Just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down travel, Jim Miller, Senior Vice President of Science & Research at the Missouri Botanical Garden, was in Madagascar, searching for a plant that scientists had not seen in the wild since 1965.
Bourreria angustifolia is a small tree or shrub with “willow-like” leaves and orange fruits the size and shape of cherries. Likely, the fruit is food for bird’s and Madagascar’s famous lemurs. The plant was first collected by French Botanist René Capuron in May 1965 in a remote part of Madagascar. For decades, that single specimen was kept in the herbarium of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, unstudied and unnamed.
In 2002, Miller named and described the species new to science. Molecular data later allowed scientists to understand relationships and place it in the right genus. The original collection’s label included its exact location, but since no one had actually seen it, scientists weren’t certain whether it was extinct. Miller was optimistic after studying the area on Google Maps’ satellite view and seeing some forest remained.
On his trip to Madagascar in early 2020, he set out to find it with Richard Randrianaivo of the Garden’s staff and Letsara Rokiman from the Parc de Tsimbazaza. The trip took four days, including driving 1,000 kilometers over highways and treks down dirt roads. The team finally arrived at the shore of Lac Ihotry, a large saline lake with flamingos, where the plant had last been collected. When they pulled into a village, they asked a local if he knew where they could find the plant. He took them to a spot just a short walk away where Miller saw, for the first time, the plant growing in the wild. It was a big moment.
“What this means is, it’s not too late. It’s not extinct,” Miller says. But the plant is critically endangered. In some cases of plant rediscovery, like Dracaena umbraculifera, scientists are able to find multiple wild populations of a plant previously feared to be extinct. That wasn’t the case with Bourreria angustifolia. The team looked for it in the nearby forests, but only found it in the one small spot. Knowing this means scientists can take steps toward conserving it. They started by making a thorough collection of materials. That include several herbarium specimens, leaves stored in silicone gel so they can be used for DNA studies, and seeds.
Although the area is unlikely to become a protected site because much of the forest is already degraded, Miller and the team talked to the local people about the importance of conservation. This strategy, part of the Garden’s community-based conservation approach, has been successful in the past with other species in Madagascar.
“If they realize they have something special, people will take great pride in it and will protect it,” Miller explains. The success of finding Bourreria angustifolia made Miller’s trip to Madagascar, which was cut short due to COVID-19, a fruitful journey.
“It proved it’s not 12 o’clock,” he says, referring to the plant’s placement on the extinction “clock.” “It may be 11:50, but these plants aren’t all extinct. They’re teetering on the brink of extinction. If we don’t do something now, they aren’t going to be with us in another 50 years.”
While saving one species found in only a remote area of Madagascar may not seem monumental to the world’s biodiversity, the story is hardly unique. One-third of tropical African plants currently face extinction and many others’ status is unknown — across the plant kingdom, scientists have specimens of tens of thousands of plant species that were most recently collected 50 or 100 years ago.
“We’re working in a world where our data is so thin when we’re doing conservation assessments it’s hard to know if things are extinct when they’re only known from one location,” Miller explains.
Trips like this are the only way to determine if a species still exists, how prevalent it is in the wild, and what needs to be done to save it. As the clock ticks closer and closer to 12 for many species, this work is crucial for the plant kingdom and the animals that depend on it for food and habitat.
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Photo caption: From left to right, Letsara Rokiman from the Parc de Tsimbazaza, Jim Miller, Senior Vice President of Science and Research for the Missouri Botanical Garden, and Richard Randrianaivo, Botanist with the Missouri Botanical Garden, stand in front of Bourreria angustifolia in the wild.