Selby Gardens Botanist Makes 'Miracle' Discovery

Arts & Culture

Pictured: John L. Clark, Ph.D., Marie Selby Botanical Gardens research botanist, with Amalophyllon miraculum.

In the Andean mountains of western Ecuador, a man of science witnesses a miracle.

A tiny plant with delicate white flowers clings to life on the sheer rock, nourished only by a small trickle of water. Dr. John L. Clark, a research botanist with Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, instantly recognizes it as a new species, never before seen. But that’s not the miracle. The miracle is that there’s anything here at all, in a place once known only for extinction. And in a newly published article detailing the discovery of Amalophyllon miraculum, Clark is spreading the word.

Located on the Andean slopes in western Ecuador, the Centinela region and its rainforests were once famed for their singular biodiversity and home to near 100 plants found nowhere else in the world. But for the past 30 years, the region has become more infamous for rampant deforestation and the destruction of the natural habitat. The loss of unique plant life was so great that the term “Centinelan extinction” entered the botanical lexicon. Still, research botanists like Clark lead expeditions into what little rainforest remains, searching for survivors in pockets of the natural world and hidden waterfalls held in trust by the local farmers who preserve them. And it was on just one such expedition in 2022 that Clark made his discovery.

“I’m always looking,” Clark says. “My eyes are everywhere and, as a botanist, I’ve been honing my observational skills for years. But I never know what’s going to happen.” Still, at first sight, he knew Amalophyllon miraculum was something new. At the time, there were only two known species of Amalophyllon on record in Ecuador. “And this one,” he says, “was completely different.” Minuscule in size, with deeply serrated, iridescent green leaves and ephemeral white flowers, it was an obligate lithophyte, meaning it grew on rocks, and was dependent on persistent moisture. A delicate balancing act to achieve. Clark named the species miraculum, in tribute to the greater meaning he sees in its discovery. “Because it’s a miracle that the Centinela forests are still alive,” he says.

Difficult to spot, ensuing expeditions to find more Amalophyllon miraculum have not always been successful, though Clark has observed and photographed the novel species on two separate trips into the field, collecting samples and sending them back to select research institutions, including Selby Gardens, for further study. “There’s a lot of interesting evolutionary biology there,” he says, noting that miraculum appears to deviate from its fellow Ecuadorian Amalophyllon—air plants commonly pollinated by hummingbirds— in fundamental ways. It’s undoubtedly weird, he says, but celebrating the weirdness that makes each habitat unique is what the research is all about. “That’s one of the pillars of being a field botanist,” he says.

And after miraculum, Clark suspects the celebration is just beginning.

“I bet we’d find lots of new species,” he says. “We just have to go there.” 

Pictured: John L. Clark, Ph.D., Marie Selby Botanical Gardens research botanist, with Amalophyllon miraculum.

To see a video of Dr. Clark first discovering Amalophyllon miraculum, click here.

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