A plant named for its own disappearance isn’t quite so extinct after all. In new research this week, botanists provide clear evidence that populations of the wildflower Gasteranthus extinctus can still be found in the cloud forests of Ecuador, decades after it was thought to have been killed off. The plant’s rediscovery, the scientists say, shows it’s not too late to save or preserve much of the world’s endangered flora and fauna.
The South American country Ecuador is well-known for its rich biodiversity. One of its more famous areas is the Centinela ridge, foothills that are found alongside the Andes mountains in Western Ecuador. Biologists had repeatedly visited Centinela during the 1970s and 1980s, describing a vast array of plant species living in its cloud forests. But it wasn’t long before extensive deforestation had transformed much of the country’s forests into farmland, including those in Centinela. By the early 1990s, the popular writing of biologist E.O. Wilson had cemented Centinela’s plight as a cautionary tale for how quickly life can disappear through human action, especially in smaller habitats.
It can take a long time for scientists to dig through the data and samples collected from the wild and identify truly new species. In 2000, a research team argued that a low-laying herb with bright orange flowers collected from Centinela had to be a previously unknown species of Gasteranthus. But they figured that the plant was almost certainly gone from the world already. And so, with no shortage of morbid humor, they dubbed their new find Gasteranthus extinctus.
It would take another 20 years for scientists to mount a dedicated hunt for G. extinctus and confirm the rumored sightings of cloud forest remnants in the area. Though this research was led by scientists at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, it heavily involved local researchers in Ecuador. The team used satellite imagery to identify potential spots where forestland could still remain (a task made harder by the area’s persistent fog). And amazingly, they hit the jackpot on the first day of their expedition in November 2021.
“As soon as we arrived, we saw that there was still forest. And the most important thing for us to observe when we got there was seeing this plant, G. extinctus,“ study author Dawson White, a postdoctoral researcher at the Field Museum, told Gizmodo by phone.
White and his team collected images of the plant and fallen flower samples from this first site just to be sure, which confirmed the discovery. They were also able to find other areas of forest and other G. extinctus populations. After their expedition, they also verified that photos of unidentified flowers taken by local university students and posted on the app iNaturalist in 2019 were that of G. extinctus. The team’s findings are published in the journal PhytoKeys.
Aside from showing that the reports of this plant’s death were greatly exaggerated, the team found dozens of cloud forest remnants in the region, with some large enough to support populations of howler monkeys. And during another expedition by some of the team’s members just this past March, they documented what might be four new plant species. All in all, White says their work should provide some sense of optimism for those invested in the conservation of endangered wildlife.
“Given its name, the rediscovery of G. extinctus is a symbol for hope—that these forests are not gone. There are still fragments of forest out there, and they’re holding extremely special plants,” he said.
Of course, Centinela’s once rich sources of diversity are still very much in danger. And plenty needs to be done to keep these areas as intact as possible. These conservation efforts, White adds, have to involve collaboration with local researchers and residents, to find the best way forward for people and wildlife to coexist peacefully.
“The message here that I want to reiterate is that these areas that have been written off as destroyed—these areas still hold many treasures,” White said. “And so we need to double down on our efforts to try and understand that diversity, and then hopefully, to conserve it and conserve it in a way that benefits local economies.”
The team is already working with conservationists on the ground to preserve what’s left of Centinela, which will hopefully lead to the establishment of a recognized conservation area. They’re also planning to transport samples of the flower to botanical gardens that might be able to sustain a local population, and they’re working on sequencing its genome, which could theoretically allow the plant to be resurrected in the future if need be. A detailed list of recommendations on how to help the effort, including organizations that members of the public can donate to, can be found on the team’s website.