Nature and Biodiversity

Scientists have discovered a new species of underground tree – here’s why it matters

Kew Gardens, London, United Kingdom.

New plant species have been discovered by scientists from the UK's Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. Image: Unsplash/Tom Podmore

Thea de Gallier
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
Madeleine North
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Climate and Nature

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • A rare palm tree that flowers underground is one of 74 new plant species identified by scientists from the UK’s Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.
  • They estimate there are 100,000 undiscovered plant species, and the race is on to identify them before they are lost to climate change and land degradation.
  • Biodiversity loss is the third biggest threat the world faces over the coming decade, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2024.

An utterly unique palm tree from Borneo that grows its flowers and fruit almost entirely underground was one of 74 plants newly identified by the UK’s Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew (RGB Kew) in 2023.

Other discoveries included an explosive orchid found on a dormant Indonesian volcano, three new species of fungi growing in icy Antarctica and a potentially carnivorous plant from Mozambique.

There are 400,000 named plant species at present, and RGB Kew scientists estimate up to 100,000 more are still to be discovered. On average, 2,500 new species of both plants and fungi are identified every year, always with the hope that they will provide “new sources of food, medicine, and nature-based solutions to the biggest challenges of our times”.

Have you read?
It all starts with names and places.
Naming new species is a crucial first step in protecting the world’s biodiversity. Image: RGB

Three in four plants may be at risk of extinction

At the same time, scientists are concerned about the species they haven’t discovered yet, in a time of rapid habitat degradation. In RGB Kew’s latest State of the World’s Plants and Fungi report, the authors explained the importance of naming new plants.

Three in four unnamed plant species may be at risk of extinction, they said, while incorrect categorization of plants could lead to their conservation status being wrong. For example, as the diagram below shows, if Species A and B are not known to be part of the same family, one may be erroneously marked as endangered, and limited resources unnecessarily directed toward its conservation.

Why do names matter?
Accurate naming of new species is vital to conservation efforts. Image: RGB

New plant and fungi species need to be named and classified correctly to ensure their conservation status is understood. Dr Martin Cheek, Senior Research Leader at RGB Kew, explains that when naming a new species, preliminary research must first be conducted to ensure it hasn't already been discovered. “Taxonomy … is detective work. You might think you have a new species, but you have to make sure that no one has described and named it before,” he said in the 2023 report.

And until a species is named and categorized, scientists cannot protect it.

“It is imperative now, more so than ever, that we do everything in our power to go out into the field with our partners and work out which species of plants and fungi we haven’t given a scientific description yet,” said Cheek. “Without doing so, we risk losing these species without ever even knowing they existed.”

Global risks ranked by severity over the short and long term
Biodiversity loss is one of the top risks facing the world this decade. Image: WEF/Global Risks Report 2024

Half of the world’s GDP is dependent on nature

We have already lost 69% of species since 1970, according to the WWF. And biodiversity loss is the third biggest threat the world faces over the coming decade, finds the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2024.

The Forum’s work on conservation has found that it’s vital to preserve the natural world, not only to tackle the climate crisis and to protect humanity, but for the global economy, too. A 2020 report stated that $44 trillion, or over half of global GDP, was dependent on nature. While the Nature Action Agenda exists to facilitate partnerships between business and government, and enable nature-positive plans to halt biodiversity loss by 2030.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about nature?

Understanding the natural world is key to conserving it and last year the Forum, in collaboration with Business for Nature, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, released a series of guidance documents for 12 different sectors. They include finance, fashion, chemicals, concrete and travel, and each sector-specific report details meaningful actions that can be taken to “mitigate nature-related risks and unlock opportunities across value chains”.

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