Kew Gardens botanist found rare plant that was extinct for 70 years

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A botanist from Kew Gardens discovered a plant species that was long believed to be dead, after accidentally stumbling upon it at the edge of a waterfall in 2019, has been told. In 2019, Royal Botanical Gardens Kew botanist Martin Xanthos, along with colleagues from Guinea were on a field mission collecting seed samples in Kounounkan, Guinea. It was during this expedition that the team accidentally rediscovered Ctenium sequiflorum, which is a long-lost species of grass, on the edge of a 280m tall waterfall, which had no running water at the time as it was during the dry season.

Mr Xanthos’ colleague, Dr Xander van der Burgt specifically selected this waterfall believing that it may have contained plants in the Podostemaceae family, which only grow in waterfalls and rapids.

Mr Xanthos told “The objective of the expedition was to collect seeds for the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) and plants for the Guinea TIPA (Tropical Important Plant Areas) project.

“This project aims to identify the most threatened habitats for plants in Guinea and the threatened plant species they contain, with a view to work with local officials in implementing conservation measures to protect these habitats.

“Google Earth was used to locate threatened habitats. The species Ctenium sesquiflorum, was not searched for specifically, but was found on the edge of a 280 m high dried-out waterfall in the south plateau of Kounounkan Massif; a large uninhabited table mountain that has more globally unique species than any other location in Guinea and where forest destruction continues.”

Meanwhile, Pépé M. Haba, a Guinean botanist added: “The habitat where the plant was found remains very difficult to access because of the steep sandstone mountains (numerous cliffs) and is also part of the protected areas of the Mount Benna plateau according to the Guinean government. The area was selected for studies of Tropical Important Plant Areas (TIPAs) and seed collection for the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB).

“Although there are human activities upstream and downstream, the mountainside remains out of agricultural use, logging and other activities related to habitat destruction because of the cliffs so the stream is protected by a gallery forest. However, livestock farming is practiced in the area, which has no potential impact on the area.”

Before its rediscovery, the plant was believed to have been extinct for over 70 years, having been last collected in the wild in 1949 at a location some 150km away.

This is why when Mr Xanthos collected the species and brought it back to Kew’s Herbarium and studied it, he was surprised to find what he was looking at. 

Mr Xanthos said the plant was last found in the Lateritic bowal habitat, adding that the area is “characterised by an absence of trees and an orange-red soil surface due to the high iron content in the ground.

The main threats to this habitat are iron-ore mining, though additional threats include artificial fires, associated grazing and intensive agriculture. Because this species, along with several others, had not been recorded over several decades despite many surveys carried out in Guinea, it was presumed, in early 2019, that the species was possibly extinct.

“It was only after the collection from Kounounkan was brought back to Kew, that it was identified as the same species as that collected in 1949.”

As a result of the team’s work, RBG Kew’s scientists have published conservation assessments for around 250 species in Guinea, outlined in the book Threatened Habitats and Tropical Important Plant Areas (TIPAs) of Guinea West Africa. In addition, they have highlighted 22 threatened habitats in need of conservation. (Here’s more info about our TIPAs programme).

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Attempts are also now underway to have government of Guinea declare the Kounounkan forest and plateau a national park.

Dr Xander van der Burgt added: “We are currently looking for additional lost species in Guinea. We have a list of about a dozen plant species from Guinea which have not been seen for more than 50 years. Finding these species would confirm they are not extinct and would assist in their conservation.”

This comes as last week, countries struck a landmark deal to protect a third of the planet’s biodiversity by 2030 at the COP15 UN biodiversity summit in Montreal, Canada.

The agreement included setting targets for protecting vital ecosystems such as rainforests and wetlands, and also protecting the rights of indigenous groups.

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