According to the IUCN Red List Guidelines: “a taxon is Extinct when there is no reasonable doubt that the last individual has died.” However, a recent paper published in Nature Plants has identified 17 plant species endemic to Europe, previously considered extinct, that have now been brought out of this category.
The researchers reviewed the status of 36 European plant species listed extinct in sources such as scientific publications and red lists – finding that 17 should in fact be delisted.
Four of these species were rediscovered. The authors write in the paper that “It is noteworthy that plant rediscovery has happened in an area of the world well known and widely explored by thousands of botanists and citizen scientists.”
One of these rediscovered species is Ornithogalum visianicum, rediscovered on the Island of Velika Palagruža, Croatia. The authors state that for this species, “Legal protection and urgent ex-situ and in-situ conservation measures are needed.” Another rediscovered species is Ligusticum albanicum, found in the Prokletije and Korab mountains of Albania.
Two species previously thought to be completely extinct have been found again in botanic gardens, subject to off-site conservation measures before their extinction. They therefore should be reclassified as extinct in the wild. Surprisingly, in many cases, institutions are completely unaware that they host samples of species that are extinct in their natural habitat, therefore underestimating the level of responsibility they hold for these plants.
One is Armeria arcuate, a species native to Portugal, samples of which now reside in The Utrecht University Botanic Gardens. The second species is Hieracium hethlandiae, a plant native to the Shetland Islands in Scotland. The species is now cultivated by the Shetland Amenity Trust in Lerwick and has recently been reintroduced back into the wild.
The authors say that the species that have been rediscovered in the wild or found in botanic gardens should “urgently be included in fast-track conservation frameworks to avoid re-extinction.” This includes legal protection and population mapping and monitoring, driving the implementation of protected areas or micro reserves. Another measure is ex-situ collections – the origin of the species rediscovered in botanic gardens – such as seed banking and collection of living specimens. However, they stress that this should take place slowly over the course of multiple years to reduce pressure on the already sparse wild populations.
While this study is a rare ray of hope in the area of conservation, the extinction of plant species should still be taken seriously, with the authors stating that “the list of extinct species will become longer if direct threats to several plants endemic to Europe do not cease soon.”