The species, dubbed "the rare orchid of the falls," has vanished from the wild
By: April Carson
A plant in the Saxicolella genus that is endemic to a single area of Guinea has been deemed extinct by a team of botanists from Guinea and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the United Kingdom. Following a taxonomic study published this week in Kew Bulletin, Kew botanist Dr. Martin Cheek visited the plant's last known coordinates using Google Earth satellite scans.
The area where the plant was found is now covered in forest, making it impossible to say for certain that the species no longer exists. However, the odds are against the survival of the species, which has not been seen since it was first collected by British botanist Percy Sladen in 1911.
Saxicolella deniseae, a new species discovered in the research, is named after Denise and is known as 'Denise's Saxicolella.' Unfortunately, recent satellite pictures dating November 2021 show that the plant has been submerged by reservoir water from a hydroelectric dam just 30-40 kilometers downstream. According to Dr. Cheek, this development has effectively resulted in the plant's extinction.
The Saxicolella genus of eight species is found in the "orchids of the falls" family, which contains around 300 species and is mostly found in the tropics. While they are not orchids, they are all limited to waterfalls and rapids. The Podostemaceae are a family of waterfall plants that live near fast-flowing, oxygenated water sources, many of which have only recently been discovered. When naturalist David Attenborough referred to the family as "the orchids of the falls" earlier this year on BBC's The Green Planet documentary series, it received much attention.
The family is under threat due to the destruction of its natural habitat by dams and pollution. In China, where many of the species are found, the government is investing in a "waterfall conversation" project in an effort to protect the plants. However, it is not clear if this will be enough to save the Saxicolella genus.
In the meantime, scientists are working to propagate the plants in captivity in the hopes that they can one day be reintroduced into the wild.
Along the Konkouré River in Guinea's Republic of Guinea, Western Africa, S. bicoloricola was thought to occur only in a single location and is now home to several recently erected hydroelectric dams that provide power to the region. The species was discovered by botanist Denise Molmou in 2018—the first and most likely last scientist to see it in the wild—as part of the Guinea Tropical Important Areas (TIPAs) program, an international effort designed to protect plant tropical biodiversity in the wild.
"We know that many plant species have become extinct recently," explains Dr. Martin Cheek, Senior Research Leader in RBG Kew's Africa team, "but we've never seen anything like this before." Many plant species on the brink of extinction may survive for a little longer thanks to these finds. "Because of the dam, numerous waterfalls along the Konkouré where the species may have lived are now beneath hydro reservoirs, so it appears certain that this species has vanished. This most likely took place last year, but we were unaware of it until just recently when we reviewed how close the reservoir had come to the area."
The botanists have been unable to gather and store any viable seeds from the S. deniseae plant, owing to a lack of resources. The COVID pandemic and Guinea's National Herbarium partners' internal turmoil in September 2021 hindered efforts by experts to travel between 2020 and 2021 due on the restrictions imposed by COVID. Dr. Cheek claims that local botanists would have had trouble reaching the plant due to the severely bad condition of the region's roads.
According to botanists at the UGAN-National Herbarium of Guinea, "while it is an enormous privilege to have a species I discovered in the wild named after me, it is really disappointing that it is almost certainly extinct.
Even though the opportunity of finding it alive is slim, I'll seek out other waterfalls to see if we can find it."
Because there were no existing collections of S. deniseae along the main river, the falls on a tributary of the Konkouré River where it was discovered were targeted. Despite the fact that numerous waterfalls could be seen on Google Earth, this indicated that no one had studied plant life in these cataracts before.
It is critical that botanists conduct thorough investigations of plants in waterfalls in tropical regions, particularly before projects to build hydro-electric facilities are implemented. According to Kew's botanists, it takes one or two hours to look for "orchids of the falls" species at a waterfall, after which additional time is required to determine whether they are endangered, new to science, or not. Formal research is generally neglected before such ventures are approved.
"There is still a tiny chance that this species may survive somewhere, somehow," says Dr. Cheek. "However, since the construction of these hydroelectric dams has flooded approximately 150 kilometers of the Konkouré river's length and 30 kilometers of its tributary on which this species occurred, it appears very doubtful that it will ever be found again." We'll keep looking," he adds. "It would be a tragedy if this species is lost forever."
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
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