News Blog

New plant species discovered by C of I and BSU researchers

The Boise Foothills are already a thriving home to many different plant species, but that number is set to increase thanks to the efforts of researchers from The College of Idaho and Boise State University, who have discovered of a new distinct species of biscuit-root in Idaho’s backyard.

The plant, a small, yellow-flowered forb, grows exclusively between Gem and Elmore Counties. However, it wasn’t until in-depth genetic studies over the last two summers that botanists began to consider the idea that this specific biscuit-root could stand alone as its own species within the genus Lomatium.

“It’s Boise’s very own local biscuit-root,” said Dr. Don Mansfield, Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at the C of I. “Everyone hiking in the foothills would know it if they knew what they were looking for. In some places it’s pretty thick. It’s not rare, but it’s geographically restricted.”

Mansfield has been engaged with floristic research — research that enables botanists to locate, describe and identify plant life in a particular area — in Idaho since his arrival to the College in 1989. With the aid of undergraduate student researchers as well as local colleagues, including BSU biology professor Dr. Jim Smith, Mansfield has maintained over 50,000 plant samples in the College’s Harold M. Tucker Herbarium.

Mansfield and Smith were gathering plant samples from the Boise Foothills about two years ago to update what they knew about the species of plants they already knew grew in the area, particularly the biscuit-roots. When a handful of the samples they gathered had considerably differing genetic signatures and slight morphological differences, they began to consider the possibility that the samples could be an entirely different species.

“They’re definitely in the same genus, but they’re ecologically distinct, morphologically different and genetically unique,” Mansfield said. “This is a species that has gone down its own evolutionary path, and that is a process that we would like to learn more about.”

Mansfield said the discovery of this new species could be a significant opportunity for better understanding in both ecological and anthropological disciplines. Beyond examining the genome of the new plant to better trace its evolutionary divergence from the other species within the genus, he noted how the plant was likely used by Native American tribes for its medicinal qualities, and that by identifying the species, researchers could achieve better understanding of how the plants may be medicinally valuable.

“Say you have a headache and you want to take medicine for it,” Mansfield explained. “Imagine if you opened up your cabinet and reached for aspirin, but the aspirin turned out to be a laxative. When you look at it that way, it’s important to determine the right labels for whatever we discover.”

To help raise money to continue researching the new plant and its close relatives in the biscuit-root genus, C of I and BSU are auctioning off an opportunity to name the new species, with bids starting at $10,000. Bids will be accepted until Oct. 20 via email at [email protected].

All proceeds from the bid will benefit each lab, as BSU will be able to complete genetic testing while C of I can continue to focus on the ecological and morphological distinctions of new species. Undergraduate students from both labs will be able to enjoy the opportunity to continue researching the plant.

“This is a good chance for someone out there to name the plant after a famous Yote,” Mansfield said. “Imagine how great it would be to have a plant out there named for William Judson Boone.”

The College of Idaho has a 125-year-old legacy of excellence. The C of I is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.  For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.