To enforce timber import laws and perform timber species identification, the identity of the botanical species must be well-defined. Since the Sapotaceae family is known as a taxonomically challenging family, we focus in this study on the four most valuable Sapotaceae timber species from tropical Africa: Autranella congolensis (De Wild.) A.Chev., Baillonella toxisperma Pierre, Tieghemella africana Pierre and Tieghemella heckelii (A.Chev.) Pierre ex Dubard. The wood anatomical characteristic fiber lumen fraction and Direct Analysis in Real Time—Time of Flight Mass Spectrometry (DART-TOFMS) were used to differentiate the four species and to make inferences on species delineation and taxonomic identity.
We observed differences in the fiber lumen fraction measurements and discerned two groups: (1) A. congolensis and B. toxisperma, and (2) T. africana and T. heckelii. In addition, all Mann–Whitney U comparisons and differences in distributions (Kolmogorov–Smirnov) for the fiber lumen fraction measurements were significant between all species. When permutating the data between species within those two groups, significant differences were still found between the species within those groups. This could indicate that the fiber lumen fraction is not diagnostic to discern the species. DART-TOFMS analysis showed that A. congolensis and B. toxisperma have distinct chemotypes, while T. heckelii and T. africana have remarkably similar chemotypes.
Based on our observations of similar chemotype and weakly differentiated fiber lumen ratio, we support an alternative taxonomic hypothesis that considers Tieghemella monotypic, because of the strong resemblance between T. heckelii and T. africana. Larger sample sizes and further research is required to develop methodology for the identification of these species. A taxonomic study utilizing molecular genetics would be beneficial to assess the status of the genus and the species limits. This could have implications towards their potential inclusion on CITES appendices if there is ever need for them to be listed. If Tieghemella africana and T. heckelii remain two distinct species, they should both be listed. Screening agents should be aware that the morphological and chemical differences between T. africana and T. heckelii are minimal.
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