- After nearly 200 years without a confirmed sighting, a rare Brazilian tree species called the Pernambuco holly has been found in northeastern Brazil.
- The team located four trees, two male and two female, in a forest fragment near a sugarcane plantation in the metropolitan region of the city of Recife.
- The trees live in an area that was once Atlantic Forest, but now less than 7% of its original forest biome remains, mostly in small fragments.
- Researchers plan to search for more trees, protect the rediscovered site, and collect seeds for germination, but say these efforts will be costly.
An expedition team has found a rare Brazilian tree that botanists thought might be extinct after nearly two centuries without a confirmed sighting.
The Pernambuco holly tree (Ilex sapiiformis), which can grow to a height of 12 meters (nearly 40 feet), was found again in March in northeast Brazil by a team led by ecologist Gustavo Martinelli. They located four trees, two male and two female, in a fragment of forest next to a sugarcane plantation in the municipality of Igarassu, part of the greater metropolitan area of the city of Recife in Pernambuco state.
“The moment when we found Ilex sapiiformis, it seemed that the world had stopped turning its gears,” local researcher Juliana Alencar said in a statement. “Finding a species that hasn’t been heard of in nearly two centuries doesn’t happen every day. It was an incredible moment, and the emotion of it was felt throughout the entire team. When I looked at Professor Milton Groppo, I saw that he had tears in his eyes.”
“It was like finding a long-lost and long-awaited relative that you only know by old portraits,” said Groppo, a researcher at the University of São Paulo.
The Pernambuco holly was described by science in 1861, from a specimen collected in 1838. That original specimen was the only confirmed record until now. The team spent months searching herbarium records globally before an unidentified 1962 sample provided a lead that helped Alencar pinpoint survey areas.
The team searched four areas in the Recife metropolitan region. Identifying the inconspicuous greenish flowers among similar holly species was challenging, Martinelli said, but the researchers spotted the four plants on their second day in the field.
“It was exciting when we found the first individual of Ilex sapiiformis, thanks to the keen eyes of [field assistant] Mr. Lenilson [Barbosa dos Santos], who was able to find some white flowers in a tree alongside the dirt road,” Groppo said.
The trees live in an area once dominated by tropical Atlantic Forest but that’s now primarily urban sprawl with sugarcane plantations dispersed throughout. Less than 7% of the original forest biome remains, most in fragments of less than 50 hectares, or about 120 acres.
Since the expedition, one of the trees has already died, Martinelli told Mongabay. The trees grow close to a river, and he said he suspected that flooding had inundated the roots and killed the tree.
“The Pernambuco holly is in an emergency situation now,” Martinelli said.
Researchers want to search for more trees, work with the landowner to better protect the site, and collect seeds to germinate more trees. However, this is all expensive, Martinelli said, and they’re still determining how to fund these efforts.
Re:wild, a U.S.-based NGO, said it’s working with Martinelli to get the area where the Pernambuco holly was found listed as an Alliance for Zero Extinction site since it’s the only known area where the plants live. If the area becomes an AZE site, that could open up more resources to help the Pernambuco holly.
The holly is one of the 25 “most wanted” lost plant and animal species targeted for rediscovery by the Search for Lost Species project. It’s the ninth that’s been “rediscovered” since the initiative began in 2017. Others include the Somali sengi (Elephantulus revoilii), the silver-backed chevrotain (Tragulus versicolor), the velvet pitcher plant (Nepenthes mollis), and Jackson’s climbing salamander (Bolitoglossa jacksoni)
Martinelli said he’s found more than 20 species lost to science during his career. “I love the challenge of finding lost plants,” he said.
“It’s incredible that the Pernambuco holly was rediscovered in a metropolitan area that is home to nearly six million people,” said Christina Biggs, lost species program officer at Re:wild. “Even if a plant hasn’t had a confirmed sighting in 186 years, it could still be hanging on in the last vestiges of the wild somewhere, and this tree is a perfect example of why it’s important to keep looking.”
Banner image of Ilex Sapiiformis courtesy of Fred Jordão.
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