Tech & Science 'Salt and vinegar chips' spinifex one of eight new plant species discovered by finger-licking scientists

08:23  13 november  2017
08:23  13 november  2017 Source:   ABC News

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Spinifex grasses, unique to Australia, cover approximately 2 million hectares of WA.© Supplied: Donna Cuel/ABC News Spinifex grasses, unique to Australia, cover approximately 2 million hectares of WA.

West Australian researchers have found and identified eight new species of spinifex, including one they say has the flavour of salt and vinegar-flavoured chips.

University of WA research scientist Matthew Barrett and PhD student Ben Anderson made the surprising discovery by accident while working late one night in Perth.

"We were doing late night experiments … handling specimens of that species," Dr Barrett said.

"Someone licked their hand at some point and tasted that flavour."

Dr Barrett said the distinctive tang comes from tiny drops of liquid that 'sparkle' in the sunlight.

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"It looks pretty inconspicuous when you first get to it, but if you look at it very closely it has very, very minute sparkling droplets on the stems," he said.

"When you lick them, they taste like salt and vinegar chips.

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"But I wouldn't recommend going out and licking spinifex." Triodia scintillans, or sparkling spinifex, is one of eight new species described by the pair as part of Mr Anderson's four-year PhD project.

Little known about iconic Australian plant's diversity

Drought-resistant perennial grasses, commonly called spinifex, are the parched Pilbara region's dominant flora.

Spinifex only occurs in Australia and covers nearly 30 per cent of the nation's outback areas.

The native grass is farmed commercially in Queensland to manufacture the world's strongest, thinnest condoms.

It is used to rehabilitate mine sites and its resin is an ancient version of superglue.

While they may all look the same to many, there is more diversity to spinifex grasslands than first meets the eye.

"In the Pilbara alone there are about 30 different species that we now recognise, so there's a lot more out there than you think," he said.

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The Triodia genus includes about 120 species, according to Dr Barrett.

"But there's still at least another 30-odd species that have to be described and they are just the ones that we know about," he said.

"We are only just discovering how many species there are, where they are, and how they survive." Research triples spinifex previously known to one group

Dr Barrett has spent more than 15 years getting up close and personal with spiky spinifex tussocks in the Australian desert.

He helped Mr Anderson study the Triodia basedowii, or lobed spinifex, group.

"We have discovered quite a lot of new species tucked away in little, out-of-the-way pockets that no one's ever really looked at before," Dr Barrett said.

"We had to spend quite a bit of time doing quite detailed genetic work to prove that there are reliable genetic differences between the different species in different areas."

Their genetics testing and rigorous field surveys revealed 12 species in the group which was previously thought to contain four.

Mr Anderson's research also suggests some species are not widespread but only occur at certain land forms, which makes them extremely rare.

One of the newly described species has only been recorded in a single population near Pannawonica, 200 kilometres south-west of Karratha.

"It sits right alongside a road that people have been driving down for at least the last 20 years," Dr Barrett said.

It was named T. mallota, which means fleecy or woolly, because its stems are covered in tangled woolly hairs.

Another new species, T. vanleeuwenii, occurs at the Hamersley Range between Newman and Karijini National Park.

It was named after Parks and Wildlife science and conservation assistant director Stephen Van Leeuwen, who has studied Pilbara flora since the early 1980s.

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