Dilmah Conservation in partnership with the Herpetological Foundation of Sri Lanka and an internationally acclaimed lichenologist Dr. Gothamie Weerakoon, have uncovered 64 species in Sri Lanka previously unknown to science. Sinharaja Tree Snake Dendrelaphis sinharajensis, and Aspidura ravanai which were added to the list in 2017. Among the novel species identified were The Dilmah Shrub Frog Psuedophilautus dilmah (poetically, the site of this discovery is the very same location where James Taylor planted Sri Lanka’s first ever tea plant in 1867), and the Heterodermia queensberryi lichen species discovered in Dilmah’s Queensberry estate.
Urbanisation, pollution and other human activities are driving climate change and triggering species extinctions. Species that are most sensitive to climate change may have been largely overlooked due to their elusiveness or lack of aesthetic appeal. Dilmah Conservation hopes to address this critical gap in knowledge through its Novel Species programme and shed light on some of Sri Lanka’s most underappreciated species.
Two such groups of animals are amphibians and reptiles. Amphibians such as frogs’ breath through their skin and reptiles rely on the external environment to manage their body heat and guide their life history patterns. As a result, both these species groups are extremely vulnerable to pollution and climate change and are in dire need of conservation.
Lichens are another group of relatively neglected species in Sri Lanka. Presently, almost 1200 lichen species are known in Sri Lanka, however it is estimated that an additional 2000 or more lichen species stand to be discovered. Lichens are an association of fungi and algae – the fungi envelopes the algae allowing it to grow in normally inhospitable environments (such as the surface of rocks). They are extremely sensitive to environmental pollution because they absorb their nutrients directly from the air.
Lichen and amphibian populations, because of their extraordinary environmental sensitivity, can be used to monitor environmental pollution and climate change. Lichens can also act as carbon dioxide sinks helping to mitigate climate change. This highlights how biodiversity conservation research stands to benefit not just individual species, but all life on Earth by providing critical information needed to fight climate change.
The lichen species Leightoniella zeylanensis found in Sri Lanka was first identified as a novel species in 1965 and was classified variously in the Collemataceae and Pannariaceae families. Concrete classification evaded scientists because of the lichens rarity. A recent finding of the lichen in Sri Lanka by Dr. Gothamie Weerakoon and her team in 2015 during the Novel Species Programme enabled them to obtain DNA sequence data and determine that L. zeylanensis is a member of the Pannariaceae, belonging to a strongly supported clade together with Physma, Lepidocollema, and Gibbosporina genera. Their research paper was published in June 2018 and can be accessed here
Through the Novel Species Programme, Dilmah Conservation has successfully identified 64 species previously unknown to science, among them include 2 species of gecko, 4 snake species, 12 frogs and 20 lichens.
Dilmah Conservation released a publication on the ‘Fascinating Lichens of Sri Lanka’ by Dr. Gothamie Weerakoon in 2015, the first of its like in the nation.
In addition to the above lichen discoveries, the programme also supported the discovery of 152 new Lichen records from Sri Lanka; while these species have been previously discovered in other countries, they have not been recorded from Sri Lanka before.
25 lichens are still under review. Once completed the total number of new lichen species discovered through this initiative will stand at 45.