Gregory M. Mueller, Ph.D.
Chief Scientist and Negaunee Foundation Vice President of Science
Chicago Botanic Garden
When we think about discovering new species, we tend to envision tropical rainforests, remote deserts or lofty mountain peaks. But researchers, including myself, are taking a closer look at the landscapes right under our noses – in my case, the Chicago suburbs – and finding new species, shattering assumptions and uncovering new questions we ought to be asking.
Just a few months ago, a research team tackled one of the world’s great urban jungles, discovering incredible biodiversity in the soil that makes up Central Park. Even though they live just inches below one of the most visited places in the world, many of these organisms had never been described before. Meanwhile, researchers on Staten Island were able to employ modern molecular analyses to identify a new species of frog – finally corroborating a 1937 paper that was dismissed due to lack of supporting evidence.
As molecular analysis techniques are applied more broadly to biodiversity studies and conservation biology, we’re learning that the ecosystems around us are even more special and complex than we once thought – even in urban areas. This has potentially enormous implications for conservation as it changes the accounting of species, populations, and geographic ranges. At the Chicago Botanic Garden, we are working to apply these new techniques to ecosystems in the Midwestern U.S. to understand the composition of our natural areas and the ecology and relationships among those species more deeply to better manage, conserve, and protect them in our rapidly changing world.
We suspect the additional granularity provided by modern molecular techniques will continue to uncover nuances in speciation – not just in New York City, but all over the country and the world. Take, for example, one of my favorite species – the beautiful yellow chanterelle mushroom.
Until relatively recently, most yellow chanterelles in the U.S. were assumed to be forms of the European yellow chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius. Under this assumption, yellow chanterelles had an enormous geographic range covering multiple continents and dozens of ecosystems. A 1994 study was the first to point to the possibility that North American chanterelles were actually one or more distinct species.
Then, last year, things started to get really interesting. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse uncovered and described three new species of chanterelles in a small area of western Wisconsin (C. flavus, C. phasmatis, and C. spectaculus). All of a sudden those charming golden mushrooms scattered all over the world are starting to look like a group made up of many individual species, each with a small – even tiny – geographic range.
We approach plant and fungal conservation by understanding species, populations and their distributions and ecology. These findings of new species and distribution records have important implications and raise new questions to consider: What are the unique threats to each individual species, in this case, of chanterelles? What roles do these unique species play in the local ecosystem, and what will happen if any of these species are lost?
Here in Chicago, my colleagues and I have been documenting the diversity of the region’s fungi and how pollution and other stressors are impacting their diversity and ecology. So far we have recorded over 1200 species of mushrooms and related fungi from the area. We just discovered a previously unknown species of the yellow chanterelle in the Forest Preserves of Cook County and at the Chicago Botanic Garden – the Chicago Chanterelle – as well as one of the species first described last year in Wisconsin. These observations expand our understanding of chanterelles, highlight the diversity of fungi in the Midwestern United States and further document the need for additional research on the region’s fungi. Besides being tasty edibles, chanterelles form beneficial symbioses with oak trees in Chicago’s forests. Without these and other fungi, our forests couldn’t survive.
While I’m partial to Kingdom Fungi, far more than mushrooms are turning up right under our noses. Exploration at Waukegan beach – just 40 miles from downtown Chicago – found two Linyphiid spider species new to the Great Lakes Region. About 10 miles west of Waukegan beach, surveys at McDonald Woods Forest Preserve uncovered a new grass species, two species of sedges (Carex), two spider species, and a moss new to the state of Illinois. The Bog Rosemary was also just reported in Illinois for the first time in nearly 100 years.
These recent discoveries – enabled by detailed field studies (often times with the help of volunteers) and new molecular techniques – illustrate the importance of continued inquiry not just in the world’s remote ecosystems, but also right here in our backyards. Clearly, there is much work left to be done and there are many exciting discoveries yet to be revealed. I look forward to continuing my own research in this area, and seeing the results of others as they explore their own local ecosystems – who knows what you’ll find on your next walk in the woods!