In the few remaining patches of cloud forest in western Ecuador, a team of botanists and ecologists just found a flowering herb that scientists hadn’t seen in 40 years. Its extinction seemed so certain that it’s even named “extinctus.” But although its habitat is broken up and isolated, the species is alive and well and offers hope for the future of conservation.
“A Mythical Place For Tropical Botanists”
When biologists named an Ecuadoran tropical flowering herb Gasteranthus extinctus in 2000, they were mourning for a species that, surely, had already been lost to clear-cutting for commercial farms. Scientists had collected the first specimens of the bright orange flower in 1985 from a place in western Ecuador called Centinela Ridge, amid the humid cloud forests that once covered the foothills of the Andes Mountains. By 2000, the cloud forests of Centinela Ridge were gone – cut down and plowed under to plant fields of bananas and a handful of other crops. Along with the forests went an untold number of plant and animal species that existed nowhere else on Earth.
“Centinela is a mythical place for tropical botanists,” said Nigel Pitman, an ecologist at the Field Museum in Chicago, who co-led the expedition, and co-authored a recent paper in the journal PhytoKeys, with Field Museum botanist Dawson White.
The destruction was so complete and so devastating that it coined a term: Centinelan extinction, the sudden, apocalyptic extinction that befalls organisms who live in a small, very particular habitat when that habitat is destroyed. When ecologists discover a new species, the first specimen they collect is called the “type specimen,” and it becomes the standard for the species.
Centinela Ridge became the type specimen for a particular kind of extinction, but species all over the world are vulnerable to it. The Texas blind salamander, along with the blind shrimp on which it feeds, lives only in a single pool of water in a central Texas cave. Only 60 Javan rhinos are left in the world, and they all live in one national park on the Indonesian island of Java. And along Ecuador’s Centinela Ridge, a small herb with blazing orange flowers had made its only home in the world.
Biologists were sure that G. extinctus, along with several other plant species, had been casualties of the deforestation of Centinela Ridge. The losses were part of a devastating pattern in Ecuador; 97% of the forests that once covered the western part of the country are now gone, leaving behind only small patches of forest amid the new farmland.
So despite the news that in recent years, a handful of other species, believed lost in the mass destruction of the cloud forests, had turned up alive and well in isolated patches of forest, Pitman and White and their colleagues weren’t sure what to expect when they ventured to Centinela Ridge last year in search of a plant whose very name proclaimed its loss. They weren’t even sure they’d find a patch of forest to search; it’s hard to spot the last fragments of Ecuador’s cloud forests in satellite images, because clouds often obscure the ground.
What they found was a ray of hope. The cloudy spot on the satellite images turned out to be a surviving patch of cloud forest. And G. extinctus had been there all along.
“We walked into Centinela thinking it was going to break our heart,” said Pitman. “Instead we ended up falling in love. Finding G. extinctus was great, but what we’re even more excited about is finding some spectacular forest in a place where scientists feared everything was gone.”
“Was It Really That Easy?”
The botanists spotted the telltale flash of neon orange almost immediately.
They’d stepped into the humid tropical forest just two hours earlier, expecting a long, tedious search with no guarantee of success. However, there it was, growing in the humid understory alongside a waterfall on a private reserve called Bosque y Cascada Las Rocas. Pitman, White, and their colleagues recognized it immediately; after all, G. extinctus is a pretty distinctive plant. Its flowers are brilliant orange form round, pot-bellied pouches, with small openings at the top for pollinators to come and go. Small, poky hairs line its stem.
“We were really excited, but really tentative in our excitement,” said Pitman. “We thought, ‘Was it really that easy?’” They sent photos to a taxonomy specialist for confirmation, and word came back quickly: the plant beside the waterfall was G. extinctus, not actually extinct at all. The team of botanists took more photos and carefully collected a few fallen blossoms from the ground around the plant; they weren’t willing to risk killing the last living member of a species just to prove it existed.
But in other fragments of the once sprawling forest, they found more G. extinctus. That gave them the chance to take a few specimens, including samples of leaves, which will be used for DNA sequencing to learn more about the species and how it’s related to other plants. Soon, the team had even managed to identify a few photos of the “lost” flower on a citizen science mobile app called iNaturalist.
Now Pitman, White, and their colleagues are working with Ecuadroian conservationalist to protect the last few fragments of the Centinela Ridge forests. They’re not only the last outposts of G. extinctus, they might be home to other species thought lost for decades – or ones science hasn’t even discovered yet.
“It’s Not Too Late”
“Rediscovering this flower shows that it’s not too late to turn around even the worst biodiversity scenarios, and it shows there’s value in conserving even the smallest, most degraded areas,” said White. “It’s not too late to be exploring and inventorying plants and animals in the heavily degraded forests of western Ecuador.”
In fact, White and Pitman say that the long-lost flower was presumed dead for 40 years mostly because scientists were so quick to give up hope and accept Centinela Ridge and its ecosystem as a total loss. The scientists who gave G. extinctus its name were top figures in their field, according to Pitman, and no one thought to question them or the others who described the ecological catastrophe that befell the cloud forests – until recently.
Just as there’s a word for extinction events like the one on Centinela Ridge, there’s also a word for species like G. extinctus, which seem to come back from the dead. They’re called Lazarus taxa, and they’re a ray of hope.
“There are still a lot of important species that are still out there, even though overall, we’re in this age of extinction,” said White.