While trying to understand relationships among populations of Pyrola picta by comparing DNA sequences, I came across a group of sequences that seemed to be divergent from the rest. The DNA sequences corresponded, at least loosely, to populations in the Cascade Mountains of Washington, Oregon, and northern California (Fig. 1) of plants that look like Pyrola picta (Fig. 2).
I was surprised to find that individuals from these Cascadian populations represent a monophyletic group, even when growing sympatrically with other species in the P. picta species complex. An undescribed, cryptic species! Currently, vouchered specimens of this taxon are being incorporated into a morphometric analysis of floral characteristics to see whether fine-scale differences in floral morphology are involved in reproductive isolation.
Findings from this study will hopefully contribute to the ongoing discourse surrounding the recognition of cryptic species. While recognizing cryptic species is an important acknowledgement of speciation and a divergent evolutionary history, it is less useful for botanists working in the field. Because Pyrola species novum is not simply identified by morphology, this species will likely be underrepresented on diversity checklists and surveys. Additionally, it will likely be filed with P. picta in herbaria unless genetic assays are conducted to make a determination; not a realistic goal at this point!
I am currently investigating this species in much greater detail in order to produce a species description; hopefully we will demystify its evolutionary history!