From Plant Press, Vol. 19, No. 4, October 2016.
By Craig Costion
Extinction of species is perhaps the one underlying core outcome that all conservation professionals and biologists seek to avoid. Billions of dollars are spent annually throughout the world from donor organizations, governments, and passionate individuals to prevent species from extirpation. This has proven successful for many species, though to date the vast majority of effort has been devoted to charismatic species or those lucky enough to simply be likeable. Plants, though undoubtedly important to people, seem to lack this money attracting charisma.
A recent study indicated that even though 57 percent of the species on the U.S. federal endangered species list were plants, less than 4 percent of the federal budget for all listed species went to plants. The study found a similar pattern in other countries. This cultural bias, which shows a preference to fund the conservation and study of animals over plants, has become known as “plant blindness.” Many of us are familiar with the saying that many of the world’s plant species are likely to go extinct before they are formally described. Perhaps only a few of us however, can say they have watched this actually happen. What follows is a real life story about the narrow window between plant discovery and extinction.
Timonius salsedoi (Rubiaceae) was described in 1987 by the late Smithsonian botanist, Ray Fosberg and named after a former Peace Corps volunteer that made collections for Fosberg. The species description was based on only one collection from a tiny island less than 1 km2 in the archipelago of Palau. Since Fosberg had collected Timonius extensively throughout Palau, and published a monograph on the genus, the species was presumed to only occur on this small island. I was not entirely convinced, and suspected it was a variant of one of the more widespread species. However, it was equally plausible that this species was a remnant of a once more common species.
Palau is an island complex of ancient volcanic islands (~36 million years ago) and more recent uplifted limestone karst islands (~1 million years ago). Very different vegetation associations occur on these islands and both have a lot of intact forest. The capital city, Koror, sits in the middle of these two major island groups, spread across three small volcanic islands, including Malakal which is the smallest of the three. These three volcanic islands are entirely urban today. Only two patches of forest remain, one of them on Malakal where Fosberg collected the type of T. salsedoi. If Fosberg was correct, then this species may have previously occurred across the islands that are now entirely urban.