SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Most scientists are all about finding the unknown, the new and unique. Be it far off planets or tiny new plants, there is something inside them that fuels the fire of discovery.
Dr. Turner Collins has been at it since the 1960s. His title of professor emeritus means he has retired from teaching at Evangel University, but for Collins there is no retiring from research.
Collins recently discovered an undescribed plant species in the American Southwest. This is the second new species he has discovered during his career.
Since 1999, Collins has been working on the Flora of North America Project, a collaborative effort to describe all 20,100-plus plants found in the United States and Canada. The FNA Association is made up of more than 30 U.S. and Canadian institutions and organizations.
According to its website, the FNA Project builds upon the cumulative wealth of information acquired since botanical studies began in the United States and Canada more than two centuries ago.
The discovery process
“The editorial board of the FNA is based at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis,” said Collins, who taught botany and biology for 33 years at Evangel, before retiring in 2004. “They’ve pulled together professors and research scientists from all over the U.S. to work on aspects of this research.”
Collins has studied the broomrape family (Orobanchaceae), an obscure family of parasitic flowering plants, for more than 40 years. His first discovery was a plant that parasitizes giant ragweeds along rivers in the Midwest. That new species (Orobanche riparia) was published in 2009.
The most recent discovery was found in the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico.
“After some intensive study, I realized the new plants were from the Great Basin Desert and centered around the Four Corners area on the Colorado Plateau,” said Collins. “I recognized these plants because they were smaller, flowered later in the year and were geographically separated from the Sonoran Desert plants.”
The new plant is named Orobanche arizonica in recognition of its association with the state of Arizona. The name is published in the online botanical journal Phytoneuron.*
Collins has been part of a three-person FNA research team — George Yatschievich is from the Missouri Botanical Garden and Alison Colwell is with the National Park Service.
“Each of us had worked on this group of plants in the past,” said Collins. “It was our common thread, even though we didn’t know each other.” The FNA editorial board invited them to work together on parasitic flowering plants in 1999.
“We took the existing research from our collective pasts and used it as a springboard to update the locations and distributions of the plants. That process is what led to the discovery of the two new species that I described,” said Collins.
“I’ve always been interested in plants,” he added. “I was raised on a farm in Texas, and did my undergrad work in agriculture.”
Collins was in college in the 1960s, at the height of the “space race,” and the National Science Foundation was involved in upgrading science education for high school teachers. A National Science Foundation subsidy helped him go on for his masters.
“Once I got to teach at the college level, I realized I liked the topic,” he said. “It was during grad school that I got interested in the research of my botany professor, and the rest is history.”
Collins holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (1973), an M.S. from Texas Tech University (1966), and a B.A. from S.F. Austin State College (1959).
*Article citation: Collins, L.T. and G. Yatskievych. 2015. Orobanche arizonica sp. nov. and nomenclatural changes in Orobanche cooperi (Orobanchaceae). Phytoneuron 2015-48: 1–19.
This story first appeared in the Springfield News-Leader Friday, June 10, 2016 — http://www.news-leader.com/story/news/education/2016/06/09/new-plant-species-discovered-evangel-university-biology-professor/85666956/