The Unknown Wonders of Rare Plants

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I find it hard to think of a more depressing finding than this one: writing in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a team of international researchers predict that thousands of rare flowering plant species are likely to become extinct before humans discover them.

And that’s just from the current pressure from habitat loss on flowering plants—known scientifically as angiosperms; the number of extinctions may increase as climate change takes hold.

For the natural world, the extinction of rare plants has potentially disastrous implications for delicate ecosystems that rely on angiosperms; but for humans, equally sad is the thought of the joy and wonder that will be stolen from future generations of botanists, scientists and nature lovers who would have discovered these rare plants had they survived. Imagine the splendor—the surprise—that will be lost to us.
The United Nations has designated 2010 as The International Year of Biodiversity—most events have focused on celebrations of the diverse species that we already know exist. But according to statement from Dr Stuart Pimm of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, “By asking just how many species we will lose before they are even discovered, our study…is truly alarming.’

Pimm and his fellow researchers found that, in total, up to a third of all flowering plants are under threat of extinction. That finding reflects similar global studies of other species groups by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which estimates that one-in-five of all mammals, nearly one-in-three amphibians and one-in-eight birds are vulnerable to being wiped out completely, the Guardian Newspaper reported today.

“If we take the number of species that are currently known to be threatened, and add to that those that are yet to be discovered, we can estimate that between 27 percent and 33 percent of all flowering plants will be threatened with extinction,” said  David Roberts from the University of Kent, in a press release from the university.

The researchers came upon that figure by estimating the number of flowering plants plants that have currently been identified—around 350,000. By taking into account the rate at which new species of plants are identified, and the growth in new botanists across the world who will be working to discover new plants in the future, the researchers than estimated that another 10-20% of species—or around 35,000-70,000 plants—have yet to be discovered.

Given that new species are likely to be found in biodiversity hotspots—often in tropical climes—where there is currently a high level of habitat loss, they estimated that every single one of those undiscovered flowering plants is at risk of extinction. And that risk may well grow. The paper adds: “The estimates are based on immediate threat, and do not consider further development of destructive factors – including climate disruption.”

In light of this study, my heart goes out to biology teachers around the globe. How to explain to aspiring young botanists that they may enter the field at a time when there are no more new species to discover—not because our restless exploration has exhaustively cataloged them all, but because they have disappeared thanks, in large part, to the destruction of habitat brought by our restless colonization of the globe?