- An orchid species new to science has been described from the Guiana Highlands in Venezuela and Brazil.
- Members of the Pemón Arekuna Indigenous community of Paruima named the species in their native language.
- The researcher who described the new orchid advocates for “de-colonizing science nomenclature and giving more representation to Indigenous [and] local languages.”
On an expedition in the tepuis, or “sprouting rock,” landscape of the Guiana Highlands in South America, Mateusz Wrazidlo snapped a photo of an orchid he had never seen before. Back in the herbarium, a place where dried plant samples are kept for research, he and his colleague, the orchid expert Eric Hágsater, determined it was a species new to science
“Our new species is another beautiful looking member of the Epidendrum family, but in my humble opinion it’s not the looks that make it special — it is the name it was given,” Wrazidlo, a Ph.D. student at the Silesian University of Technology in Poland, told Mongabay in an email.
All species names consist of two parts. The first part is the genus, or the larger group the organism is related to. The second part, the specific name, is typically chosen by the person who found the new species. Often, this second name is based on a Latin word that describes the species, or is a name selected to honor a personal hero. But Wrazidlo decided to take a different approach.
“I thought it would be a nice gesture to ask my Indigenous friends for their opinion and include them in the naming process, selecting a name in their Indigenous language instead of Latin,” Wrazidlo said. “[A]fter all, it is them who are the true wardens and owners of the territories of the tepuis.”
Calio Elliman and his family, members of the Pemón Arekuna community of Paruima, were asked to name the flower. After some deliberation, they chose the name Epidendrum katarun-yariku. In the Indigenous Pemón Arekuna language, “katarun” means high, and “yariku” means flower. The name “high flower” was chosen because this species has been found only on the summits and in the upper foothills of the tepuis.
The new orchid is believed to live within an area of less than 20,000 square kilometers (7,722 square miles) and meets the criteria to be considered ‘vulnerable to extinction’ under the IUCN Red List. Up to 80% of the flora of the tepuis, an area where around one-fourth of the species are endemic (found only in that place), are threatened with extinction.
Wrazidlo says his own heritage inspired him to ask the Pemón Arekuna community to name the new species found near their territory. Wrazidlo is from Upper Silesia, a region that now lies mostly within Poland but maintains a distinct culture and traditionally uses a separate language. The traditions and language of his culture have become more diluted with each generation, he says. Language carries power, and Wrazidlo advocates for “de-colonizing science nomenclature and giving more representation to indigenous [and] local languages.”
“For an indigenous community or town that sees a flower, it will always have its indigenous name, but seeing it accompanied by the scientific name will make them happier,” Antonio Hitcher, a member of the Pemón Kamarakoto tribe from Canaima in Venezuela, told Mongabay in an email. “[J]ust as the scientific community has a name for everything, the locals in their geographical spaces have [given] everything a name,” added Hitcher, who works as a photographer, guide and advocate for the Indigenous heritage of the region.
The Guiana Highlands are a unique plateau and low mountain region in the northern part of South America that contain regions of extensive savannas, basins, forests, and the tepuis mesa. These ecosystems are facing threats from the acceleration of gold and diamond mining, slash-and-burn agriculture, development, and climate change.
“This region of the world is a true sanctuary of life that must be preserved at all costs for these generations and future generations as well,” Hitcher says, “we must make a huge echo so that UNESCO joins all efforts to preserve the culture of these indigenous localities, support[ing] initiatives that guarantee their food security and vital health.”
Indigenous presence in scientific explorations is “of vital importance,” Hitcher says, “because they are the connoisseurs of the place, beyond having satellite data of the area … it will never be equaled with the in-situ presence of the locals.”
Indigenous people played a crucial role in the scientific exploration of this region, Wrazidlo said. “Without them, no European or American explorer would have been able to reach the tepuis, yet their role was usually downplayed or even forgotten.”
“I know one plant might not be much,” Wrazildo said, “but I hope this case will be seen as a small symbol of my admiration and appreciation for the Pemón heritage and the crucial role they have played as the first explorers and foremost protectors of the Guiana Highlands — a region which holds a very special place in my heart.”
Hágsater, E., & Wrazidlo, M. (2020). Epidendrum katarun-yariku (Orchidaceae), a new species of the Schistochilum group from the tepuis of the Guiana Highlands in South America. Phytotaxa, 472(1), 33-40. doi: 10.11646/phytotaxa.472.1.4
Banner image of Epidendrum katarun-yariku inflorescence courtesy of Mateusz Wrazidlo.
Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough_
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