Scientists have discovered a new “monkey” flower near Quarff – with bigger petals than its Alaskan ancestors.
Researchers from the University of Stirling’s department of biological and environmental sciences have identified the new species of Mimulus guttatus. It has also been given a more colloquial name – “Shetland monkey flower” – which refers to the shape of the flowers, said to resemble a monkey’s head.
The plant was discovered by chance while the research team was carrying out fieldwork in the isles. It has now been investigated under laboratory conditions and the researchers are hailing the discovery as showing that evolution can occur much more quickly than previously thought.
Violeta Simon-Procar with associate professor Mario Vallejo-Marin at Stirling and James Higgins at Leicester University say the evolutionary changes have taken just 200 years – a mere flash in evolutionary terms.
It is believed its ancestor was originally a species introduced to the British Isles a few centuries ago during the time colonial travellers shipped home flora and fauna from around the world. Mimulus guttatus is said to originate from Alaska but was well suited to the “auld rock”.
The new variety, according to the research, has doubled its number of chromosomes – a process known as genome duplication. That explains the bigger size of the petals, which are wider and speckled with red spots. The flower is about the size of a 50 pence piece.
Genome duplication is not unusual but the changes usually have occurred millions of years ago. The Mimulus guttatus is causing a stir because the evolution has happened so quickly.
Dr Vallejo-Marin, who specialises in the evolution of plants, told the BBC: “Evolution is often thought to be a slow process taking thousands or millions of years.
“Yet we show that a major evolutionary step can occur in less than a couple of hundred years.”
The phenomenon has given the scientists an opportunity to look into the early development of evolution with what some would consider a simple yellow flower.
Paul Harvey of Shetland Amenity Trust said the story, which was published on the BBC on Wednesday morning was “a bit out of control”. It was not essentially a new species, he said, but a hybrid form, which he described as a “benign invader”. It was interesting that the species had altered in such a short time, he said.
He added that when the trust was putting together its biodiversity plans they discovered that Mimulus guttatus likes damp conditions and meadows.