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Newfound Monkey Flower Reveals Evolution in Action

The newly evolved monkey flower.
The newly evolved monkey flower. (Image credit: Mario Vallejo-Marin)

A new species of monkey flower has been found in Scotland, the product of a tryst between two foreign flowers. But this is no ordinary love child. While almost all such hybrids are sterile — just as mules are sterile hybrids of donkeys and horses — a rare genetic duplication allowed this species to become fertile.

It's rare to discover a newly evolved species, said researcher Mario Vallejo-Marin, who found the handsome yellow flower while on a walk through southern Scotland with his family last summer.

While many new species of plants are thought to arise this way, it has only been witnessed amongst wild plants a handful of times in history, said Vallejo-Marin, a scientist at the University of Stirling. Hybrid flowers typically have an odd number of chromosomes, or enormous packets of DNA, making them unable to reproduce. But this flower somehow duplicated its entire genome.

Vallejo-Marin said he doesn't know exactly what "series of unlikely events" led to this new species, but he said he intends to study it in more detail. Insights could help explain how these new hybrids regain fertility, which could also shed light on the evolution of plants such as wheat, tobacco and cotton, which are thought to have evolved this way long ago.

"It provides an opportunity to study speciation as it happens —most species originated thousands of years ago," and so studying their evolution is harder, Vallejo-Marin told OurAmazingPlanet.

The new species — Mimulus peregrines, or "the wanderer" — is unique because it has a different-size genome than any other monkey flower and cannot reproduce with any other variety, according to the study describing the find, published in the June edition of the journal PhytoKeys.

The "parents" of the new species were spirited to Scotland from the western United States and South America's Andes Mountains in the 1800s. The new species arose 140 years ago at the most, but more likely came about in the last few decades, Vallejo-Marin said.

Monkey flowers are named for the shape of their attractive blooms, which with some imagination, resemble the face of an ape. "If you ask me, it doesn't look like that, but the name stuck," Vallejo-Marin said.

The ancestors of the new plant were sought after as botanical curiosities in the 1800s and were quickly adopted by Victorian gardeners. Soon after their arrival, they escaped the confines of British gardens and can now be found growing in the wild, along the banks of rivers and streams.

Reach Douglas Main at dmain@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @Douglas_Main. Follow OurAmazingPlanet on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

Douglas Main
Douglas Main loves the weird and wonderful world of science, digging into amazing Planet Earth discoveries and wacky animal findings (from marsupials mating themselves to death to zombie worms to tear-drinking butterflies) for Live Science. Follow Doug on Google+.