A new species of monkey flower has been found growing on the banks of a stream in Scotland. But it is no ordinary discovery—the flower is a rare hybrid of two foreign species, and a glimpse into evolution in action. While just about all hybrids of different species are sterile—think of the mule, a sterile hybrid of donkeys & horses—this monkey flower is fertile, thanks to an unusual genetic duplication.
While many new species of plants are thought to have begun this way, it's rare to discover an example in recent history. Mario Vallejo-Marin, a scientist who discovered the yellow flower, estimates that the new species might have arisen as many as 140 years ago, but more likely in the past couple decades.
While hybridization in the wild is not rare, most hybrids are unable to reproduce due to differences in the amount of DNA present in each species. However, this new species, called Mimulus peregrinus, Latin for 'the wanderer,' somehow duplicated its entire genome.
Scientists hope that the new monkey flower will yield insights into the origins of seminal crops such as wheat, cotton, and tobacco, which are thought to have originated in a similar way. "This is an exciting opportunity to study evolution as it happens," said Vallejo-Marin.
The ancestors of the new species were introduced from the United States and South America's Andes Mountains in the 1800s. Victorian gardeners embraced the monkey flowers as botanical curiosities, and before long the popular plants spread beyond the garden walls and began thriving in the wild, along the banks of rivers and streams, and, eventually, a new species was born.
L-R: A family of four monkey flowers: A & B are the "parents" from North and South American (A = M. guttatus; B = M. luteus); C & D are the "children" (C = the sterile hybrid; D = Mimulus peregrinus, the new species. The monkey flowers's habitat in Scotland.