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Extinction Countdown

Extinction Countdown

News and research about endangered species from around the world

An "extinct" plant species is saved, just in time

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In the conservation world, there’s a concept known as a "Lazarus" species: Those thought to be extinct, but later rediscovered.


Take Aspalathus recurvispina, for example. This little plant with yellow flowers disappeared from South Africa years ago, and for the last decade has been considered probably extinct. But a few months ago, eagle-eyed members of a plant protection group spotted a single plant in an area about to be paved for a new road.


Thinking the plant was actually another endangered species, Aspalathus cliffortiifolia, the workers had a sample tested, which revealed its true identity. Once that happened, conservation agencies stopped the road work last month long enough to find a few other samples nearby.


They located it just in time: The road was being built in anticipation of 2010's World Cup soccer tournament. (Read about a similar situation in Vancouver as that city prepares for the 2010 Olympics.)


"Had conservation officials not stopped the road widening process, the population would have been lost," says Ismail Ebrahim, Project Manager for Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW) at the South African National Biodiversity Institute, headquartered in Pretoria.


The plant was originally believed extinct "because of the major loss of habitat in the Port Elizabeth area," says Ebrahim. "Humewood, the suburb that it was re-found in, is currently a residential area and there are only a few small natural open spaces left."


Keeping the plant alive in its native habitat is going to be a tough task. "The most important thing for us to do is to ensure that the remaining habitat is secure and conserved," says Ebrahim. "This might be very challenging because (the plant) occurs in a very small patch alongside a busy road."


The habitat is also adjacent to a residential area, so it will be difficult to protect the site. "We will have to engage the local authorities to come up with the viable solution to conserving this species," says Ebrahim.


CREW also hope to have the land reclassified as a "no-development" zone under the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Open Space System, which allows towns to use conservation as a priority in establishing open spaces. They might also explore the possibility of ex-situ (off-site) conservation, but that "is also extremely challenging," says Ebrahim.


Meanwhile, to help protect the plant, the South African National Biodiversity Institute, which is charged with assessing the threat status of South Africa's species, has classified Aspalathus recurvispina as "critically endangered," which offers it some legal protection.


Ebrahim says that CREW will also soon send samples of Aspalathus recurvispina to the Millennium Seed Bank in the UK, so they have a backup if conservation efforts fail.


With a bit of luck, what happened to a Philippine bird a few weeks back won’t happen to A. recurvispina. That bird, the Worcester's buttonquai, once believed to be extinct, was rediscovered.


Then it was eaten.


Image: Aspalathus recurvispina © Cornelia Garner. Used with permission.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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