Smallest among giants: New Rafflesia species discovered in PH

MANILA, Philippines – Accidentally kicking over a pile of forest litter in the heart of a degraded watershed in Central Luzon led Filipino scientists to the discovery of the smallest species of the world's giant flower, the Rafflesia.

"The discovery of the new species was serendipitous," said Dr Perry Ong, a professor and university scientist under the Ecology and Taxonomy Academic Group of the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman Institute of Biology. 

The new species was found in February 2014 at the Pantabangan-Carranglan Watershed in Nueva Ecija, where the UP Institute of Biology has been working with First Gen Hydro Power Corporation (FGHPC) and the Diliman Science Research Foundation (DSRF) for a "comprehensive biodiversity assessment and monitoring program" since 2011.

Within the watershed is the Pantabangan Masiway Hydroelectric Power Plant, built in 1971, and commissioned in 1977 and 1981. Currently managed by FGHPC, the dam's watershed has been degraded and has undergone two reforestation projects already.

Yet, finding a decayed flower beneath a pile of litter near the power plant surprisingly led to the identification of what is now called Rafflesia consueloae or "shy Rafflesia."

The study "Rafflesia consueloae (Rafflesiaceae), the smallest among giants; a new species from Luzon Island, Philippines" was published in international scientific journal Phytokeys in February 2016. Ong, John Michael Galindon of UP Diliman, and Dr Edwino Fernando of UP Los Baños are co-authors of the study.

Journey to discovery

Since February 2014, the institute has been closely monitoring the area to study the development of the parasitic flower. They were able to establish populations of R consueloae in Mt Balukbok and Mt Pantaburon, two mountains within the area.

"When we first found this, my reaction was 'Wow!' The Pantabangan-Carranglan Watershed has a reputation of being a degraded area that suffered long years of deforestation," said Ong.

"To find a new species, and a Rafflesia at that, was simply amazing, unbelievable and... a serendipitous event," he added.

After marking about 300 individual Rafflesia, they recorded hours and hours of footage of the flower's development, which they plan to publish soon.

What makes it unique

R consueloae has a diameter of about 9.73 cm when fully in bloom, making it the smallest in the world. Prior to its discovery, R lagascae from Luzon (11-20 cm average diameter), and R baletei from Bicol (12 cm average diameter) were among the smallest Rafflesia species.

The biggest species, R arnoldi, can measure up to 1.5 meters in diameter in full bloom. This species can be found in Malaysia and the forests of Sumatra island in Indonesia.

"Rafflesia consueloae is [so small, you] could line up 15 fully bloomed flowers of R consueloae tip to tip, and spread it on top of and across a single fully bloomed flower of R arnoldi and it would still not be enough to cover it. A full-bloom R consueloae measures about 10 cm by 10 cm by 10 cm, about the size of a baseball," said Ong.

The inspiration for the plant's scientific name is Consuelo Lopez, wife of businessman Oscar Lopez. Ong met the couple during his stint as country director of Conservation International Philippines from 1999 to 2002. Consuelo is a plant lover.

Ong also called the new discovery the "shy Rafflesia" as its lobes won't go down even in full bloom, something that reminded him of the Lopez matriarch. "She was always in the background, somewhat shy, but strong and demure. That is why when I saw this Rafflesia, I thought of her," he said.

Ong added that once a Rafflesia flower blooms, it usually remains open for about 5 days before it decays. But R consueloae's blooming process is completed in about 12 hours, then it decays immediately after that.

The plant blooms all year round, mostly between February and May.

R consueloae thrives on Tetrastigma vines. Like other Rafflesia flowers, this species is also a parasite on roots and stems of other plants. Rafflesias in general do not have distinct roots, stems, or leaves of their own.

Impact of the discovery

R consueloae is the 6th Rafflesia species found in Luzon, the 13th in the Philippines, and the 31st worldwide.

"Since 2000, 9 new species were discovered all in relatively intact tropical rainforests: 4 in Luzon, 2 in Panay island (R lobata and R speciosa), the latter shared with Negros island, and 3 in Mindanao (R mira, R verrucosa, and R mixta)," Ong said.

Before 2010, Malaysia used to be known as the "center of Rafflesia diversity in the world."

"Indonesians and Malaysians have always been proud of this recognition, with the flower appearing on stamps, Starbucks mugs, and other paraphernalia. International scientists have always gone to Borneo to study their Rafflesia," said Dr Jeanmaire Molina, assistant professor at the Department of Biology of Long Island University-Brooklyn.

"The Philippines broke the record sometime ago, but many Filipinos are still unaware of Rafflesia because it does not have intrinsic economic value to them," she said.

Molina is currently working with American collaborators to try to cultivate Philippine Rafflesia outside of its natural habitat as many of its species are critically endangered from habitat destruction.

Meanwhile, University of Canterbury Herbarium director Pieter Pelser said: "One of the lessons to be learnt (from this discovery) is that you cannot write off areas that are not pristine. Even those areas might still harbor significant biodiversity."

Similarly, Ong said, "Many hidden treasures like the Rafflesia consueloae are waiting to be discovered, appreciated, and protected."

Pelser said that the best way to keep R consueloae from extinction is to protect its natural habitat.

"As long as forest destruction continues, more and more Rafflesia – and other species – will become endangered," he warned.

Molina also said that the Philippine government has a huge role to play in the conservation of Rafflesias. 

"The Philippine government has to educate the people and create livelihood opportunities that take advantage of our country's spectacular diversity, instead of destroying it."