For several months last spring, the Vanderbilt greenhouse held more members of a rare species of native sunflower than are known to exist in the wild.
This unusual bounty was the result of research being conducted by Jennifer Ellis, a doctoral student in the biological sciences department, working under the supervision of Professor David E. McCauley.
The species is called the giant whorled sunflower, Helianthus verticillatus. It was discovered in 1892 in Tennessee but was thought to be extinct until 1994 when it was rediscovered in Georgia. Today, it is known to exist in only four locations in West Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. It has been a candidate for listing as a federal endangered species since 1999.
In the last four years Ellis has conducted a series of genetic studies of the whorled sunflower that significantly increase the odds that this gangly plant will make the endangered species list. Once a species is listed then the federal government is empowered to take a number of steps to protect it.
Her study came at a perfect time and gave us answers that we really needed, says Cary Norquist, assistant field supervisor and botanist in the Ecological Services Field Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Jackson, Miss., who has recommended upgrading the sunflowers application for listing from a low to a high level as a result of the new information.
One of the questions that Ellis research answered was whether the whorled sunflower was a distinct species or a hybrid of two common varieties. If it was a hybrid then it would not qualify as an endangered species. Her work definitely confirmed that it is a distinct species, says Norquist.
The other answer that Ellis has provided is a more accurate count of the number of genetic individuals that exist in the wild. According to previous estimates, there were several thousand whorled sunflowers growing in Coosa Valley Prairie in Alabama and Georgia, about 7,000
|Contact: David F. Salisbury|