Ohio University

Botanists’ tiny violet find attracts international scientific interest

Hugh Iltis was searching for wild potato plants in the high, arid slopes of the Peruvian Andes when he found what may be the world's smallest violet. The scientist had paused to photograph wildlife, but dropped his camera filter. As he combed through the dry brush to retrieve it, he pulled up tufts of a tiny, flowering plant. Upon later inspection at his camp that evening, he recognized it as a type of violet, but had never seen anything like it before.

The discovery languished for 30 years until Iltis showed the specimen to Harvey Ballard, then a doctoral student in botany at the University of Wisconsin focused on violet research. The two scientists searched the literature for a match for the diminutive plant, which is only 1 centimeter high. They concluded, however, that the 1962 find was "utterly distinct and undescribed."

Penny with violet plant

Today the scientists have a name for the violet: Viola lilliputana, in honor of the small folk featured in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. In 2012, the duo finally published their description of the plant, which boasts unique characteristics.

Why did it take so long? First, a gap between finding a specimen and describing it for the larger scientific community isn't so unusual, says Ballard, now an associate professor of environmental and plant biology at Ohio University. And when they do, scientists are required to write it in Latin.

"But for the first time in hundreds of years, the Botanical Congress has allowed scientists to submit descriptions in English to speed up the process of describing and publishing new species," he explains.

The two scientists also have spent the past two decades pursuing other lines of research. For Iltis, professor emeritus of botany at University Wisconsin-Madison, that's agricultural plants, including work on how humans first cultivated corn. Ballard has built a career as a global violet diversity expert. He's traveled internationally to collect and study viola in a variety of habitats, such as Hawaii or Bolivia, where the plants live in extreme conditions or may be endangered.

But the duo never forgot the strange little flower that had been collected in the Andes Mountains.

Iltis and Ballard aren't the only ones who thought the find was cool. The International Institute of Species Exploration at Arizona State University voted it one of the top 10 interesting biodiversity discoveries of 2012. The institute releases its list, deliberated by a team of scientists, to raise public awareness of the vast diversity of plant and animal life on our planet. It's a snapshot of some of the amazing creatures and organisms that reside on this globe, as well as a reminder of what's at stake if we don't protect nature.

"Worst-case scenarios suggest that as many as 50 percent of species might not survive the 21st century. Unless we know what species exist to begin with, how are we to detect or respond to their loss? Only knowledge will prepare us to minimize extinction, maximize sustained biodiversity, and understand the wondrous history of the origin and diversification of the biosphere of which we are a part," said Quentin Wheeler, the institute's executive director.

The top 10 list, which also includes a glow-in-the-dark cockroach, a monkey with human-like eyes, and a sea sponge that's an architectural beauty, was featured in National Geographic and other national media outlets earlier this year. The ten discoveries were selected from more than 140 nominated species out of an estimated 18,000 species named last year, according to the institute.

But back to lilliputana. Other than being one of the smallest violets in the world, it also has unique leaves and other characteristics, such as a pair of long, gauzy appendages that wrap around the young flower bud. Although Ballard can only speculate about the function of these features, he suggests that they probably evolved to help the tiny violet survive in the harsh climate of the Andes.

"It's an amazingly hostile environment," Ballard says. "Everything that grows there is the size of your thumb or smaller. It bakes in the sun all day and freezes at night."

Although the Lilliputian violet is unique, Ballard notes that he expects to describe and publish at least seven other new species from this region of Peru in the next year. A new grant from Ohio University's Baker Fund will allow him and longtime collaborator Juliana de Paula Souza, a postdoctoral fellow from Brazil now working at Ohio University for the next year, to study collections of other Latin American violets at various herbaria (plant museums) around the United States and in Mexico.

Harvey Ballard and Juliana de Paula Souza. Photo: Rachael Stanley, College of Arts and Sciences

Ballard confirms that the Andes, the discovery site of lilliputana, is one of the top "hot spots" on the planet for violet diversity; the mountains of China and the Swiss Alps also rank high. But you don't have to go that far to find unique new species of viola, the scientist notes. During a trip to Virginia last year, Ballard informed state natural resources officials that the plant they'd been identifying as a Midwestern prairie violet for decades was, in fact, a completely different and unique species inhabiting shale barrens, another harsh and exposed habitat that has yielded many other species new to science in the previous century.

A different violet blooming between cracks of the crushed limestone gravel at the Mountain Lake Biological Station, the base camp for Ballard and assistants during his Virginia violet hunting, also turned out to be something unexpected. It was a population of the northern bog violet Viola nephrophylla, known previously from very old specimens in three counties of West Virginia and thought to be extinct south of western Ohio and New York.

"There are still a lot of discoveries," Ballard says, "to be made right here in the United States."

This article appears in the Autumn/Winter 2013 issue of Ohio University's Perspectives magazine.

Violet image, courtesy of Harvey Ballard