Endangered plants unlike anything else on earth prioritised for conservation action
ZSL (Zoological Society London) and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew publish list of highly endangered plants with unique evolutionary traits to be prioritised for conservation attention.
Release date: 7 October 2022
A tree species that’s been on the planet since before dinosaurs existed has topped a list of the world’s most evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered gymnosperm plants (a group of plants that include conifers, ginkgo, and cycads). The maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba) has ranked number one on the latest EDGE of Existence list- ‘EDGE Gymnosperms’- the first EDGE list to focus on flora rather than fauna.
Conservation scientists from ZSL (Zoological Society of London) and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew teamed up to review the status of some of the world’s rarest plants-gymnosperms, so that conservation action can be prioritised where its most urgently needed.
Officially launched today (Friday 05 October), the updated 2022 results provide a startling view of the precarious status of the planet’s plant life. As the world faces unprecedented climate events, from heatwaves, to droughts, to floods, the conservation of trees is crucial. One of the planet’s most efficient carbon stores, trees provide unique and unparalleled ecosystem services, and this list provides first-of-its-kind guidance on which species should be protected as a matter of urgency.
Number one on the list, the Maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba) is native to China and wild populations of this species are facing extinction due to human overexploitation, despite the species being widely cultivated. The loss of this tree spells disaster for the species which rely on it in its natural habitat, including leopards and badgers.
Coming in at a close second is the ancient Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis), a species said to have ‘risen from the dead’ as it was only known from the fossil record until 1994, when a living tree was discovered in a remote gorge of the Wollemi National Park, Australia. With only 80 mature individuals now thought to remain in the wild, this Critically Endangered ‘Lazarus’ species is highly threatened by climate change-induced wildfire and was saved by firefighters from the infamous Australian wildfires of 2020.
Alongside rare and lesser-known species such as the Chinese swamp cyprus (Glyptostrobus pensilis) is the Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana)– a common sight in gardens around the world, but alarmingly ranked number eight on the list, and under threat from fires and encroachment from commercial plantations.
EDGE Postdoctoral Research Scientist at ZSL, Dr Rikki Gumbs said: "Whether we are eating them, planting them in our gardens, or using their extracts to treat diseases, gymnosperms provide unique and irreplaceable contributions to our society. Yet, despite the integral role these plants play in supporting our wellbeing and the functioning of natural ecosystems around the world, a staggering number of the most unique conifers, cycads, and their weird and wonderful relatives, are on the verge of extinction.
“Our programme is branching out from our usual focus on animals to shine a spotlight on one of the most ancient and threatened groups of organisms on Earth today. Recent evidence shows that plants provide an incredible variety of benefits to humans, and by protecting the most evolutionarily unique species we can ensure that these benefits—both known and yet-to-be-discovered—are maintained for future generations. Therefore, we are using this opportunity to champion local experts to implement conservation action on the most evolutionarily unique plant species before they, and their untold benefits, are lost for ever.”
Other examples of well-known gymnosperms include the world’s largest tree, the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). The giant sequoia, which is the sole living species in its genus, can live for more than 3,000 years and grow up to 100 metres tall. Animals such as the white-headed woodpecker, pacific tree frog and the northern flying squirrel all live and rely on the sequoia tree. It exists now mainly in protected areas on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range but is currently at high risk of extinction from fires.
Several of these priority EDGE species can be found at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London. In a recent study led by a senior researcher at Kew, Dr Félix Forest, which formed the basis for the EDGE gymnosperm list, it was explained that gymnosperms are among the most threatened living organisms on the planet, with 40% of their species at high risk of extinction. This is about twice as many as the most recent estimates for all plants. It is also higher than that recorded for birds and mammals. Due to their unique traits, losing any one of these species would mean that there would be nothing left on earth like them.
Senior Research Leader at Kew Gardens, Dr Félix Forest said: “It is great to see plants making their official entry in the EDGE of Existence programme. Gymnosperms are a relatively small group of plants with about 1,100 species, but it comprises a high number of peculiar species and isolated lineages, which represent incredible amounts unique evolutionary history. We are now working on applying EDGE to angiosperms, or flowering plants, but with about 330,000 species, this turns out to be quite a challenge!”
Through a two-year fellowship ZSL’s EDGE of Existence programme, in collaboration with Foundation Franklinia, are training and supporting future conservation leaders (EDGE Fellows) to implement conservation action on these unique and threatened plants. This ensures special and localised conservation attention for gymnosperms and the first projects, starting this year, focus on threatened species found in Asia. Among the species receiving dedicated conservation attention are the Eastern Himalayan yew (Taxus wallichiana), chemical compounds from which are used in anti-cancer treatments, and Maire’s yew (Taxus mairei), whose twigs and leaves are used to make wine and tea. Both species are threatened by overexploitation.
As we approach a landmark season for nature with global conferences such as CBD COP15 on the horizon, ZSL is calling for world leaders to put nature at the heart of all global decision making and ensure biodiversity loss is part of wider policy decision-making. You can support ZSL global science and conservation work by visiting www.zsl.org
About Kew Science
Kew Science is the driving force behind RBG Kew’s mission to understand and protect plants and fungi, for the well-being of people and the future of all life on Earth. Over 300 Kew scientists work with partners in more than 100 countries worldwide to halt biodiversity loss, uncover secrets of the natural world, and to conserve and restore the extraordinary diversity of plants and fungi.
Kew’s Science Strategy 2021–2025 lays out five scientific priorities to aid these goals: research into the protection of biodiversity through Ecosystem Stewardship, understanding the variety and evolution of traits in plants and fungi through Trait Diversity and Function; digitising and sharing tools to analyse Kew’s scientific collections through Digital Revolution; using new technologies to speed up the naming and characterisation of plants through Accelerated Taxonomy; and cultivating new scientific and commercial partnerships in the UK and globally through Enhanced Partnerships.
One of Kew’s greatest international collaborations is the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, which has to date stored more than 2.4 billion seeds of over 40,000 wild species of plants across the globe.
In 2020, Kew scientists estimated in the State of the World’s Plants and Fungi report that 2 in 5 plants globally are threatened with extinction.