They identify a new species of shrub in Uluru, the monolithic mount revered by the aborigines of Australia

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A group of botanists has identified a species “new to science” in the poor vegetation of Mount Uluru, a sacred place for the Aboriginal people of central Australia, who consider it “the navel of the world”.

The presence of these shrubs on the arid rocks never went unnoticed by travelers and naturalists who visited this iconic reddish monolithic formation, but for decades it was believed that the plant belonged to the species ‘Ficus brachypoda’, distributed closer to the coasts northern parts of the continent.

Like ‘Ficus brachypoda’, Uluru’s ‘new’ rupicolous species is akin to the common fig tree, but it differs quite a lot from the rest of known ficus, something that a recent morphological analysis revealed. In particular, as detailed in a taxonomic blog, it is distinguished by having rigid and lanceolate leaves dark green and discolored with many parallel lateral veins and tiny hairs on the tails of each leaf.

The bush was already known colloquially as fig tree of the desert, Therefore, the research team proposed the scientific name of ‘Ficus desertorum’ for the species, although indigenous peoples have multiple different words to refer to it. “No aboriginal name encompasses all linguistic groups, so the choice of any of the existing names could exclude others of the same degree of importance”, the botanist held Russell Barett, whose words were picked up on November 18 by the website of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney.

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The Latin name proposed by the professionals “also highlights how unusual it is to find a fig in the desert,” Barett added. Its fruits, small figs the size of a berry, have a certain nutritional value, for both Australian and Aboriginal birds, who refer to them with a special word, ‘mai pulka’.

The monolith of Uluru it’s not the only place where the species in question can be found, which also grows in two other famous highlands of central Australia: Kata Tjuta (also referred to as The Olgas) and Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles). The plant is well adapted to living among rocks and, like other representatives of the genus Ficus, It has long roots that are used to look for water, but Barett emphasized that “this species has perfected that art.”

A year ago Google Maps removed from its collection of images the photos of the top of Uluru shared by users because the place is considered sacred for the Anangu, an indigenous people whose members requested to erase them. Since October 2019, Australian laws prohibit visitors from climbing this mountain, also at the behest of Aboriginal communities.

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