Media reports draw attention to the plights of species fighting extinction—such as polar bears, bald eagles, tigers, and manatees—but a UTC professor is watching endangered flora a lot closer to home.

Though Tennessee is a floristically rich state with 2,439 native plant species, more than any other landlocked eastern state, the Tennessee Natural Heritage Program recognizes 490 plant species as rare.

Dr. Joey Shaw, assistant professor of biological and environmental sciences, studies many of east Tennessee’s rare plants including Mountain Skullcap (hint—it’s an herb).

“We are currently monitoring several populations so that we may ultimately learn more about its reproduction, genetic variability, and population viability,” said Shaw.

Shaw found Fremont’s Leatherflower, a showy Midwestern species, in the Chattanooga area. It raised the question: is this population native or introduced?

“Molecular genetic work in the lab identified a unique molecular signal in the eastern population that was not found in any of the sampled western populations suggesting that the eastern population is native. Efforts are now underway to protect this species in Tennessee,” said Shaw.

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