When Gold Coast botanist Lui Weber went to visit his physiotherapist in 2017 for a sore back, he probably didn’t expect to be inducted into the annals of botanical history – but that’s exactly what happened. As reported by the ABC, Weber, while in his physio’s backyard, noticed an unusual tree that he didn’t recognise, with rough corky bark and slender waxy leaves.
It took four more years of sleuthing, hunting for the flowers and fruits of the tree to play a game of morphological spot-the-difference, before the tree was definitively recognised as a new, undescribed species – Endiandra wongawallanensis.
At a time when millions of species seem to be disappearing by the day, it’s encouraging that “new” organisms are just around the corner or behind the backyard fence, quietly waiting to be discovered. In fact, it’s not actually that uncommon: the Queensland Government says it discovers on average 50 new species of plants, lichens, algae and fungi in the state each year, and scientists reckon there might be 500,000 undiscovered species of plants and animals waiting to be identified across Australia.
All this raises some interesting questions. How can new species of plants still be hiding in plain sight? How do we decide what actually is a new species? And what is the conservation value of doing so?