New seaweed named after Botanic Gardens’ Chief Executive may be Hobart’s Wollemi Pine
In a discovery arguably more significant than the Wollemi Pine, algal experts from Australia and Canada have published a new and unusual organism from the coast of Tasmania. The new alga (or seaweed) is Entwisleia bella, classified in the family Entwisleiaceae in the order Entwisleiales. It has been named in honour of the Director and Chief Executive of Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, also an expert in the classification of algae.
“I’m honoured to have such a beautiful alga named after me,” says Professor Tim Entwisle, “and immensely thrilled that this discovery is also an important scientific find. Not just a new species to science, but a new genus, family and order”.
“Finding Entwisleia is like sighting the very first conifer (pine-like plants), primate, spider or diprotodontids (kangaroo, possum, koala or possum) on Earth,” says Entwisle. “Not only that but it may be almost as rare as the Wollemi Pine, now only know from a hundred or so specimens distributed between a few small populations. Entwisleia is known only from a dozen or so seasonal individuals on a few submerged rocks south of Hobart. We don’t know how secure it is, or how it might cope with environmental change.”
The Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis), discovered 19 years ago near Sydney, was rightly hailed as a scientific marvel. It’s true it was already known from the fossil record and thought to be extinct, and it is unusual to find a brand new genus of tree in Australia, but Professor Entwisle points out it fits into an existing family, the Araucariaceae, with hoop pines and monkey puzzle trees. This family is, in turn, part of the order Pinales including all known pine trees and conifers.
“This is Hobart’s Wollemi Pine,” says Entwisle “closer to this city than the Wollemi Pine’s habitat is to Sydney, more significant in an evolutionary sense and perhaps as rare. This goes to show how much there is still to discover in Australia’s algal flora. I got into algae after finding something unusual and new for Victoria in Melbourne’s Darebin Creek – it was the thrill of discovery and curiosity that hooked me.”
One of the authors of the paper, Professor Gerry Kraft from The University of Melbourne, says “This alga is so bizarre and unexpected that when we found it we could scarcely believe our luck. It looks astonishingly like the exclusively freshwater algae Professor Entwisle is a world expert in, and nothing in the oceans is like it. But although we have both male and female plants, as well as all the embryo stages, there are mysteries still to solve. One phase of the life history is completely unknown, and who knows where the alga goes — and what it looks like — during the eight or so months of the year when it completely disappears”.
The key to unravelling the mystery of its unique place in the red-algal family tree lay in the DNA fingerprinting done by Professor Saunders (the University of New Brunswick, Canada), who pronounced Entwisleia “one of the most challenging algae he has ever sequenced”.
Representative specimens will be stored in the herbaria of Hobart and Melbourne.
• There is still much to learn about the algae in Australia. It’s estimated that in the oceans, lakes, streams and ponds of this country there are 12,000-18,000 species (cf. 25,000 vascular plants), with about 10,000 described so far. We know very little about the evolution, biology and ecology of any species.
• Southern Australian coastlines support more than 1,150 species of algae (seaweeds), compared with 1,000 in the Mediterranean Sea, 900 around Japan and 900 in the Philippines. More than 60% per cent of the species in Australian waters are found nowhere else.
• There is greater biological diversity in what we call algae than in flowering plants, animals and fungi combined. ‘Algae’ are scattered throughout the tree of life, not just on one branch like these other groups.
• ‘Algae’, including many things that we call seaweeds, is a category of convenience rather than an evolutionarily distinct lineage. The red algae are closely related to the branch that leads to green plants including flowers and pines.
• Tim Entwisle has worked on the Batrachospermales, a group of freshwater red algae that grow in mostly pristine streams and lakes around the world, with about 25 known species in Australia (more than half of which occur in Tasmania).
• Fiona Scott, who originally discovered the alga and then dived regularly to study its abundance and ecology, was supported in her work by the Winifred Violet Scott Charitable Trust. Fiona works for the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania in Hobart.
• The paper describing the new alga will be published in hardcopy in November 2013 and online a little sooner: Scott, F.J, Saunders G.W. and Kraft, G.T. (2013) Entwisleia bella gen. et sp. nov., an novel marine “batrachospermaceous” red alga from southeastern Tasmania representing a new family and order in the Nemaliophycidae. European Journal of Phycology 48(4).