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Welcome to our new blog series, where we will take a closer look at some of the incredible and fascinating research carried out at OpWall sites around the world. Scientific research is right at the heart of what Operation Wallacea does, and our research outputs are vitally important for supporting conservation efforts around the globe. Since our first paper was published using OpWall data in 1996, we have been involved in over 650 publications, and have facilitated the description of 73 species new to science. I hope by going through some of these publications we can give you all a greater understanding of how important this research is and the kind of work you could be contributing to when you become involved with Operation Wallacea.


Photo by Benjamin Sadd


For our first entry into this series, we will look at a very new and exciting paper published this year by Peter Moonlight and Daniel Kelly from Trinity College Dublin. In the paper they detail the discovery of new species of Begonia from our site in the cloud forests of Cusuco National Park, Honduras, which has been named Begonia merendonensis. The name was chosen to honour the Sierra del Merendón mountain range where the sample was found. Begonias are one of the largest genera of flowering plants, with more than 2000 described species and they are found all across the tropics. They come in a vast assortment of shapes and sizes and can produce stunning flowers. They have also become very popular at home in the UK so you may recognise them from your own garden or house.


Specimen sketch of Begonia merendonensis from Cusuco National Park, Honduras (Moonlight & Kelly 2024)


The road to describing a new species is often long and very technical and can take any years to complete. If you would like to know more about the process then please check out our blog post on the topic. In this case the authors first came across the new species when looking through samples that had already been collected and could not be matched to any described species from the same region – this step was greatly assisted by a Begonia expert (Peter) joining the staff at Trinity College at a very opportune time! The next step was identifying ‘diagnostic characteristics’ that would place the specimens into a known group. The samples were also compared to species which used to be assigned to similar sects but have recently been reclassified into new groups, which happens a lot more than you might think in taxonomy! Once it was established that the sample was indeed a new species, its key features were described in meticulous detail ready to be published in a peer reviewed journal. Notably, the paper describes differences between the new species and other similar species to allow future scientists to distinguish between them. Along with morphological characteristics of the new species, Moonlight and Kelly also describe the known distribution and habitat type, as this is often a very important element in identifying species.

The sample of B.merendonensis was collected by the Operation Wallacea forest botany in team in Cusuco National Park in Honduras, and represents the ninth plant species we have described from this site to date (and 40th species overall)! This new species is only known by the single sample collected by OpWall, and due to the high local endemism displayed by closely related species, it is very likely to be found nowhere else in the world. The likely endemism, along with high rates of illegal deforestation and agricultural encroachment occurring in Cusuco means the species has been preliminary listed as critically endangered under IUCN criteria. Cusuco national park is an extremely important biodiversity hotspot, as discussed here by our head of research, Tom Martin and others. The discovery of so many new species in this area highlights how important the work we do in this region is and shows the necessity of protecting diverse ecosystems like this wherever we can.


Cusuco National Park cloud forest habitat – photo by Martin Meads


Cusuco National Park has been listed as one of the top 50 most biologically irreplaceable protected areas on the planet. If you would like to get involved with amazing work like this and be on the forefront of science, why not sign up for one of our summer expeditions! More information can be found here.


New Species paper – Moonlight and Kelly, Two New Critically Endangered Species of Begonia sect. Gireoudia (Begoniaceae) from Mesoamerica. Novon: A Journal for Botanical Nomenclature, 32(1) : 1-7. https://doi.org/10.3417/2024844

Thanks to Tom Martin for his assistance and input with this article.

Title photo by Benjamin Sadd.

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