Describing a New Species Using Light and Scanning Electron Microscopy

Oberonia aureolabris – a new addition to the world of orchids

We share our world with an incredible array of wild and wonderful creatures. The number of species on earth ranges from anywhere between 10 and 20 million species. Although scientists have spent centuries searching the world over for species and meticulously describing them, we have identified only 20 percent of the species we share our planet with. The search for species is even more pressing now that scientists believe we are either entering or already in the midst of a mass extinction. Due to a variety of human driven impacts – including deforestation, habitat loss, pollution, climate change, invasive species, and overexploitation – species populations are falling worldwide.

Dr. Daniel Geiger views images of micro orchids on a Scanning Electron Microscope, Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara, California, United States of America
Dr. Daniel Geiger views images of micro orchids on a ZEISS EVO scanning electron microscope at the Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara

A blooming surprise

Daniel L. Geiger, Curator of Malacology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, recently discovered and named a new orchid species. 

A while back, I obtained from a commercial plant vendor a specimen labeled Oberonia longissima, but it was not in bloom. I wondered what the flowers might look like and dove into the literature, only to find out that such a name does not exist. It was a pure fantasy name! Eventually it flowered, and I tried to determine its real species. To my even greater surprise, it turned out to be an undescribed species, which I named Oberonia aureolabris Geiger, 2017. This species is similar to Oberonia rufilabris (Latin for red lip), which is very common in the horticultural trade. One of the distinguishing characteristics is the golden-orange color of the flower. And that is how I came up with the name for the species: ‘aureo’ (Latin for golden) and ’labris’ (Latin for lip).

Using microscopy to investigate structures

To illustrate the species, Geiger took advantage of the museum’s imaging facilities. In addition to macrophotography, he used several light and stereo microscopes from ZEISS. The ZEISS EVO scanning electron microscope revealed structures at the cellular and sub-cellular level. All that work was necessary to remove any doubt about this new species. And now the plant with a fantasy name can be properly referenced as a real taxon.

Light microscopy set-up for observing orchids.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Santa Barbara is a world-renowned orchid town. The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History preserves extensive natural history collections of approximately 3.5 million objects used for research by a staff of 12 curators as well as visiting scientists from around the world. They are in part the results of research conducted by Museum scientists and in turn serve as a vast research archive for ongoing investigations. The Museum’s researchers are active in disciplines ranging from anthropology to zoology. Every year, they discover and describe new species, investigate past and current changes in our natural environment, and assist in projects of environmental conservation and restoration.

Read the paper here

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