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New species of tree identified in Ethiopia

The Acacia fumosa is widespread but had probably been overlooked by botanists because of its remote location and violence there.

April 25, 2009|Thomas H. Maugh II

As many as 10,000 new species of plants, animals and insects are discovered each year, but these are usually isolated specimens or small clusters hidden away in forests or other remote areas. Often they are small and easily overlooked.

But on recent visits to Ethiopia, Swedish botanist Mats Thulin discovered a new species of tree that covers more than 3,100 square miles, an area about the size of the island of Crete.

Botanist David J. Mabberley of Britain's Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew described the new tree in a report Friday in the journal Science, noting that it has most likely been overlooked by botanists because few have visited the region where Ethiopia's Ogaden National Liberation Front is fighting for self-rule.

The area is also difficult to get to, he said, and the trees can be seen from drivable roads in only a few places.

The newly identified tree, Acacia fumosa, grows about 18 to 20 feet tall, with a canopy that spreads 24 to 30 feet in diameter. It sprouts pink flowers during the dry season, when it is leafless. It differs from closely related species in the color of its flowers and in its gray, smooth bark, among other things.

The number of the trees in the region "must be in the millions," Mabberley wrote.

People living in the sparsely populated region are familiar with the tree, he noted, but have no uses for it other than as firewood. He speculated, however, that gum from the tree might be used in foods and glues.

The discovery was a result of the Flora of Somalia project, established to look for new plants in Ethiopia's Somali National Regional State. Researchers with the project have discovered and described more than 400 new species of flowering plants in Ethiopia.

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thomas.maugh@latimes.com

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