edges hold, but the interior parts are still ripe and ready for us to get in there and find new stuff.”

Davenport and Brian Keener, a University of West Alabama professor, co-authored a paper on two new species of Stachys, commonly called hedge nettle, discovered in the east central part of Alabama. Their work was published in the “Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas,” an international botanical journal.

The Alabama hedge nettle, Stachys alabamica, was found on a half-mile stretch of bank along Cheaha Creek in Clay County. Nelson’s Hedge-Nettle, Stachys nelsonii, is only known from a single population on Horn Mountain in Talladega County.

Keener expected to find one new species as he worked to identify the “odd mint” found by a colleague — which turned out to be Stachys nelsonii. He didn’t expect a second.

The genus Stachys is found worldwide. It has shown a propensity to evolve rapidly, Keener said.

The two species described in the paper come from “some old geology in the Talladega Mountains,” Keener said. The area in Alabama is in the southern part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where several narrow endemics of the genus have been discovered.

The confirmation of the new species started with an initial misidentification.

“This is how botany is done,” Davenport said. “You find an odd specimen, and it doesn’t quite fit anything and you pursue it, and you check all the references and all the other collections and you determine it to be new.”

Clues in the research

Originally, another species, Stachys eplingii, was included in a checklist of Alabama plants in 2011 and the Alabama Plant Atlas, which is coordinated by Keener, based on a single sample collected in 1993 in Clay County. John Nelson, an expert on Stachys at the University of South Carolina, after reviewing the specimen in 1998, annotated the description to “nearest Stachys epilingii,” indicating some doubt regarding the identity, according to the paper.

Professor Brian Keener has discovered two variations of the mint plant that have been found in only one area of Alabama. Keener is a professor at the University of West Alabama. He examines the Stacys alabamica plant under a microscope. (Gary Cosby Jr./The Tuscaloosa News)

In 2012, a colleague of Keener’s, Wayne Webb, collected another Stachys, the “odd mint,” in Talladega County. Keener was unfamiliar with the Stachys but assumed it must be Stachys eplingii based on the earlier work. As he researched the species, Keener consulted the 1993 specimen housed at Jacksonville State University herbarium. The new sample was different, he said. As he further researched the new plant, he discovered the specimen housed at JSU was not Stachys eplingii.

“He ended up going to the mother lode of Stachys collections at the University of South Carolina and realized there that we were dealing with something brand new,” Davenport said.

What Keener noticed were distinct differences in the structures of the flowers and stalks.

“When you have distinction in the flowers in a closely related genus you can almost bank on it being a different species,” he said. “I don’t even think these are sister species, if you get down to it.”

Keener said genetic analysis has been done on Stachys nelsonii, but not yet for Stachys alabamica.

Davenport and Keener returned to Clay County along the creek and again found the original population of Stachys alabamica and discovered a new population of Stachys nelsonii in Talladega County.

“The main thing that got me was the several differences in habitat,” Davenport said. “I was a bit skeptical until we got to the second site with the second species.”

The distinct species are about 13 miles apart, Keener said. But Stachys alabamica is located at a lower elevation in the wash of a creek and Stachys nelsonii was on a rocky and wooded mountainside.

Stachys nelsonii is seen under the light of a microscope at the University of West Alabama. (Gary Cosby Jr./The Tuscaloosa News)

Keener believes Stachys nelsonii had never been collected before, and Stachys alabamica only once before.

“That just goes to show that Alabama is under-explored botanically and there are many discoveries out there,” Keener said.

More to find

The two plan more field work to try and find other populations of the nettle.

“We are going to explore the whole network of creeks to see if there are other locations,” Davenport said. “The one that we found was as close to the road as possible. Who knows what else is out there?”

Depending on what the two find, Keener said they will consider petitioning U.S. Fish and Wildlife for an endangered species designation.

“It’s hard to emphasize how rare these things are. Right now, one is endemic to Clay County, a single mountain. The other is endemic to Clay County, a single creek,” Keener said.

Keener hopes their ranges will prove to be broader. Narrow-range endemics are at a greater risk of extinction.

“If one area of the world is wiped out, they are gone,” he said.

In a lab at the University of West Alabama, Professor Brian Keener holds the two variations of the plant he discovered. The plants, Stachys nelsonii, left, and Stachys alabamica, have been found in only one area of the state. (Gary Cosby Jr./The Tuscaloosa News)

This story originally appeared in The Tuscaloosa News.

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