Scientists spotlight protected entry to the outside with naming of latest plant species

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Solanum scalarium, a newly described bush tomato from the Northern Territory, Australia, shows the unusual ladder-like arrangement of spines on male flower stalks. Plants grown in the Rooke Biology Research Greenhouse at Bucknell University were grown by student Jonathan Hayes (Biology ’22) under the supervision of Dr. Tanisha Williams and Chris Martine. Photo credit: Jonathan Hayes

A new species of Australian bush tomato, described at the Garrarnawun Lookout in Judbarra National Park, is a compelling example of the need to provide equitable and safe access to natural sites. Bucknell University postdoc Tanisha Williams and biology professor Chris Martine led the study after a chance encounter with an unusual plant population during a research expedition to the Northern Territory in 2019.

Martine, who has been studying North Australian bush tomatoes for more than 20 years, felt immediately that the plants were representative of a species not yet described, so he, Angela McDonnell (St. Cloud State University), Jason Cantley (San Francisco State University) and Peter Jobson (Northern Territory Herbarium in Alice Springs) combed the area for plants to study and research.

The task was made easier by the fact that the Garrarnawun lookout is accessed via a series of dozens of man-made stone steps leading directly from the dirt car park to the top of the sandstone outcrop – without which the new species might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

The botanists were able to collect numerous new specimens and have now published the new species description in the open access journal PhytoKeys. They chose the name Solanum scalarium as a nod to the steps leading up to the plant and the unusual ladder-like spines adorning the flowering stems. The Latin “scalarium” means “ladder”, “stairs” or “stairs”.

“This Latin name refers to what this species looks like,” says first author Williams. “But it’s also a way for us to recognize the importance of creating opportunities for people to interact with nature, not just for scientists like us, but for everyone.”

According to the authors, a recent study by the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries in Western Australia found that 8 in 10 people thought it was important to have access to natural spaces, both locally and outside of their current jurisdiction.

However, one in three people were dissatisfied with the outdoor spaces currently available to them, and many identified barriers to accessing and participating in outdoor activities, which urbanization is a part of – particularly attributed to the growing number of Australians who don’t have any have outdoor experience.

Importantly, awareness of who can access and feel safe participating in outdoor activities is recognized across Australia and a lack of diversity in participation by culturally diverse and marginalized populations has been identified as a problem. Key indices such as ethnic background, socioeconomic status, physical ability and gender are indicators of low participation in outdoor leisure activities.

“These differences in who participates and who doesn’t, and who feels safe and welcome, are artifacts of historical and contemporary environmental and social injustices,” notes Williams. “Redressing these injustices and increasing access and participation from diverse groups will require a deliberate and focused effort to offer a range of outdoor experiences that draw people from all of the 270+ ancestry that Australians identify with and particular attention should be paid to groups historically excluded from outdoor spaces.”

Solanum scalarium, now also known as the Garrarnawun bush tomato, is a distant cousin of the cultivated eggplant and a close relative of a number of other Australian species recently discovered by Martine and colleagues and also published in PhytoKeys, including Solanum plastisexum, named after the Diversity of sex forms in the organisms of the earth; and Solanum watneyi, named for the space botanist from the book/movie The Martian.

Scientists hope the naming of this latest new species underscores the importance of building communities in natural spaces.

“We propose the use of Garrarnawun Bush Tomato for the English-language common name of the species,” the authors write, “in recognition of the Garrarnawun Lookout near where the type collection was established, a traditional meeting place for the Wardaman and Nungali – Ngaliwurru peoples whose lands overlap in this area.

Access to nature is not just a concern in Australia.

“In the United States, where most of the authors of this article live, ‘access’ is one thing, but safety and equality are another,” says Martine. “The US National Parks Service reports that about 95% of visitors are state parks White. Meanwhile, African Americans, Latinos, women and members of the LGBTQIA+ communities often report feeling unwelcome or unsafe in outdoor spaces.”

“For example, if African Americans in a country where they make up 13% of the population are already concerned, it should be understandable that they would be reluctant to be part of a community where they make up just 1% of the participants.”

Williams suggests that James Edward Mills, author of The Adventure Gap (2014), puts it best:

“It is not enough to say that nature is free and open to all. Of course it is! But after four centuries of racial oppression and discrimination that have systematically left Black Americans fearing for their physical safety, we must also ensure that we create a natural environment in which people of color not only feel welcome, but are encouraged to be active participants to become outdoor enthusiasts and stewards dedicated to protecting the land.”

More information:
Tanisha M. Williams et al., Solanum scalarium (Solanaceae), a newly described dioecious bush tomato from Judbarra/Gregory National Park, Northern Territory, Australia, PhytoKeys (2022). DOI: 10.3897/phytokeys.216.85972

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Citation: Scientists Highlight Safe Access to Nature by Naming New Plant Species (2022, December 21), retrieved December 21, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-12-scientists-highlight-safe-access-outdoors. html

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