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'Suicide Palm' makes it into the Top 10 Species of 2008

Tahina spectabilis joins a 380 million-year-old fossilised fish and the world's longest insect in the Top 10 List of New Species Described in 2008, announced by the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University.

Suicide palm, seen from below (Photo: John Dransfield)

The International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University, together with an international committee of taxonomists - scientists responsible for species exploration and classification - have announced their Top 10 New Species Described in 2008, which includes Tahina spectabilis.

The 'suicide palm'

With fewer than 100 individual plants in a small area of northwestern Madagascar, the suicide palm (Tahina spectabilis) was a truly remarkable discovery in 2008. The name 'suicide palm' was coined when Kew's scientists found out that the palm - commonly known as dimaka - actually flowers itself to death.

This palm's unusual and spectacular lifecycle involves growing to dizzying heights before the stem tip converts into branches of hundreds of tiny flowers, scientifically termed a 'terminal inflorescence'. After fruiting, the entire tree collapses and dies a macabre death. 

The biggest palm ever to be found in Madagascar, Tahina spectabilis was entirely new to science in 2008. The palm has a huge trunk, which towers over 18 metres high, and enormous fan leaves which are five metres in diameter. Each flower, if pollinated, develops into fruit. When in fruit the palm drips with nectar and is surrounded by swarming insects and birds. However, as soon as the palm fruits, its nutrient reserves become completely depleted and the tree collapses and dies. 

Tahina spectabilis is a truly spectacular find and being shown it for the first time by its discoverer, Xavier Metz, was one of the most exciting moments in my career.

Dr John Dransfield, co-author of 'The Palms of Madagascar' and an Honorary Research Fellow of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Confirming the new species

Kew's involvement with Tahina spectablilis began when some material from the palm was sent to the Herbarium. When scientists saw the details of the flowers and inflorescence branches, palm specialists at Kew immediately suggested it was a new species with an affinity to the palm tribe Chuniophoeniceae.

Leaf fragments of Tahina spectablilis were then sent to Kew's Jodrell Laboratory for DNA analysis where this suggestion was confirmed. At this point Kew's scientists discovered that the suicide palm was not just a new species but an entirely new genus. They also discovered that this remarkable palm is from an evolutionary line not previously known to exist in Madagascar.

Plant diversity in Madagascar

Madagascar is home to more than 10,000 plant species and 90 per cent of Madagascar's plants occur nowhere else in the world. The country has a highly diverse palm flora with over 170 known species, all but six of which are exclusively native to the Madagascar region.

Scientists predict that there are fewer than 100 individuals of Tahina spectablis in Madagascar. Only 18 per cent of Madagascar's native vegetation remains intact and one third of Madagascar's primary vegetation has disappeared since the 1970s. Dr John Dransfield, co-author of The Palms of Madagascar and an Honorary Research Fellow of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, had long talks with local people from a nearby village to discuss how they thought the palm could be conserved.

Working together with local communities in the Madagascar region, Kew helped set up a village committee to take control of the conservation of the palm and a patrol to protect the area it was found in. This community now works with Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership to develop a method of selling seed to raise income for the villagers and to distribute the palm as widely as possible to other botanic gardens and growers around the globe. The aim is to ensure the species is conserved both in and outside its native habitat.

Kew has some young specimens of the palm growing at Kew Gardens.

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