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Saving the most endangered plants in the world

  • Most of Nagalingum’s recent research focuses on cycads, palm-like plants with stout trunks and a crown of stiff, hard leaves.
  • Cycads are believed to be as old (or even older) than dinosaurs.
  • Of the 300-odd recognized species of cycads today, about two-thirds are seriously threatened by extinction.

When talking about endangered species, we tend to think of African elephants that are killed in huge numbers every year for their tusks; the majestic tiger that is poached for its skin, teeth or claws; or the critically endangered black rhino killed for its horns.

Plants rarely make it to the list. Consequently, many plant species are rapidly disappearing, largely under the radar of public attention.

Nathalie Nagalingum, cycad expert, has recently joined the California Academy of Science. Photo courtesy of California Academy of Sciences.

Now, plants may not look as charismatic as a tiger or as cute as a giant panda, but plants are a critical part of the ecosystem. Fortunately, some scientists have dedicated their lives to studying plants, including ancient, rare ones that are quickly heading towards extinction. Nathalie Nagalingum, currently an Associate Curator and McAllister Chair of Botany at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, is one of them.

Most of Nagalingum’s recent research focuses on cycads, palm-like plants with stout trunks and a crown of lush, stiff leaves. Cycads are believed to be the world’s oldest seed bearing plants, some dating back almost 300 million years. This makes them as old (or even older) than dinosaurs, according to Nagalingum.

This ancient group of plants is also heavily sought after by collectors, frequently falling prey to poachers. In 2014, for instance, thieves reportedly stole 24 cycads — 22 of which are listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red list — from the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, South Africa.

Cycads are also threatened by deforestation and clearing of land for agriculture or urban sprawl, Nagalingum told Mongabay. In fact, of the 300-odd recognized species of cycads today, about two-thirds are seriously threatened by extinction, she said. Many cycad species have now been reduced to a handful of specimens in botanic gardens.

Mongabay interviewed Nathalie Nagalingum to learn more about cycads, and what it would take to save the world’s most endangered organisms.

An interview with Nathalie Nagalingum

Mongabay: What got you interested in cycads?

Nathalie Nagalingum: I started my career as a paleobotanist (a botanist who studies fossil plants), and several years later became fascinated with cycads because they are ancient plants that co-existed with dinosaurs. In fact they are the oldest seed-plant group that exist today; on the other hand, many of their seed-bearing cousins became extinct. Cycads have been on earth for hundreds of millions of years, and I wanted to know—how did a group of plants manage to survive for so long and still be around today?

The more I’ve learned about cycads, the more fascinating they become. Cycads are used in ceremonies or as food. In Vanuatu, cycads are used as a sign of war or peace. They are so important that the flag has two crossed cycad fronds, indicating peace. Cycads are used as food, but their toxins mean they need to be prepared carefully. Around the world different cultures have each figured out how to process the seeds: you must either dry them out or soak them in water. Cycads are only safe to eat when the toxins are gone.

Reproduction in cycads is intriguing and unusual. Each individual plant is either male or female, but it can take many years for a cone to be produced before we know the sex of the plant. In some very rare cases plants have changed sex, but we don’t know how and why this happens. For reproduction, each plant produces one or more cones, and the pollen travels from the male to female cones via insects (weevils and thrips). First, the male cones emit odor to attract insects, next the cones produce odor in a higher concentration to repel the insects. It’s like wearing cologne—a small amount smells good, but a lot smells awful! Interestingly many plants attract insects, but very few plants actively repel insects.

Mongabay: Could you tell us about some of the common cycads we see around us, and a few examples of cycads that are extremely rare?

Nathalie Nagalingum: The most commonly grown cycad is the Sago Palm. Its name is confusing—it’s not a palm and it’s not the source of sago. It is grown in gardens all around the world, and used in landscaping…I’ve even seen bonsai Sago Palms! This species originates from Japan. They are quite hardy and can tolerate cool climates, unlike many other cycad species that prefer warmer climates. They are incredibly slow growing, increasing in size only a few centimeters each year.

