A seed conservation network for the Mediterranean Basin

An ambitious conservation project based in the Mediterranean Basin has come to the end of its first three-year phase. Sarah Hanson, from Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, describes how seven conservation organisations have come together to protect the flora of this fragile region.

By Sarah Hanson

Mediterranean Garden (Photo: Andrew McRobb / RBG Kew)

Despite its recognition as a biodiversity hotspot, the flora of the Mediterranean Basin remains under threat and requires urgent conservation. In the past three years, Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, along with conservation organisations from six Mediterranean islands, have come together to create a vital network focused on conserving the hotspot’s flora. I have been fortunate to help co-ordinate the final months of this phase and have seen the network achieve its ambitious targets, including the collection of seeds from nearly 1,000 taxa, the setting up of over 2,800 germination tests, the start of four postgraduate research projects and the training of a new generation of seed bankers for the Mediterranean Basin.

The Mediterranean Basin - a biodiversity hotspot

The Mediterranean Basin is a biodiversity hotspot [1] with nearly 25,000 native plant species [2] (more than ten times that of the UK), of which over half are endemic to the region. Despite this, in 2011 protected areas of the Mediterranean Basin covered 90,000 km2, only 4.3% of the total land area [3]. This leaves much of the Mediterranean flora unprotected from changes in land use associated with economic activity, such as tourism and agriculture. Between 1970 and 2002 the number of international tourists to the Mediterranean Basin rose 393% from 58 million to more than 228 million. According to the Blue Plan for the Mediterranean, more than half of the Mediterranean coastline could be under concrete by 2025.

In addition to the threats posed by changes in land use, the flora is threatened by the encroachment of alien invasive species such as Carpobrotus edulis and Oxalis pes-caprae, climate change and pollution. In consequence, thousands of Mediterranean plant species may become extinct. The evidence supporting this view comes from the increasing number of species being included in the Threatened and Endangered IUCN Red List categories following detailed evaluation of their present status and the sad progression of some species from the lower to the higher threat levels. Overall, the number of threatened native plant species in the Mediterranean can be put as high as 11,700.

Island ecosystems

Within the Mediterranean Basin, islands have been identified amongst the 'red-alert' areas for plant conservation [4]. The islands of the Mediterranean possess 41% of the coastline giving them a large responsibility for the littoral zone, which is comprised of a variety of significant and yet fragile ecosystems such as beaches, dunes, reefs, lagoons, swamps, estuaries and deltas. The islands included in this project also have mountainous regions, which provide a rich variety of additional plant habitats. In consequence, islands contain a wide range of habitats within a small but restricted area, reducing the opportunities for species migration in response to changes in any one of the habitats. On this basis, island ecosystems are more fragile than those on larger landmasses.

The need for a tailored conservation effort for islands and greater international collaboration has been identified in the report International Efforts to Conserve Biological Diversity on Islands prepared for the Standing Committee of the Bern Convention [5]. The IUCN’s The Top 50 Mediterranean Islands Plants report highlights an exemplar group of threatened island plant species and underlines the urgent need for a concerted and focused pan-European conservation effort, particularly within the biodiversity hotspot of the Mediterranean Basin. [6]

Ensuring the survival of endangered plants in the Mediterranean Basin

In response to this, the Ensuring the survival of endangered plants in the Mediterranean project, funded by the MAVA Foundation, was launched in 2011. It is an initiative led by seven conservation organisations from Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus, Corsica, Crete, Mallorca and the UK working together to protect the flora of the six islands through ex-situ seed conservation. The first phase of the project ran for three years, from October 2011 to September 2014, and has seen many successes:

  • The development of a Mediterranean Basin collecting plan, prioritising target taxa and populations for urgent conservation. This species list has guided collecting activities so far and will remain an important document, guiding future seed-collecting on the six islands.
  • Seeds have been collected from 974 taxa selected from the target taxa list. So far, nearly 700 of these have been put into long-term storage in the six island seed banks and 900 duplicate collections are backed up at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank. The vast majority of holding data for these collections has been put onto a publicly available internet server (ENSCOBASE). In addition, but depending on possible legal restrictions, these seeds are available for research, conservation actions and other uses.
  • So far, over 2,800 germination tests have been set up to assess the viability of collected seed material and to ensure regeneration is possible. Data from this research, including germination protocols, are available to aid in conservation and restoration activities.
  • The project has enabled a network of seed conservationists in the Mediterranean Basin to be developed. This has improved local conservation initiatives, built relationships and facilitated resource-sharing between institutes and staff working in seed conservation across the Mediterranean, for example linking seed banks with universities and other research facilities. It has promoted a holistic approach to conservation in the Mediterranean Basin, rather than individual projects. This is a major step for Mediterranean plant conservation.
  • 37 joint seed-collecting trips covering all six islands have forged relationships as well as improved local knowledge of the ecology and taxonomy of their flora.
  • Training in seed-collecting and curation has been provided to a number of staff and students. From this pool of recently trained people, members of a new generation of seed-bankers in the Mediterranean Basin are emerging.
  • The project has included higher-level training including four post-graduate projects (two MSc and two PhD) as well as a number of publications. There have also been three PhD summer schools, organised by the Sardinian partner.
  • The project has been widely publicised and helped increase public awareness of the value and vulnerability of the local flora. This includes the creation of a project webpage, which is an informative resource for the public and interested parties as well as an internal information sharing tool.
  • There have been a few pleasant surprises along the way, including the discovery in a gorge in Crete of a population of Hypericum aegypticum subsp. webbii, previously thought to be extinct, and the discovery of populations of Bellium artrutxensis in Mallorca and Ibiza, previously only recorded in Minorca.

The first phase of this vital project has been a success on a number of levels and should pave the way for future plant conservation activities in this fragile region.

Project partners

  • Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK
  • Jardín Botànic de Sóller, Mallorca
  • Mediterranean Agronomic Institute Chania, Crete
  • Conservatoire Botanique National de la Corse, Corsica
  • The Agricultural Research Institute , Nicosia, Cyprus
  • Centro Conservazione Biodiversità, University of Cagliari, Sardinia
  • Dipartimento di Scienze Biologiche, Geologiche e Ambientali, University of Catania, Sicily


[1] Myers, N., Mittermeier, R. A., Mittermeier, C. G., da Fonseca, G. A. B. & Kent, J. (2000). Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities. Nature 403: 853-858. Available online

[2] Quézel, P. (1985). Definition of the Mediterranean region and origin of its flora. In Gomez-Campo, C. (Ed) Plant conservation in the Mediterranean Area (pp. 9-24).

[3] International, C. (2011). Biological diversity in the Mediterranean Basin. Available online 

[4] Medail, F. & Quezel, P.  (1997). Hot-Spots Analysis for Conservation of Plant Biodiversity in the Mediterranean Basin. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 84: 112-127. Available online

[5] Orueta, J. F.  (2009). International efforts to conserve biological diversity in islands. T-PVS/Inf(2009) 1, Convention on the conservation of European wildlife and natural habitats. Standing Committee Report.

[6] Montmollin, B. de & Strahm, W. (Eds). (2005). The Top 50 Mediterranean Island Plants: Wild plants at the brink of extinction, and what is needed to save them. Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK: IUCN/SSC Mediterranean Islands Plant Specialist Group. IUCN. Available online