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Giant water lily: Newly identified species is world’s largest

Almost 180 years after specimens were first brought from Bolivia to the UK, a giant water lily has been confirmed as a distinct species



Life



4 July 2022

water lily

Horticulturalist Carlos Magdalena in Bolivia viewing the largest known giant water lily species (Victoria boliviana)

Cesar David Salazar

A newly identified species of water lily is also the largest of its kind, with lily pads up to 3.2 metres wide and flowers that are each larger than a human head.

“The lily pads could definitely take the weight of a young child,” says Natalia Przelomska at Kew Gardens in the UK, who co-led the work with Oscar A. Pérez Escobar. In theory, the massive leaves can support the weight of an adult of about 80 kilograms. “[But] I think you’d have to put some kind of support in it to distribute their weight on the lily pad,” says Przelomska. “Though we’ve not tested it!”

The new species, named Victoria boliviana, is just the third known species of giant water lily.

In 2016, Bolivian institutions Santa Cruz de La Sierra Botanic Garden and La Rinconada Gardens donated a collection of giant water lily seeds to Kew Gardens. As Carlos Magdalena – a horticulturalist at Kew and member of the research team – germinated and grew the seeds he could see they were different from the two known species of water lily. In 2019, he visited Bolivia to see the water lilies growing in the wild.

V. boliviana grows in freshwater rivers, floodplains and ponds in north-eastern Bolivia. Although it is unclear exactly why it evolved to be so big, previous studies suggest that the large size of water lilies may help them compete with other plants for sunlight.

giant water lily being held up by two people

Horticulturalist Carlos Magdalena and freelance botanical artist Lucy Smith hold up a giant water lily at Kew Gardens

Ines Stuart-Davidson/Royal Botanic Gardens/Kew

“The biodiversity in the tropics is so high, so when an aquatic area opens up – for example, because the rivers suddenly become larger due to a flood – the water lilies can thrive there because they grow really quickly and capture so much of the sunlight, and outcompete other plants,” says Przelmoska.

Przelmoska and her colleagues also found that the genome of V. boliviana is larger than the genomes of the two other known giant water lily species, Victoria cruziana and Victoria amazonica. It contains over 4 billion base pairs.

“Generally, a larger plant wouldn’t necessarily have a larger genome, but the biggest water lilies happen to have the biggest [lily] genomes and we’d like to understand why,” says Przelmoska.

Further genetic analysis revealed that the common ancestor of V. cruziana and V. boliviana split from V. amazonica about 5 million years ago, while V. cruziana and V. boliviana both appeared about 1 million years ago.

The team also found that V. boliviana seems to be at greater risk of extinction than the other two species, due to the smaller geographical range over which it lives. All three species are under increased threat as deforestation in the Amazon continues.

“Like the other species, V. bolivana is at threat because the environment has been degraded year by year,” says Przelmoska.

Journal reference: Frontiers in Plant Science, DOI: 10.3389/fpls.2022.883151

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