On the other hand, most cycads are very rare, and two-thirds are officially listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. A few species are so rare that they are now designated as “extinct in the wild”; this means that they are only known from plants growing in botanic gardens and collections. One of the species that is extinct in the wild is Encephalartos woodii, originally from South Africa. It only exists as male plants. Female plants have never been found, so this plant will never reproduce. When it was first discovered 100 years ago, a cluster of four trunks of E. woodii was found, and all were eventually removed for safe keeping in botanic gardens. Since cycads including E. woodii make “offsets” (clones or suckers from the original plant), there are now many more plants in botanic gardens around the world. Alas, all are male.

The Sago Palm is widely grown as an ornamental plant. Photo by Tanaka Juuyoh (Flickr, CC BY 2.0).

Mongabay: Are today’s cycads really as old as the dinosaurs?

Nathalie Nagalingum: Yes! Sort of! Cycads have been around for almost 300 million years. In fact, that’s much older than dinosaurs. When you see pictures of dinosaurs there’s always a cycad-like plant there. In the Jurassic and Cretaceous, cycads were very common and were found across the globe (even in Antarctica!). But, everything that existed then became extinct, and what we have today is an entirely new suite of species.

A few years ago I discovered that that living cycads evolved in the last 12 million years, that is 54 million years after the dinosaurs died out. This counters the prevailing hypothesis that today’s cycads are relicts from dinosaur times. I like to think about it in this way—the cycad species that we see today are relative newcomers, but their great-great grandparents lived alongside the dinosaurs.

Mongabay: Why are cycads among the world’s most endangered plants?

Nathalie Nagalingum: Cycads are more endangered than any other group of plants or animals on Earth. One of the threats is from deforestation and land clearing. While in the field collecting cycads for my research, I’ve witnessed first-hand the destruction of cycads for urban development, and I have also searched fruitlessly for cycads in areas that have been transformed into agricultural land.

The other major threat is from poaching—cycads grow really slowly, so rather than waiting for a seed to grow, older mature plants are stolen for gardens. These two threats, combined with their biology, have made cycads highly endangered.

All species of Encephalartos cycads, native to Africa, are believed to be at high risk of extinction. Photo courtesy of California Academy of Sciences.

Mongabay: There have been reports of thieves stealing rare cycads from botanic gardens and national parks. Is poaching of cycads a big threat? Are cycads easy targets?

Nathalie Nagalingum: This is a major problem, and unfortunately quite common. Unscrupulous growers don’t want to wait for a tiny plant to grow; they want a stunning mature plant in their garden right now. Some also want every single species in their collection. So they have resorted to theft to get what they want, regardless of the impact on cycad species and botanic garden conservation efforts.

Poaching is harmful to cycads for two reasons. First, they are very slow to grow—a seed takes a year to germinate and produce the first root, then it’s several more months for the first leaf. So once cycads have been removed (by poaching or land clearing) they really can’t re-establish. Second, many cycad species have a very limited range and there are few individual plants. Removing just one plant can have a huge detrimental effect on the entire species.

During my fieldwork across Australia, I have been to sites where cycads were collected previously only to find that there is nothing there anymore. I’ve heard stories of cycads being stolen at night using dynamite to blast them out of rock in a national park, and of rare historic plants dug up from botanic gardens. Some botanic gardens have been forced to store cycads behind locked gates for safekeeping.

Mongabay: Why are these plants so attractive to collectors?

Nathalie Nagalingum: Cycads have an ancient gestalt to them. They have been called dinosaur plants and “living fossils.” They are prehistoric, and it’s like owning a plant version of a dinosaur!

Cycads are architecturally striking plants: their trunks are robust and contrast with the crown of very large, lush leaves. There are a lot of different variations (species)—some have leaflets with huge, impressive spines, others have leaflets that are blue-ish, and others have leaflets that are crinkled like an accordion. And an advantage of growing cycads is that they grow slowly, so your plant isn’t going to grow out of control and take over your garden. Plus they are relatively easy to care for.

There are just over 300 species of cycad and so it’s not impossible to imagine owning all of the species. The problem is that many species are rare and endangered, that means anyone wanting to own all the species is going to cause major problems for cycad species’ survival.

Mongabay: Is it hard to mobilize public concern for cycads than, say, rhinos or elephants?

