This tentacled, parasitic ‘fairy lantern’ plant is new to science

Thismia malayana and its relatives are elusive plants that can seemingly vanish for decades

A new-to-science "fairy lantern" is seen poking just above dead leaves. A bright yellow is ringed by brownish tentacle-like parts that stick out almost perpendicular. This all sits atop a slug-shaped part with orange stripes, which is attached to a thinner, longer pale stem.

A newly described species of parasitic fairy lantern, Thismia malayana, (shown) has a striking, alien appearance. This plant and its close relatives have peculiar, delicate flowers that evolved to draw in flies and other pollinating insects.

M.Y. Siti-Munirah

In the weird world of chlorophyll-free “fairy lantern” plants, there’s a new species to admire.

Fairy lanterns (Thismia) are a type of mysterious, parasitic herb that look like something from another planet. Their pint-size flowers can have psychedelic shapes and bright colors, and they have evolved to lure in fungus gnats and other insects as pollinators. In the Malaysian rainforest, the vibrant saffron flowers of a never-before-seen Thismia species sprout just above the dense leaf litter, researchers report May 31 in PhytoKeys

By plant standards, Thismia are truly odd. Lacking chlorophyll, they eschew photosynthesis, instead siphoning sustenance from subterranean fungi that partner symbiotically with other, more conventional plants. Fairy lanterns spend most of their lives underground, typically in mature tropical forests. When the plants do briefly erupt from the soil to flower, they can be easy to miss, being only a few centimeters tall.

Botanist Mat Yunoh Siti-Munirah has been cataloging the biodiversity of these parasitic plants in Malaysia. In 2020, one of her colleagues encountered an unusual fairy lantern in Tengku Hassanal Wildlife Reserve. Later, a colleague spotted more of the same in a different Malaysian park. Siti-Munirah traveled to the rainforests in these parks to confirm the reports.

“The search for Thismia is not easy,” says Siti-Munirah, of the Forest Research Institute Malaysia in Kepong. “If at the right time and in the right place, we can find it. But sometimes the visit remains unsuccessful even after a few attempts.”

These newly named fairy lanterns — found poking out of leaf litter and rotten logs — are brown and white, with the only visible vibrance being the rich yellow interior of the flower. Encircling the top of the flower are several drab, tentacle-like extensions, evoking a squid or an eccentric fungal fruiting body. 

After taking specimens back to the lab, carefully examining their physical features, and comparing them with known fairy lantern species, Siti-Munirah and her team determined the plants were a previously unrecognized species, which they have dubbed T. malayana. Unlike its closest relatives, it has a distinct curve to the cup shape of the flower, and the pollen-bearing structures inside the flower are a brilliant violet.

A record of a new species is “like a birth certificate for plants,” Siti-Munirah says. 

She and her colleagues have proposed the species be considered vulnerable to extinction. Both locations where T. malayana has been found are relatively protected. But Siti-Munirah’ survey uncovered less than 10 individual plants. Complicating the situation is the subterranean lifestyle of the plant, which interferes in any count of mature plants in protected pockets of forest.

A tiny, white, cuplike plant pikes up from the leaf litter. It's topped by tentacle-like appendages and has an orangy-yellow interior, making it kind of look like part of a boiled egg. It is, in fact, an elusive "fairy lantern" plant.
Thismia kobensis (shown) is a Japanese fairy lantern species that was described from a museum specimen, presumed extinct, and then rediscovered in nature a few years later.Kenji Suetsugu

There are around 100 species of fairy lantern known, found from tropical South America to Asia and Australia (SN: 11/5/20). Historically, researchers have reported on the plants only sporadically due to their “elusive nature” and propensity to live in specialized habitats, says botanist Kenji Suetsugu of Kobe University in Japan. 

“However, in recent years, there has been a concerted effort [by some researchers] to explore understudied regions and employ new technologies, such as genetic analysis,” says Suetsugu, who was not involved with the new research. 

This has led to the identification of multiple new species, such as the violet-tendrilled T. paradisiaca in Colombia and the pale, periscopic T. belumensis in Malaysia, the latter of which was described by Siti-Munirah and her colleagues in 2021. Some species haven’t been seen in decades, like the dramatic, tridentlike T. neptunis of Borneo, which was recently rediscovered after over 150 years without any reported sightings. One species described recently by Suetsugu and his colleagues was originally identified from a decades-old museum specimen, believed extinct considering the past destruction of its only known habitat, and then rediscovered in the wild just three years later. 

The trend of discovery and rediscovery “reflects a growing interest and investment in understanding the biodiversity of these unique plants,” Suetsugu says. Determining what environmental conditions help T. malayana grow and survive, he says, could inform conservation efforts for the plants in the future.

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