'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.

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15 Jul 2009

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Tahina spectabilis detail

Suicide palm (Tahina spectabilis) detail (Photo by John Dransfield, RBG Kew)

Fact box

1. In 2008 Tahina spectablis captured the imagination of the world’s press and news of its discovery went far and wide

2. New discoveries of plants draw attention to the fact that so much of the plant world is yet to be discovered and documented

3. Plant classification, otherwise known as taxonomy, is a vital conservation tool. Without knowing what we have, we cannot protect it

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.

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 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 5 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, the nutrient reserves of the palm become completely depleted and the tree collapses and dies. 

Suicide Palm and Kew

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

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.

Madagascar is home to more than 10,000 plant species and 90 percent 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 less than 100 individuals of Tahina spectablis in Madagascar. Only 18 percent 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 within and outside of its native habitat.

Kew has some young specimens of the palm growing at Kew Gardens located in Richmond, UK.

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Kew's Millennium Seed Bank partnership provides a global insurance policy for one in ten of the world’s wild plants. We aim to collect and store more than one billion seeds. The seeds we save include the rarest, most threatened and most useful species known to man. Find out how your donation can make a difference.

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Other remarkable species that made to to the Top Ten list of newly discovered species announced by the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University include:

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