Nathalie Nagalingum: Cycads are a plant version of an elephant and rhino. They are at risk from poaching and cannot recover afterward. However, cycads are not as cute or charismatic as animals (although I personally think they are beautiful), and so they are overlooked.

Even though cycads are more endangered than any other living group, many people have never heard of a cycad. Yet they know about rhinos, elephants, and pandas. Once you learn about cycads—their ancient history, and how they grow and reproduce—it’s hard not to care about their plight.

Endangered Cycas megacarpa in Good Night Scrub National Park. Photo courtesy of California Academy of Sciences.

Mongabay: What would happen if cycads were to become extinct?

Nathalie Nagalingum: The insects that pollinate cycads rely on them as a source of food, and a location for mating and laying their eggs. Without cycads those insects can’t exist. Consider cycads that are extinct…if we tried to return plants to the wild, the efforts would be “fruitless” because the insect pollinators have become extinct in the absence of their cycad hosts.

We have created the biodiversity crisis on this planet, and we are responsible for what happens to its plants and animals. What a shame it would be to lose a group of plants that existed for millions and millions of years because of us.

Mongabay: What, according to you, needs to be done to protect the remaining species of cycads?

Nathalie Nagalingum: We need to preserve the remaining cycads that we have left. There are many ways we can do this. Land is still being cleared but through greater awareness of these plants, I hope that more efforts will be taken to preserve cycads in critical habitats. I’ve seen urban developments where cycads have been razed. On the other hand, there are other projects where cycads have been rescued by local relocation. Elsewhere, developments have been shifted from one site to another to save rare cycad populations. We need more of these interventions.

Collectors need to remember that their love of cycads is destroying the plants. There are many reputable cycad growers, and it is possible to purchase cycads that have been raised in a nursery, not stolen from the wild.

Botanic gardens have also done significant work in creating “ex situ” populations. These are cycads that have been collected from the wild, typically as seeds, to create a backup population. These ex situ plants are now being used like an animal captive breeding program—they produce seeds to create a new generation of cycads.

We also need a lot more knowledge on the best conservation strategies, and my research aims to fill in many knowledge gaps that we need to conserve cycads effectively.

Mongabay: What will your work at the California Academy of Sciences involve?

Nathalie Nagalingum: The mission of the California Academy of Sciences is to “explore, explain, and sustain,” and this matches the goals for my future work on cycads.

I’ll be exploring cycads in Australia and Asia through field expeditions. While I have already done fieldwork in Australia, there are still many more species of cycads to observe and study before they potentially become extinct. After I collect plants in the wild, I will add them to the CAS herbarium that currently has over 2 million dried plant specimens. I’ll also bring the collections into our lab in the Center for Comparative Genomics to explore new DNA technologies for addressing questions about cycad conservation and genetics.

At the Academy, I will be explaining cycads to the public by sharing my love of these plants and explaining their plight. I hope that people will become “cycad-spotters” and notice cycads in their day-to-day lives. In the past few months, I’ve already made quite a few converts! Once you know what a cycad is, then it’s very easy to start noticing them everywhere. And Sago Palms (Cycas revoluta) are not very difficult to find to purchase and grow.

Given the enormous threats faced by cycads, the focus of my cycad research is to provide the data needed to sustain cycads well into the future. There are many questions that need to be answered. Through DNA studies I’ll be: identifying the hotspots of genetic diversity to target for conservation; understanding the genetic implications of land clearing and deforestation; and providing guidelines for both relocation projects in the wild and breeding programs in botanic gardens.

Mongabay: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Nathalie Nagalingum: My past research indicates that today’s cycad species didn’t evolve alongside dinosaurs. Instead, they evolved because of a change in climate. At 12 million years ago the earth was cooling, and this cool phase has lasted up until the recent. It seems that cycad species evolved in response to this colder climate. However, climate change today is happening much faster than ever recorded. As cycads are very slow growing, it’s almost impossible for cycads to adapt in the same way as they did 12 million years ago—creating yet another threat to the survival of cycads.

Nathalie Nagalingum. Photo courtesy of California Academy of Sciences.