Study reveals plant extinctions and new discoveries
New report marking first-ever assessment of global flora calls for radical action to protect world’s plants. by Nick Clark
From the threatened extinction of nearly a quarter of the world’s plants, to the Facebook discovery of an unknown giant carnivorous specimen, the first-ever evaluation of the world’s flora is complete.
It’s staggering and somehow gratifying to find that every year around 2,000 new species of plants are discovered. But it’s troublesome and deeply worrying to learn that more than 10 percent of the world’s landcover type has changed in just 10 years, mostly from forest to farmland.
The State of the World’s Plants report took 80 scientists from the prestigious laboratories and archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in west London a year to complete.
It was unveiled by Kew’s director of science, Professor Kathy Willis.
“We’ve had no end of the state of the world reports on everything from sea turtles to antibiotics,” Willis said. “But never plants.
“And I find this remarkable because plants are fundamental to the lives we lead. They underpin almost everything we know – from food, to clothing, to regulating the climate. They make living possible.”
And when you factor in how climate change appears to be turning the natural world upside down, threatening crop production and fuelling fears of food insecurity, never has the time been more apposite for such an assessment.
“Someone had to take the lead and shove plants to the top of the agenda,” Willis said.
Throughout years of domestication, traits have been bred into crops to create, say, the perfect banana or coffee plant. But these traits will not necessarily protect them from the ravages of climate change.
So the Kew scientists say we need to go back to the wild relatives of the crops and tap that pool of genetic variation.
These relatives have evolved over thousands of years and have huge climate resilience, which could then be bred back into our crops.
The problem is many of those wild populations are under considerable threat, due to deforestation and change of land use.
“We need to become global landscape planners to really understand which of the most important areas to preserve because of the plant diversity they contain,” Willis said.
Kew has a botanical pedigree second to none. It was established in 1759 and now boasts more than eight million specimens, many dating back to Victorian times.
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Among the stars are cuttings taken by Charles Darwin during his voyage on the Beagle as he gathered evidence for his seminal work On the Origin of the Species.
I examined a sheet on which was pinned the fern-like Henslovianum, browned with age but surprisingly intact, its date and place of collection painstakingly recorded – September 3, 1835, Galapagos.
|Adiantum Henslovianum, part of Charles Darwin’s collection from Galapagos in 1835, is displayed in the herbarium [Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP]|
Dr Timothy Utteridge is Kew’s head of plant identification and says that such detailed records are an invaluable resource.
“We can look at a specimen taken from say, Malaysia in the 1830s and know precisely where, when and by whom it was taken,” Uttteridge said.
“We can then refer to Google Earth and see what’s there today. We might find no original trees at all – maybe a palm oil plantation instead. But it’s a good baseline to assess where we’re at today.”
Just like in Victorian times Kew still sends out botanists to far-flung corners of the Earth in search of new discoveries. And they frequently come home flush with success.
But there was that one that came from the unexpected direction of social media.
Apparently Brazilian amateur botanist Reginaldo Vasconcelos posted a photo on Facebook of a large carnivorous sundew plant in 2013, while exploring the mountains near his home.
A year later it was spotted by a plant expert, who checked it out and yes, there it was, Drosera Magnifica, a new discovery.
The wonders of the plant kingdom it seems, still have the ability to surprise, but deep within this most important element of the planet’s biodiversity, there lies a warning to humankind, which we ignore at our peril.
Underwater plants like these are among the most imperilled due to ocean acidification, pollution and climate change..