February 20, 2003
By Anthony Browne, Environment Editor
IT STARTED with a biologist sitting on a grassy river bank in York, eating a sandwich. It ended in the discovery of a "scruffy little weed with no distinguishing features" that is the first new species to have been naturally created in Britain for more than 50 years.
The discovery of the York groundsel shows that species are created as well as made extinct, and that Charles Darwin was right and the Creationists are wrong. But the fragile existence of the species could soon be ended by the weedkillers of York City Council’s gardeners.
Richard Abbott, a plant evolutionary biologist from St Andrews University, has discovered "evolution in action" after noticing the lone, strange-looking and uncatalogued plant in wasteland next to the York railway station car park in 1979. He did not realise its significance and paid little attention. But in 1991 he returned to York, ate his sandwich and noticed that the plant had spread.
Yesterday, Dr Abbott published extensive research proving with DNA analysis that it is the first new species to have evolved naturally in Britain in the past 50 years.
"I’ve been a plant evolutionary biologist all my life, but you don’t think you’ll come across the origin of a new species in your lifetime. We’ve caught the species as it has originated — it is very satisfying," he told the Times. "At a time in Earth’s history when animal and plant species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate, the discovery of the origin of a new plant species in Britain calls for a celebration."
The creation of new species can takes thousands of years, making it too slow for science to detect. But the York groundsel is a natural hybrid between the common groundsel and the Oxford ragwort, which was introduced to Britain from Sicily 300 years ago. Hybrids are normally sterile, and cannot breed and die out.
But Dr Abbott’s research, published in the journal of the Botanical Society of the British Isles, shows that the York Groundsel is a genetic mutant that can breed, but not with any other species, including its parent species. It thus fits the scientific definition of a separate species.
"It is a very rare event — it is only known to have happened five times in the last hundred years" Dr Abbott said. It has happened twice before in the UK — the Spartina anglica was discovered in Southampton 100 years ago, and the Welsh groundsel, discovered in 1948.
The weed sets seed three months after germinating and has little yellow flowers. The species, which came into existance about 30 years ago, has been called Senecio eboracensis, after Eboracum, the Roman name for York. According to the research, it has now spread to several sites around York, but only ever as a weed on disturbed ground.
However, more than 90 per cent of species that have lived subsequently become extinct, and its future is by no means certain.
"It is important for it to build up its numbers rapidly, or it could get rubbed out — which would be sad. The biggest threat to the new species is the weedkillers from the council," Dr Abbott said.
However, he does not plan to start a planting programme to ensure his discovery lives on. "The next few years will be critical as to whether it becomes an established part of the British flora or a temporary curiosity. But we will let nature take its course," he said.