Understanding why some places on Earth harbour many more species than others is a prime goal of biodiversity science. This focus is now more urgent than ever, as human activities alter the distribution of biological diversity. The EU-funded MADCLADES (Cladogenesis and niche evolution in Madagascan forests) initiative aimed to better understand the evolution of plant diversity in tropical forests. The researchers aimed to reconstruct the phylogeny of all Madagascan palms and use it to address several outstanding questions of plant evolution. MADCLADES searched the literature for ways to study the occurrence of tropical rain forest 'hyperdiversity' with evolutionary data, and selected the island of Madagascar as a new model region for this approach. Researchers conducted four field trips, visiting 11 remote and palm-rich areas distributed across the lowland forest ecoregion of Madagascar between November 2014 and December 2015. They collected DNA samples of 79 palm species and a wealth of associated specimens, photographs and other data. MADCLADES identified five species previously unknown to science, including three massive palm tree species native to eastern Masoala. Researchers also developed a field guide to the palms of the Marojejy region, focusing on the summit trail, which is frequently used by tourists. The DNA samples are now being processed to reconstruct the evolution of Madagascan palms and provide novel insights into the origins of rainforest diversity. These results will add to the fundamental knowledge about biodiversity dynamics that is required to tackle current and future challenges of biodiversity conservation.
Palms, biodiversity, Madagascar, forest, MADCLADES