Tiny new species 'miraculously' discovered at edge of sprawling development

The sprawling farm developments are quiet, but inside the jungle where the new plant was discovered it's teaming with the noises of life.

John L Clark points to Amalophyllon miraculum (right) during an Instagram video. Right - the general area where the plant was found.
John L Clark points to Amalophyllon miraculum during his second sighting. Source: John L Clark/Nigel Pitman [The Field Museum, Chicago]

For as far as the eye can see the jungle has been slashed and burned. But in two islands of forest, that have survived decades of development by farmers, a new flowering plant species has been discovered.

Research botanist John L Clark recalled the “exciting” moment he stumbled across the tiny plant rooted to the side of a rockface. “That was really unique," he told Yahoo News. “It’s small [5cm high], the leaves are deeply dentate, it has foliage with purple iridescence, and white flowers... It’s just beautiful.”

Inside the Ecuadorian jungle where he discovered Amalophyllon miraculum, it’s a different world to the surrounding agricultural lands which are silent.

“It’s remote, it’s all dirt roads. And you’re far enough from the highway that you won’t hear any trucks. But if you camp out there at night you can see the lights of Santo Domingo,” he said in reference to Ecuador's fourth most populous city, which is located 30km away.

“You hear insects, frogs. There were howler monkeys at one point. And you hear a lot of water because the bigger fragments of forest were retained by some hero farmers because they were inspired by the beauty of the waterfalls they surround.”

The name Amalophyllon miraculum doesn’t relate to his discovery of the plant being a miracle, but something even more poignant.

“We decided to call it miraculous because it reflects the miracle that the forest exists. A generation of botanists, including me, wrote off these areas,” he said. “And now we’re finding that not only are the things that were presumed extinct still there, but we found this new thing.”

Amalophyllon miraculum in close up being held by a finger and thumb. The background is black
Amalophyllon miraculum was discovered in a patch of forest on the western slopes of the Andes in Ecuador. Source: John L Clark

Because most of its habitat has been destroyed, Amalophyllon miraculum has been listed as critically endangered.

“The reality is it's really sad. You drive for hours and hours and you're not going to see a lot,” he said.

“I'm kind of old now – I'm 54. I got to Ecuador in 1988. I started doing fieldwork in 1994 and I’ve seen a lot of change since then. It’s not like the old days.”

Clark’s miracle plant was confirmed as a new species in the journal PhotoKeys last week. Clark, who is based at the Florida’s Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, first spotted it in 2022 on the western slopes of the Andes in Ecuador.

The moment he found a second example of the plant was captured in a delightful Instagram video that same year. “I’ve only seen it twice in my life,” he confirms before letting out a gleeful “Woohoo”.

Close up of an Amalophyllon miraculum leaf underside - it's purple in colour. The background is black.
The leaves of Amalophyllon miraculum were remarkable because of their iridescence. Source: John L Clark

The discovery of Amalophyllon miraculum has buoyed hopes more new species could be found that are new to science, and others thought to be extinct could be rediscovered.

“Whenever you send a group of botanists into an area where there is primary forest they’re going to find stuff,” he said.

“And here’s something to think about – there really aren’t many cases of plant extinction on mainland Ecuador. What’s really going extinct are the botanists, there aren’t enough of us looking.

For the ones who remain, “there’s a lot of hope,” he added.

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