Duke botanists go gaga over ferns

Image: Yne Van De Mergel/Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Yne Van De Mergel/Wikimedia Commons.

Yes, I know that ‘every­one and their dog’ has prob­ably writ­ten some­thing about this item, but some­times you’ve just got to go with the flow. So, here’s my take on the story that straddles the ‘in your face, excesses and self-promoting world of pop and instant celebrity’ and the usu­ally ‘more gen­teel, non-sensationalist, staid, safe world of plant tax­onomy’, and in an attempt to encour­age the new gen­er­a­tion of bot­an­ists, and by way of ‘get­ting down wiv da kids’, I offer this atyp­ic­ally top­ical terp­si­chorean pter­ido­phytic con­tri­bu­tion. So, let’s cut to the chase, a new genus of ferns has been ‘cre­ated’ (not in that sense!) and is called Gaga. Yes, it is named in hon­our of Lady Gaga, an American singer and song­writer of some ‘renown’, I believe. The new genus was estab­lished after ferns pre­vi­ously included in the genus Cheilanthes were re-examined by the Duke University (USA) team of Fay-Wei Li et al. with new molecu­lar tools. Those tools include DNA sequence data from the plastid gene matK. ‘MatK, per­haps the most power­ful chloro­plast marker in angio­sperms, has been massively exploited for vari­ous levels of phylo­gen­etic stud­ies, and even been pro­posed as the prime DNA bar­code of plants’ (Kuo et al., 2008). But, although widely used in dis­sect­ing the angio­sperm branch(es) of the tree of life, matK has only recently been developed for use with so-styled ‘lower’ plants, such as ferns (Kuo et al.). The matK gene sequence of Gaga fea­tures a prom­in­ent ‘GAGA’ syn­a­po­morphy (‘a trait that is shared by two or more taxa and their most recent com­mon ancestor, whose own ancestor in turn does not pos­sess the trait’), which sep­ar­ates it from other gen­era in the group. The new genus is named in hon­our of Lady Gaga ‘for her artic­u­late and fer­vent defense of equal­ity and indi­vidual expres­sion in today’s soci­ety’. The res­ult­ant reas­sign­ment of exist­ing spe­cies to the new genus accounts for 17 of the 19 new Gaga spe­cies; the other two are newly-described ones: G. german­otta, named in hon­our of Lady Gaga’s par­ents, Cynthia and Joe Germanotta, and G. mon­stra­parva, which hon­ours Lady Gaga’s loyal fans, her ‘little mon­sters’. Furthermore, the offi­cial little mon­ster greet­ing is appar­ently the out­stretched ‘mon­ster claw’ hand, which bears a strik­ing resemb­lance to a tightly inrolled young fern leaf prior to unfurl­ing. And, in this post-Melbourne Code new age, the new spe­cies are described in English – not fuddy-duddy, archaic Latin! How cool is that? And, if you think all ferns are alike (as for grasses…?), and a dif­fi­cult group to ‘get into’, then look at Li et al.’s Fig. 4, which shows remark­able dif­fer­ences between sev­eral Gaga spe­cies. Could this com­bin­a­tion of top­ic­al­ity and com­par­at­ive ease of iden­ti­fic­a­tion be the plant group to entice young­sters (whether they be little mon­sters or oth­er­wise) to the joys of (plant) tax­onomy (for such new blood is des­per­ately needed if we are to get to grips with global bio­lo­gical diversity – e.g. Peter Rüegg, Winston Tarere,  James Morgan)? Maybe, but I’m still not sure how to inter­pret the expres­sion on the face of ‘Graduate Student Fay-Wei Li at the moment he dis­covered Gaga german­otta alive in Costa Rica’. Anyway, should your interest in other sci­entific names based on people have now been piqued, I can thor­oughly recom­mend Mark Isaak’s enter­tain­ing site at http://​www​.curi​oustax​onomy​.net/​e​t​y​m​/​p​e​o​p​l​e​.​h​tml. Who said tax­onom­ists are a bor­ing lot?

Nigel Chaffey. ORCID 0000-0002-4231-9082

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.

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