Rare wildflowers back from the brink

It’s a great week for plant lovers, as not one but two species of flower previously thought extinct have been found alive on opposite sides of the world.

The herb Gasteranthus extinctus, native to the cloud forests of Ecuador, received its scientific name in the year 2000.

Its forest home in the Centinela Ridge at the foothills of the Andes mountains was known to be almost completely destroyed in the 1980s, with over 97% of forest in western Ecuador converted to farmland.

The scientists who selected the name suspected that the plant was already gone from the Earth. The species name “extinctus” was intended as a warning.

Happily, it turns out that that assumption was incorrect.

Ecologists Dawson White and Nigel Pitman, both of the Field Museum in Chicago, US, used satellite images to try to identify regions of remnant rainforest where rare tropical plants might still survive. In November 2021, they set out for Ecuador with an international team of botanists to try to discover whether G. extinctus truly lived up to its name.

Gasteranthus extinctus fieldwork four researchers in a lush rainforest, one holding up a camera
Part of the team that rediscovered Gasteranthus extinctus traverses steep ravines in the forests of coastal Ecuador in search of rare plants. From left: Washington Santillán, Sr. Hermogenes, Alix Lozinguez, and Nicolás Zapata. Credit: Thomas L. P. Couvruer.

“As soon as we got on the ground we found remnants of intact cloud forest, and we spotted G. extinctus on the first day, within the first couple hours of searching,” recalls Pitman.

“We were really excited, but really tentative in our excitement – we thought, ‘Was it really that easy?’” he says.

As the expedition continued, the team identified more G. extinctus plants and were able to collect specimens for DNA analysis and museum collections. They even verified previously unidentified photos from the citizen science app iNaturalist as being of G. extinctus.

The research team are now working with local conservationists in Ecuador to protect the remnant forests that host G. extinctus and other endangered plants.

G extinctus specimens 850
The team presses and preserves the plant specimens collected during the day. Credit: Riley Fortier.

“Rediscovering this flower shows that it’s not too late to turn around even the worst-case biodiversity scenarios, and it shows that there’s value in conserving even the smallest, most degraded areas,” says White.

“We walked into Centinela thinking it was going to break our heart, and instead we ended up falling in love,” says Pitman. “Finding G. extinctus was great, but what we’re even more excited about is finding some spectacular forest in a place where scientists had feared everything was gone.”

Back on our shores, Australian scientists have found a species of native orchid presumed extinct growing near Mount Kosciuszko.

Closeup photograph of a mignonette leek orchid with small white flowers
The mignonette leek orchid, or Prasophyllum morganii, has also recently been rediscovered after being thought extinct. Image supplied.

The mignonette leek orchid (Prasophyllum morganii) had not been observed since 1933 and is considered extinct under the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988.

However, a team of scientists from Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, La Trobe University and the Australian National University have shown that orchid specimens collected in 2000 in Kosciuszko National Park in New South Wales actually belong to this rare species.

“It was a pleasant surprise to learn that Prasophyllum morganii is still in existence, however, it is still endangered, and we need to protect it,” says co-author Noushka Reiter, a senior research scientist at Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.

Of the estimated 207 species in the native orchid genus Prasophyllum, 39 are considered endangered, critically endangered or vulnerable.

Study co-author Bronwyn Ayre, from La Trobe University, highlighted the key role of herbarium collections in confirming the mignonette leek orchid’s survival.

The State Botanical Collection in Victoria houses 1.5 million dried specimens of plants, algae and fungi.

“It was amazing to be able to compare flowers collected over 90 years ago to ones we just collected ourselves,” says Ayre.

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