Scientists Discover Plants Not Seen on California’s Channel Islands Before

November 14, 2017

Debra Greene

Beginning in the early 1900s, scientists surveyed all the plants they could find on San Nicolas, one of California’s eight Channel Islands, off the coast of Santa Barbara.

More than 100 years later, researchers have discovered many plants never seen on the island before.

Matt Guilliams, a botanist at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, studies and catalogs the region’s plant biodiversity. At the Garden’s Herbarium— a library for preserved plant specimens — Guilliams shows off a specimen of seaside cistanthe that he collected this year.

Guilliams says he was on uninhabited San Nicolas Island looking around when he spotted a long-stemmed plant with bright purple flowers.

“As a person with basically a deep love of California plants, I’ve always got my eyes open, and as we were walking around on the landscape, you can’t help but notice something that’s new,” he says.

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden Botanist Matt Guilliams shows off specimens in the Herbarium. (KCLU)

Seaside cistanthe was previously known to grow on the other Channel Islands, in the Los Angeles basin and northwestern Baja California. But it had never been seen on San Nicolas Island until this past spring.

“When we discover something new… For me, what that signifies is that we are taking a step forward in our knowledge of biodiversity and we can be that much better stewards to biodiversity,” he says.

Seaside cistanthe is one of three native vascular — or flowering — plants discovered over the last two years on the island.

Mosses — or non-vascular plants — are another thing altogether. Only 10 types had been catalogued on San Nicolas.

Ben Carter, a botanist at San Jose State University, was excited when he discovered two dozen more.

Soil crust of primarily Gemmabryum radiculosum, a moss recently found on San Nicolas. (Courtesy Santa Barbara Botanic Garden)

“Looking for mosses is a little bit different than flowering plants because we know a lot less. A lot of my work out there is just establishing a baseline of which species live there and which don’t,” he says.

Carter opens up an envelope that contains a sample of wispy, brownish green moss.

“These ones are all still very much alive. So, if we put water on these, they would perk right back up. And we could just put them on a tabletop and they’d come right back to life,” he said.

He says mosses are vital for the ecosystem of the island because they form a soil crust that prevents erosion. One of them — Tortella Humilis — had never been seen in California before. Since San Nicolas is virtually untouched unlike the mainland, these discoveries paint an important picture.

“What we see on the islands is probably very representative of what the coastal California ecosystems looked like prior to human disturbance. That’s really important because it helps us understand the impact we have on the environment,” he said.

Samples of these flowering plants and mosses are critical for conservation planning. They’ll undergo DNA analysis and will be stored at the Herbarium in Santa Barbara. Their data will be available online, so that it can be used by scientists all around the world.

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