- A new orchid species found only in Sri Lanka has been named after a wild elephant killed for its tusks in 2017.
- The botanists who discovered Pteroceras dalaputtuwa say they named it in the hope of highlighting the need to conserve the island’s rich plant and animal biodiversity.
- The surveys that yielded the new species also led to the rediscovery of another endemic orchid species, Pteroceras viridiflorum that was considered extinct and not seen in nearly 150 years.
In Sri Lanka, home to nearly 6,000 elephants, the majestic mammals enjoy iconic status for their immense religious, cultural and social significance.
Listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List, the Sri Lankan subspecies of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus maximus) invokes both love and fear. As human-elephant conflicts continue unabated, driven by habitat loss and poaching — the twin causes that stress the elephant population here — a group of botanists has found a unique way to perpetuate the legacy of a legendary tusker killed for its ivory: by naming a new orchid species in its memory.
A paper in the March 25 edition of the journal Phytotaxa describes the new flower, found only in Sri Lanka, as Pteroceras dalaputtuwa, named after the Dala Puttuwa of Galgamuwa, a famed wild elephant with tusks so long that they entwined at the tips. The Dalaputtuwa orchid is the first flower ever named after an elephant.
The authors of the new paper say they were keen to call for holistic conservation of species, and decided to use the orchid’s nomenclature to highlight the need to protect Sri Lanka’s flora and fauna.
“The orchid was an instrument to highlight our conservation needs,” said study co-author Pankaj Kumar, a botanist with the orchid conservation section of the Hong Kong-based Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden (KFBG) Corporation. He told Mongabay: “The new orchid is being treated as an instrument to raise awareness about conservation, be it about orchids or elephants.”
The Dala Puttuwa was both revered and feared by villagers, for the lone elephant would sometimes enter farms and destroy crops. Partially blind, the tusker was killed in October 2017 by poachers , who hacked off its tusks and also took its “elephant pearls,” calcified pellets that form in the skull and tusk cavities of elephants and that are considered good-luck charms by Sri Lankans. While there was a public outcry following the elephant’s killing, it has since fizzled out; investigators estimated the value of the poached ivory and pearls at around $11,400.
Lead author Tharaka Sudesh Priyadarshana, a master’s candidate at the Guangxi Key Laboratory of Forest Ecology and Conservation at Guangxi University in China, told Mongabay that there was a dire need to attract wider public and government attention to the need for improved conservation policies to protect Sri Lanka’s biodiversity.
“In the recent past, lot of elephants died or were killed due to various reasons in Sri Lanka. People were shocked and saddened by what happened to the Galgamuwe Dala Puttuwa, he said. “Sri Lanka’s biodiversity is under severe threat at present and highlighting the need for enhanced conservation efforts is necessary.”
The new orchid species bears a close resemblance to P. philippinense, a species from the Philippines, but is considered quite distinct. The flower of P. dalaputtuwa is small and partially opened, with short yellowish petals and an elongated rectangular-oval hollow extension known as a spur.
While discovering an entirely new orchid species, the researchers also rediscovered specimens of Pteroceras viridiflorum, a flower considered extinct and not seen in nearly 150 years.
The name Pteroceras is derived from the Greek words “pteron” and “keras,” meaning wing and horn respectively, referring to the two narrow wing-like appendages at the base of the labellum. Pteroceras is a small genus that includes 21 species from India, Sri Lanka, Indonesian and the Philippines. Most of these species can be found in evergreen rainforests ranging from lowlands to hills to upper montane regions.
Previously, P. viridiflorum was the only species from the genus known to occur in Sri Lanka. Even then, it was known mainly from drawings. It was later assessed as critically endangered and possibly extinct, and included in the National Conservation Statuses (NCS) of the National IUCN Red List 2012.
The rediscovery of the flower came as the researchers of the new study conducted regular floristic surveys. They found a different color form for P. viridiflorum that had never been reported before. The surveys also yielded up the discovery of the new species, P. dalaputtuwa, whose conservation status is assessed as critically endangered.
They first observed the plant in July 2014, in the Rathganga area of the Kudeawa Forest Reserve, in Ratnapura district. The team studied both fresh flowers and those preserved in alcohol to confirm their taxonomic identity. Specimens of the new plants have been deposited with the Royal Botanical Gardens, Peradeniya.
Their rediscovery of P. viridiflorum was also made within Ratnapura district, near a footpath leading to Adam’s Peak in Samanala Nature Reserve, in September 2013. They made subsequent observations in the same area, and later in Maskeliya, in central Sri Lanka.
Kumar said there was no “trace of doubt that the rediscovered orchid species, P. viridiflorum, is distinct from Pteroceras dalaputtuwa.
P. viridiflorum are much smaller plants with wider leaves. The flowers are about 1.2 centimeters (0.5 inches) wide and pale green in color, with the spur slightly inflated and pointed forward, he said.
By contrast, P. dalaputtuwa has slightly bigger plants with narrower leaves, and the flowers are yellowish with red markings toward the base of the petals and sepals, with the spur conical and pointing downward.
Kumar said P. viridiflorum had for a long time been mistakenly linked to an Indian species, Loxoma viridiflora, which is distinctly a different taxon and endemic to India.
The rediscovery of the Sri Lanka-endemic P. viridiflorum seeks to downgrade its conservation status from possibly extinct to critically endangered.
“Both species are assessed as critically endangered by the IUCN, and it is most important to take conservation measures to protect their habitat,” Kumar said. “As a second step, both orchid species could be propagated in-vitro and multiplied to prepare a stock of plants, which could later be introduced in the wild.”
The co-authors say they hope not just to distinguish Sri Lanka’s plant life but also to link it to the rest of the island’s habitats and ecosystems, which was why they named the new plant after the slain elephant.
Only about 7 percent of male elephants in Sri Lanka grow tusks, and only about 2 percent are actual tuskers. While poaching is a problem, the island’s elephant population is affected mostly by habitat loss and human-elephant conflict.
Priyadarshana, T. S., Atthanagoda, A. G., Wijewardhane, I., Siriweera, K. S., Aberathna, N., & Kumar, P. (2019). Pteroceras dalaputtuwa (Orchidaceae: Epidendroideae: Vandeae: Aeridinae), a new species from Sri Lanka and re-collection of Pteroceras viridiflorum after 150 years. Phytotaxa,399(1), 65. doi: 10.11646/phytotaxa.399.1.7
This tiny yellowish orchid endemic to Sri Lanka is named after a famous elephant killed for its tusks. The orchid is now listed as Pteroceras dalaputtuwa. Image by Ishara H. Wijewardhane.