Hidden in Plain Sight for Over a Century, ​​​​​​​Researchers Use Museum Collections for Discovery of a New Bamboo Genus

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: November 29, 2018

MEDIA CONTACT: Jenni Tetzlaff, Director of Marketing & Communications
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Hidden in Plain Sight for Over a Century,
Researchers Use Museum Collections for Discovery of a New Bamboo Genus

Milwaukee — Dr. Christopher Tyrrell, Research Curator at the Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM), used museum botany collections to uncover a new bamboo genus from the West Indies this year.

“This discovery is a reminder of the importance of natural history specimens in museum collections,” said Dr. Ellen Censky, Interim President & CEO, MPM. “Collections, such as those at the Milwaukee Public Museum, play a huge part in the understanding of biodiversity and the environmental impacts of climate change, deforestation, pesticide use, and many other threats facing the world today.”

While doing research on a project in the bamboo genus Arthrostylidium, Dr. Tyrrell and his colleagues from Iowa State University came across unusual specimens, some that were collected as far back as the 1850s, that had been placed into three different species of that genus. After careful analysis of the leaf anatomy, Dr. Tyrrell and his team realized those specimens did not fit the genus they were in and matched an entirely different group of bamboos known only from the Central and South American mainland.

Dr. Tyrrell then organized a team of international researchers to sequence the DNA of the bamboos. The DNA results revealed that the specimens represent an entirely unknown branch of the bamboo tree of life, which warrants the recognition of a new genus. Though new species of plants and animals are discovered often, the recognition of a new genus is rare and a major scientific find.

Tyrrell, along with colleagues Ximena Londoño of the Colombian Bamboo Society and Lynn Clark of Iowa State University, formally named the genus Tibisia after the plant’s indigenous name, tibisí, a word from the Taino language. The Tainos historically inhabited most of the Greater Antilles and Bahamas, where the three species of this new genus can be found.

“This find is particularly important because the West Indies are a global biodiversity hotspot,” Dr. Tyrrell noted.  “Due to the current and historic geopolitical landscape, research and conservation of plant species in the region has been complicated. Having historic, preserved specimens alleviates this by allowing researchers to examine the same species without worrying about human imposed or natural borders.”

MPM’s Botany department, which turned 100 years old in 2017, has made a number of exciting finds in its history and will continue to strive toward organizing and classifying plant life before they are lost due to environmental threats.

About the Milwaukee Public Museum
The Milwaukee Public Museum is Wisconsin’s Natural History Museum, welcoming more than half a million visitors annually. Located in downtown Milwaukee, the Museum was chartered in 1882, opened to the public in 1884, and currently houses more than 4 million objects in its collections. MPM has three floors of exhibits that encompass life-size dioramas, walk-through villages, world cultures, dinosaurs, a rainforest, and a live butterfly garden, as well as the Daniel M. Soref Dome Theater & Planetarium.

MPM is operated by Milwaukee Public Museum, Inc., a private, non-profit company, and its facilities and collections are held in trust and supported by Milwaukee County for the benefit of the public.