Guwahati: Finding a bright red rare flower during a caving expedition in Meghalaya? Sounds like fiction, right?
But this turned into reality when 19 Sapria himalayana flowers were found in a small forest tract on Songket Hill, near Tangnub village in Meghalaya.
The flowers, colored deep red with yellow warts, grew individually or in groups of three to five.
“It was found when we were searching for a cave, and the flowers were just there outside the cave,” Pynshailang Syiemiong, of the Department of Environmental Studies, North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, told EastMojo.
The three persons who found the flower are Pynshailang Syiemiong, Thomas Arbenz and Tudor Tamas. They refrained from naming the cave, as it could affect the flower’s habitat.
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Sapria himalayana was first described by the British botanist William Griffith (1844) from the evergreen forests of Mishmi Hills, Lohit district (Arunachal Pradesh). It is a rare species throughout its range from Northeastern India to Southwestern China, Thailand and Vietnam. It was also reported from Assam, Manipur, and Meghalaya.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has included S. himalayana in the Red List of Threatened Species as a rare and endangered species in India and globally.
The environment surrounding the spot where the S. himalayana grows is well-shaded with trees, bamboo, ferns, and banana trees. The flower is well distinguished and identified from the saucer shape of the perigone lobe that spreads out and recurves, and from the color, which is deep red with yellow warts.
The site where S. himalayana grows may be facing disturbances from the locals who practice shifting cultivation, forest clearing, timber collection, firewood extraction and cattle grazing.
The study says the only other sighting of Sapria in Meghalaya in 2020 was on Nov 21, 2020, in the West Garo Hills District. However, the exact location was not disclosed to protect the flower from human disturbance. The West Garo Hills sighting of Sapria was in a Biosphere Reserve which receives a certain degree of protection.
Scientists say minute changes in the landscape and surroundings caused by those threats might create unfavourable effects on the microclimate of the area where S. himalayana grows. To conserve this threatened species, public awareness programs on the protection of biodiversity should be organized for the local villagers, as well as regular monitoring from the State Forest Department and the Botanical Survey of India.
According to scientists, the approach for the conservation and protection of S. himalayana should be ‘in situ’, by keeping its habitat in its natural condition, due to the difficulties related to the cultivation of such a host-specific parasite plant.
The good news is that the discovery of two new locations with flowering Sapria in Meghalaya within less than a year is a significant improvement on its status within a part of its limited range and may point to the existence of other undetected populations.
Thomas Abenz associated with the Caving in the Abode of Clouds Project, Switzerland told EastMojo, “The discovery of this population of Sapria himalayana was coincidental. While on the way to a cave, we entered a secluded depression near the cave entrance and got aware of the bright red flowers growing at ground level. Pynshai Syiemiong, being the biologist present, realized the importance of the rare find and took a sample for further studies.
“On discussing the find we estimated that the remote, quite isolated spot might be defined by a special micro-climate and habitat which supported the growth of the plant. This theory is yet to be proved and whether the cave has an influence or not is anyone’s guess,” he said.
“Tourists are more and more coming to visit caves in Meghalaya, some of which are already badly trashed. Therefore we will not reveal the exact whereabouts of the location, as ‘nature lovers’ will just come, see and destroy the place” he added.
The caving expedition during which the flower was detected took place in January 2020. It was a partner expedition to The Caving in the Abode of Clouds Project, carried out by the Meghalaya Caving Club (MCC).
The Caving in the Abode of Clouds Project is a research project that has been going on every year since 1992. 2022, therefore, marks the 30th anniversary. The Project is supported by the Meghalaya Adventurers Association (MAA), which provides the logistics and the necessary contacts. To date (February 2022), around 1000 caves have been explored or partially explored to yield 518 kilometres of the surveyed passage of which a good 90% are mapped. On top of this, there are around 100 caves still unexplored.
Tudor Tamas, assistant professor at the Babes-Bolyai University, în Cluj-Napoca, Romania, told East Mojo, “It turned out to be important, but it was a random discovery. To be honest, in the beginning, when we found the flowers, we were surprised, but we didn’t know much about their importance – we were looking for caves. Once we started reading more about them, we figured out a bit more about their importance. Then Pynshai undertook the study, which is preliminary and may serve as a basis for further studies. The writing was mainly done during the Covid lockdowns of 2020. The biologists who kindly agreed to review the paper noted the usefulness of such, let’s say, explorative studies.
“To our knowledge, there have been no studies on Sapria flowers in Meghalaya for a very long time; published studies in the last two decades tended to focus on the Arunachal Pradesh populations, where the flowers are better documented. Then we discovered another mention of Sapria, but only in the online press, not scientific journals, from Nokrek Biosphere Reserve, Garo Hills”, he added.