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Costa Rica's patchwork diversity.

Costa Rica's patchwork diversity

Costa Rica, though no bigger than West Virginia, holds more plant species than all of North America. Having surveyed Costa Rica's floral bounty for 25 years, taxonomist William C. Burger of Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History proposes a theory to explain both its species diversity and the puzzling observation that closely related plants in the region resist hybridation, even when growing only a kilometer apart.

In this lush, hilly country, altitudes and soils change substantially over short distances, creating a pastiche of varying habitats. Burger theorizes that chance mutations in a plant at the edge of one habitat may improve its disease resistance over plants adapted to slightly different conditions nearby. In order to keep the lifesaving trait, the newly emerging species must avoid swapping genes with its closely related neighbors. Such a scenario, Burger posits, could foster new species without large-scale geographic isolation or major climate change -- two factors often cited as triggers for diversity. To test his theory, he suggests looking for reduced disease resistance in crops transplanted into adjacent habitats.
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Title Annotation:botany
Author:Cowen, Ron
Publication:Science News
Date:Aug 18, 1990
Words:178
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