Dear Readers, in what seems to be becoming a theme, a plant that is actually named ‘extinctus’ has been rediscovered in Ecuador. Last seen over 40 years ago, Gasteranthus extinctus is a low-growing plant with heavily-veined leaves and bright orange flowers. Botanists had extensively surveyed the cloud forests in the Centinela region of Western Ecuador, and had discovered dozens of species of plants that were believed to be unique to the area. Sadly, by 1990 it was thought that the entire cloud forest had been destroyed to make way for farmland, and that these endemic species had also been destroyed. The extent of the deforestation was so great that the biologist E.O Wilson coined the term ‘Centinelan destruction’ in 1992, to describe plant species which are driven to extinction before they can even be described by science.
However, the most recent study has shown that a number of supposedly extremely local plants, including Gasteranthus extinctus, were not quite as local as was thought. ‘Our’ plant has been found at no less than five other sites, all fragments of the cloud forest that have not been destroyed. Although these are undoubtedly degraded habitats, they are enabling not only plants but other forest inhabitants to cling on, including the Ecuadorian Mantled Howler Monkey ( (Alouatta palliata aequatorialis), listed as Vulnerable by CITES.
Little is known about Gasteranthus extinctus, but its bright orange colour and strangely-shaped flowers has suggested to some botanists that it may be hummingbird-pollinated, not unusual amongst the cloud-forest dwelling plants of the region.
What the rediscovery of this ‘extinct’ plant points up to me is a variety of things. Firstly, how resilient nature can be, and how plants and animals can cling on in even in degraded and fragmentary habitats – there are lessons for us here in the UK, where some of the rarest insects are living in brown-field sites that seem most unpromising from a human perspective. Secondly, how much greater the chance of survival for a variety of species could be if these fragments were joined up – the risk of isolated populations is always that the genetic diversity is reduced, leaving species much more vulnerable to disease/climate change/human interference. And finally, we should never give up. The world is much more complicated, and astonishing, than we can comprehend.