A new and unusual tulip species from Kyrgyzstan has been discovered by a group co-led by the Garden’s Curator, Sam Brockington, and David Gill, Fauna and Flora International (FFI), with several key partners in Central Asia including tulip experts from the National Academy of Sciences of the Kyrgyz Republic.
Tulipa toktogulica (T. sect. Kolpakowskianae; Liliaceae) is named after the Toktogul region, Kyrgyzstan, where it was discovered. It is specifically named after the region to draw attention to the floral diversity of the area, and to help raise awareness of the need for its conservation. It is known only from four populations northeast of the Toktogul reservoir in the mountainous Jalal-Abad Region, in the west of the country.
The slightly scented species has broad stamens and a prolonged tunic (an outer membrane of the bulb that protects the inside). An elongated tunic is quite rare in wild tulips with only Tulipa talassica well known for this trait. It grows in shrubland on stony soil at 1,000 – 1,500m altitude in areas where the species tulips Tulipa biflora, T. greigii and T. heterophylla are also found and which were used as reference species in the research.
Brett Wilson, lead author of the study and postgraduate student in Sam Brockington’s lab at the University’s Department of Plant Sciences explains: ‘It looked similar to other species that we knew were growing in the region. Yet when we dug it up, it showed a unique trait of a species only known from northern regions of Kyrgyzstan and we were well beyond its known range. This was the first moment when our colleague Georgy Lazkov (National Academy of Sciences of the Kyrgyz Republic) and I thought we might be looking at something out of the ordinary.’
It turned out to be something completely different – we had found what was likely to be a new species, but we wanted to be sure before we set to work formally describing it.
The authors used DNA analysis to investigate and define the new species. Many of the new tulips discovered over the past few years have been identified using their visible physical and morphological characteristics in the time-honoured taxonomic tradition. But DNA analysis enables a deeper understanding of the interrelations between and among tulip populations, and helps provide new insight into characteristics and hereditary traits that remain undiscovered using traditional techniques.
Brett explains: ‘The morphology, identification and therefore taxonomy of wild tulip species is notoriously complex. DNA opens the door to a more reliable and comprehensive understanding of wild tulips.’
‘We extracted DNA from leaf material through a complicated process relying on an array of chemicals and machines. Once the data came back, we were able to test whether the specimen we had collected was likely to be the same as the species known from the north of Kyrgyzstan or something entirely different. It turned out to be something completely different – we had found what was likely to be a new species, but we wanted to be sure before we set to work formally describing it.’
Through this work we have been able to deliver a much improved understanding of the evolutionary history of tulips, the description of a new species and an extinction risk assessment for 52 species across Central Asia.
Brett and the team went on to collect further data and gather the necessary herbarium specimens before writing the formal descriptions. Their work has now been published in the journal Phytotaxa – making the species official.
The discovery of the new species is just one of many results of an integrated analysis of Central Asia tulip populations that Cambridge University and the National Academy of Sciences are conducting with a range of partners to help understand and define needs and opportunities for conservation and management. The goal is an understanding of how tulips have evolved and speciated, and how threatened tulip diversity can be conserved through a combination of ex-situ and in-situ mechanisms. In-situ and ex-situ conservation work is led by Flora and Fauna International and a range of local partners, and a regional tulip conservation plan is in the early stages of implementation.
Central Asia is a priority area for the Garden, as defined in our Collections strategy 2020-2030. This project successfully links the Garden’s National Collection of species tulips to important conservation work.
Sam explains: ‘My original goal for this project was to help give voice to the Garden’s collections by linking them with important research and applied conservation questions. I’m pleased that we have been able to achieve this so successfully, taking one of our flagship National Collections and linking that to FFI’s conservation work. Through this work we have been able to deliver a much improved understanding of the evolutionary history of tulips, the description of a new species and the extinction risk assessment for 52 species across Central Asia.’
Brett continues: ‘Tulipa toktogulica now has a name and its’ description means it is formally recognised as part of nature’s diversity. It has a conservation status, and given it is recognised as Endangered, it warrants urgent protection. In addition, it increases the number of tulip species known from the Toktogul area, Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia strengthening the call for action to protect this flower across these regions.’
Read the paper here: Wilson, B., Lazkov, G.A, Shalpykov K.T., Brockington, S. 2022. Tulipa toktogulica (Liliaceae), a cryptic, endangered new species from the western Tien-Shan, Kyrgyzstan. Phytotaxa 566 (1): 001–012.
Read Brett’s blog:Tulipa toktogulica – the story of a new tulip species.