Magazine article Science News

Honey, We Shrank the Snow Lotus: Picking Big Plants Reduces Species' Height

Magazine article Science News

Honey, We Shrank the Snow Lotus: Picking Big Plants Reduces Species' Height

Article excerpt

Plant collectors have become a force of evolution. The way in which they've harvested a Himalayan wildflower has inadvertently driven the species toward a shorter form, according to a new report.

Traditional healers in Asia have long prized the snow lotus (Saussurea laniceps), which grows only in the eastern Himalayas. The plants bloom just once, at the end of a life spanning at least 7 years. Particularly large blooming plants attract collectors, who consider them to have the greatest medicinal value.

Preferential collection of large specimens is selecting for shorter plants, says Wayne Law of Washington University in St. Louis. In heavily visited flower patches, harvesting has increased with the expansion of roads during the past 40 years or so, and snow lotuses there are only 60 percent as tall as are plants at unharvested sites, report Law and his Washington University colleague

Jan Salick in an upcoming Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Their findings fit into recent trends in the study of evolution, says evolutionary ecologist Michael Kinnison of the University of Maine in Orono. In Darwin's time, scientists considered evolution "so creepingly slow we probably wouldn't see it." With 20th-century improvements in statistics, biologists teased apart subtle changes in species. Now, Kinnison says, there's growing recognition that species can change measurably during the human life span.

Some studies are documenting ways in which people drive evolutionary changes. …

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