Here’s the crazy thing about living in Hawaii: Even though the islands are home to more than 18,000 unique species that live nowhere else on Earth, the people of Hawaii rarely see those native plants and animals.

In no small part, that’s because Hawaii is the site of an ongoing extinction crisis. Thousands of species in the Hawaiian Islands risk extinction because of invasive species or habitat loss. Most of those native species evolved in extremely limited ranges, so it takes a lot of effort to see them—and it doesn’t take much to wipe them out.

In the meantime scientists throughout Hawaii are rushing to conserve the state’s native flora and fauna, the majority of which have never been fully studied. That effort often involves documenting where species live, what they need from their environment and what it will take to save them.

Sometimes, in the process of documenting these already endangered species, something novel pops into view. It happened in September 2012 when scientists were surveying the cold, mist-covered summit of Kōnāhua-nui Mountain on Oahu, seeking information about the endangered plant Cyanea humboldtiana, also known as the Oahu rollandia.

Instead they found something new: another species of Cyanea that had never been documented before. In a paper published this month in PhytoKeys the researchers dubbed it C. konahuanuiensis. The new species, whose common name of Hāhā mili‘ohu means “the Cyanea that is caressed by the mist,” has brilliant purple flowers and grows a little over half a meter in height.

Oh yeah, and it’s probably critically endangered. The researchers located fewer than 50 of the plants, all of which were growing in two subgulches of one stream drainage on the mountaintop.

Even if it is protected—which is likely because it grows on state-owned land—the new species isn’t expected to become any less rare in the wild. Most of the native birds that probably once pollinated the plants and spread their seeds are either extinct, extirpated or have highly reduced populations on Oahu, notes Sebastian Marquez, one of the researchers who discovered the plant and co-authored the paper. “Whatever ecological services those birds provided are not being met for the species,” he says, adding that the researchers observed almost no young plants, indicating that wild reproduction occurs very rarely. Many of the fruits produced by the plants had been chewed on by invasive rats, slugs or feral pigs. Other seeds failed to germinate or decomposed before maturity.

The scientists did manage to collect a small number of seeds as well as two fertile stems and flower heads. These successfully germinated without much effort in an arboretum at the University of Hawaii, so it may be possible to increase the population off the mountain. The researchers recommended collecting immature fruit from all of the known plants in order to build a genetic database that’s as complete as possible.

Saving the wild plants will pose more of a challenge. In their paper the researchers noted that it would only take a single landslide, hurricane or flash flood to wipe out every remaining plant.

Although he’s excited by it, Marquez fears that new discoveries such as C. konahuanuiensis will do little to inspire more work to preserve Hawaii’s native flora. “People don't get to emotionally connect with native Hawaiian terrestrial biota, let alone know what is native or not,” he says. That doesn’t stop him from trying, though. He works with an organization called Papahana Kuaola as well as the Mānoa Cliff Native Forestation Project and his Studia Mirabilium blog to try to educate people about the native species of Hawaii.

Marquez says this new discovery typifies the urgency facing both Hawaii’s endangered species and those that have yet to be discovered. “Without surveying and identifying, the environmental pressures facing these plants would have them go extinct without anyone knowing they were even there,” he says. At least for C. konahuanuiensis, this is one discovery that came just in time.

Photos by Tobias B. Koehler via PhytoKeys. Used under Creative Commons license

Previously in Extinction Countdown: