Holly tree species not seen by scientists in 200 years reappears

Holly tree species not seen by scientists in 200 years reappears

The Pernambuco holly (Ilex sapiiformis) tree has been identified by scientists for the first time since 1838

Fred Jordão

A holly tree in north-east Brazil that was last seen almost two centuries ago and was thought to possibly be extinct has been rediscovered by scientists in a city.

Following several months of research and six days of searching, Gustavo Martinelli at the environmental consultancy firm Navia Biodiversity in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, led an expedition that spotted the small, white flowers of four Pernambuco holly (Ilex sapiiformis) trees in forests within Igarassu.

There has been no other confirmed sighting of the tree species since it was identified by Scottish naturalist George Gardner in 1838.

Martinelli and his colleagues were directed to the elusive trees after two unconfirmed samples of the Pernambuco holly were obtained from the area in 1962 and 2007.

Pernambuco holly can reach 8 to 12 metres in height, but it is still difficult to spot, as it resembles many other species within the same group of trees.

As well as not being identified by scientists in nearly two centuries, the researchers say the sighting was more remarkable still given that the trees were found in a metropolitan area that is home to nearly 6 million people. Once dense Atlantic tropical forest, the region is now mostly made up of urban areas dotted with sugar cane plantations.

“The moment when we found Ilex sapiiformis, it seemed that the world had stopped turning its gears,” researcher Juliana Alencar said in a press statement.

Pernambuco holly is dioecious, meaning that the male and female reproductive organs are on separate individuals. Of the four trees the team identified, two are male and two are female.

Researchers at the Botanical Garden of Recife in Brazil will now study the trees to consider how the species can best be conserved. They plan to return to the site weekly to see if the trees are fruiting and hope to collect their seeds for germination.

Pernambuco holly is one of the 25 most wanted lost species in the Search for Lost Species programme created by the conservation group Re:wild in Austin, Texas. It is also the ninth to be rediscovered by science since the project launched in 2017.

“We don’t often think of plants as being lost to science, because they don’t move like animals, but they are every bit as integral to the ecosystems they are native to,” Christina Biggs at Re:wild said in the statement.

“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.”

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