Cape student rediscovers third “extinct” plant species – and expects to find more
- Brian du Preez, a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town, stumbled upon a type of sweet pea, last seen more than 200 hundred years ago.
- This is Du Preez’s third rediscovery of an “extinct” plant, with the previous two found in 2016.
- Experts think that there might be more “extinct” plants waiting to be found again, but although South Africa has such great biodiversity, much of it is in hard-to-reach places, making these plants difficult to find.
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On the slopes of the Winterhoek mountains, near Tulbagh in the Western Cape, Brian du Preez stumbled upon a plant last seen in 1804. Psoralea cataracta, a type of sweet pea with small white and lilac flowers, was declared extinct on the Red Data List of South African plants in 2008.
This small flower was thought to have been lost to the forestry industry in the province, according to a note in the list. A recent study found that the Cape is a hotspot for plant species extinction, however Du Preez’s recent find offer hope that some are just waiting to be rediscovered.
“There is obviously an element of luck involved,” says Du Preez, who discovered the shrublet on the side of a jeep path, “but it also takes a fair bit of blood and sweat.” He specialises in Fabaceae (the pea or legume family) in the Greater Cape Floristic Region, and so has spent the past six years wandering the Cape’s mountains in search of legume species. So far, he has found more than 800 different Facaceae species – some of which were thought to have died out.
The yellow-flowered Polhillia ignota and Aspalathus cordicarpa had both previously been seen in 1928 and inthe 1950s respectively. Du Preez is hurrying to describe the latter as the area where he discovered it, on the banks of the Riet River in the Swartruggens Mountains, is earmarked for orchard development.
“All the species I have discovered are Fabaceae, unfortunately there could probably be more, but I have far less knowledge on plants from other families,” says Du Preez.
Ismail Ebrahim, project manager for the South African National Biodiversity Institute’s CREW programme, says it’s possible that there are more “extinct” plants are waiting to be discovered, although there are also many species that have not been seen for a long time, intimating that they may have died out.
CREW, which stands for Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers, is a citizen science programme that aims to monitor and survey plants in conservation areas.
“Many of these species are in hard to reach places and because we have this incredible diversity of plants and highly restricted species, we need more focussed surveys to find these species,” he says. “South Africa has over 6,000 species of conservation concern so it is a mammoth task to monitor all the species.”
A major part of species protection involves scientifically describing the species, says Du Preez. This “allows for potential legal protection of species through a red list status”. “
It is also crucial for us to highlight the threat many plant species face, as they are often in more danger of extinction than animals because of a lack of public interest and knowledge.”
This story and headline have been updated to reflect that Brian du Preez is a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town. Du Preez was at Stellenbosch University for his masters and honours degrees.
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