George Weiblen, our science director and curator of plants, along with student Zacky Ezedin described a new species—Ficus umbrae—in 2019. The name, from the Latin for shadow, refers to the forest spirit Wanamo, regarded by the people of Degenumbu as the guardian of their forests.
In the remote mountains of New Guinea, Weiblen’s colleagues established a series of field camps ranging in altitude from a few hundred feet above sea level to 10,000 feet elevation. The forest changes as you climb in altitude from the hot, humid hills to cool, mossy cloud forest on the slopes of Mount Wilhelm, the highest mountain in Papua New Guinea (ele. 14,800 feet). A Ph.D. student noticed that a lowland species of fig tree came into contact with a highland species near the village of Degenumbu, around 5,600 feet elevation. Weiblen and his team found that each species was pollinated by a different insect. But the trees around Degenumbu looked different. At first the biologists thought these trees were hybrids of the lowland and the highland species, but the indigenous landowners claimed that their trees were yet a third species.
Genetic studies proved that the landowners were right, so Weiblen’s student, Zacky Ezedin, named the new species in honor of the forests of Degenumbu.
Minnesota botanical artist Marilyn Garber illustrated Ficus umbrae for the publication that introduces the new name to science.
Weiblen & colleagues clearing a landslide from the road to Degenumbu, Papua New Guinea
Zacky Ezedin in the field
Botanical illustration by Maryln Garber.