Researchers detect presumed extinct tropical plant species


Associate Professor Kenneth Feeley and graduate student Riley Fortier were part of a research group that rediscovered a plant called Gasteranthus extinctus, named to anticipate its extinction.

Two researchers from the University of Miami were part of a team that rediscovered a species of tropical plant thought to be extinct for nearly 40 years.

Encouraged by his advisor, associate professor of biology Kenneth Feeley, graduate student Riley Fortier joined a small expedition in November to Centinela Ridge in western Ecuador, a place well known to biologists. for its many rare species. The team was looking for a low-lying South American wildflower named Gasteranthus extinctus, which was discovered in the 1980s. The species received its unique nickname in 2000 because scientists expected the plant to be extinct, as many Ecuadorian forests where it was first found had since become plantations of teak, cocoa or bananas.

To uncover the truth about whether or not G. extinctus became extinct, botanists Nigel Pitman and Dawson White of the Field Museum in Chicago assembled an international team of plant scientists, including Fortier and several Ecuadorian botanists. As soon as they arrived in Centinela, the team split into three groups and spotted the few remaining patches of forest they had previously mapped using satellite imagery.

“Almost immediately, two of the crews found the plant growing along the waterways,” Fortier said. “We were really excited to see it, and because of the brightness of the flowers, once we knew what to look for, it was easy to find.”

Pitman tweeted his thrill along with a photo, writing: “And suddenly, there it was. Not gone. Not off at all. Still alive and well and able to catch your eye halfway through the forest.

The group also found the distinctive plant growing outside of Centinela’s ridge, signaling that it is not limited to this small area. Their findings were published last week in PhytoKeys, a leading scientific journal.

“It’s a call for optimism, it shows that some of those species we thought were extinct aren’t, and that these little patches of forest that are left can help save the diversity of plants and animals in this region. “, Feeley said. , Smathers Professor of Tropical Tree Biology at the University and co-author of the paper. “Some of these species were able to hang on for a long time, but this region continues to lose forest as it continues to clear it for farmland, so we need to conserve what we have now to avoid any real extinction. ”

Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, with 17% of the world’s bird species and 16,000 plant species, according to the World Land Trust. Located northwest of the Equator, the Centinela Ridge sits just west of the Andes, between the mountain range and the Pacific coast. Perhaps because of this remoteness, it is home to hundreds of endemic tropical species. The area even sparked the interest of famed biologist EO Wilson, who coined the term “centinelane extinction,” to refer to the loss of rare species before they were even discovered.

Long believed to be extinct, Gasteranthus extinctus was found growing beside a waterfall at Bosque y Cascada Las Rocas, a private reserve on the Ecuadorian coast containing a large population of the endangered plant. Photo by Riley Fortier

The rediscovery of Gasteranthus extinctus is part of an ongoing collaboration between Feeley and Pitman, who are working to understand the risk of extinction for many tropical plant species. Feeley said he hopes this expedition will inspire others to explore the remaining forests and find out what other tropical species may or may not be extinct today.

“It highlights a problem of the tropics, which is that we have so little information; until you send a team of top botanists to a site, you’ll never know what’s really there,” said Feeley, who studies the effects of climate change on plant and tree communities. tropical trees. “The fact that we can’t even be sure if a species is alive or extinct just underscores that we need more people looking for those species.”

They hope to train future expeditions to Centinela Ridge to learn more. Meanwhile, the botanist team is working with local organizations to protect the two remaining patches of forest that exist in the area today. Fortier said these two places are only 100 hectares of land – about 247 acres – but contain a multitude of rare plant species, such as Gasteranthus extinctus, as well as many insects, birds and mammals. While there, Fortier was happy to see howler monkeys inhabiting the trees.

“Right now, these forests could be cut down any day, so we want to push to protect them,” Fortier said.

As part of the solution, conservation groups or the Ecuadorian government must purchase the land between these forests and connect them through restoration efforts, Feeley added. Additional funds and resources are also needed, so that scientists can study the many tropical species in this region and help protect them from extinction.

“When botanists first collected plants there, they noted the immense biodiversity of the area, but before they could do anything, they came back and were completely alarmed by the deforestation,” he said. Feeley. “Unfortunately, deforestation may be happening faster than science can.”

Feeley and Fortier both stressed the importance of conserving this diversity to help counter the effects of climate change.

“The preservation of biodiversity, especially local biodiversity, is not limited to plants and animals. It’s also preserving the water cycle, our food and much more,” Fortier said. “We ensure an easier life for humanity in the long run.”


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