Palms of Madagascar

The island of Madagascar is home to ca 200 palm species, with new species constantly being described. This is comparable to the palm diversity of the other two large tropical islands, Borneo and New Guinea. However, we showed in 2012 that the palm flora of Madagascar is exceptionally clustered phylogenetically – in other words, most of Madagascar’s palm species belong to a single genus, Dypsis. In total, Madagascar has been colonised by palms at least seven times – but only Dypsis has radiated spectacularly, while the other lineages have not lead to any noteworthy diversity. This makes Madagascan palms an ideal system for testing why some lineages diversify more than others.

We were funded by the European Union, the National Geographic Society, the International Palm Society and the Royal Horticultural Society to collect DNA samples of Madagascan palms, reconstruct their phylogeny and test different drivers of diversification using macroevolutionary models. This work is still ongoing – the phylogenomic analyses proved more difficult than expected, as it is often the case when using methods that are still under development. However, this struggle led to many good things, including the foundation of the Palm Phylogeny Working Group. We are now “on top” of the data production and are eagerly awaiting the final modelling results.

As a “side effect” of this project, we also found five palm species new to science, which we are currently describing. A sneak preview of some of them can be found here.



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