Scientists are searching for a female partner for the world's 'loneliest' plant

Scientists are searching for a female partner for the world's 'loneliest' plant

E. woodii is a member of the cycad family, it is a bulky plant with thick stems and large and stiff leaves that form an imposing crown.

E. Woody A member of the cycad family, this is a massive plant with a thick stem and large stiff leaves that form a spectacular crown. | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“It is certainly the loneliest creature in the world,” wrote paleontologist Richard Fortey. in his book About the evolution of life.

he was talking Encephalartos woodii ,E. Woody), a plant from South Africa. E. Woody A member of the cycad family, heavy plants with thick stems and large stiff leaves that form a majestic crown. These flexible living plants have survived longer than the dinosaurs and multiple mass extinctionsOnce widespread, these species are today among the most endangered species on Earth.

the only known wild E. Woody It was discovered in 1895 by botanist John Medley Wood during a botanical expedition to the Ngoye Forest in South Africa. He also discovered other species nearby, but No one could be foundOver the next few decades, botanists broke off stems and branches and grew them in gardens.

Fearing that the last stem would be destroyed, the Forest Department removed it from the wild in 1916 and placed it in a protective enclosure in Pretoria, South Africa, making it a wild plant. extinct in the wild.The plant has since been propagated worldwide. E. Woody An existential crisis looms. All the plants are clones of the Ngoye specimen. They are all males, and natural reproduction is impossible without females. E. Woody This is a story of both survival and loneliness.

My team's research The study was motivated by the dilemma of the solitary plant and the possibility that the female might still be there. Our research involves using remote sensing technology and artificial intelligence to aid the search for the female in the Ngoye Forest.

The Evolution of Cycads

Cycads are one of the oldest living plant groups alive today and are often referred to as “living fossils” or “dinosaur plants”, as their evolutionary history dates back to the Carboniferous period, about 1500 million years ago. 300 million years agoThese plants were ubiquitous during the Mesozoic Era (250-66 million years ago), also known as the Age of Cycads, thriving in the warm, humid climate that characterized the period.

Although they look like ferns or palms, cycads are not related to either. Cycads are gymnosperms, a group that includes conifers and ginkgoes. Unlike flowering plants (angiosperms), cycads reproduce using cones. It is impossible to tell the males and females apart until they mature and form their spectacular cones.

Female cones are usually broad and round, and male cones appear long and narrow. Male cones produce pollen, which is carried by insects (weevils) the female conesThis ancient method of reproduction has remained largely unchanged for millions of years.

Despite their longevity, today cycads are among the most threatened organisms on Earth, with most species considered endangered. threatened with extinctionThis is due to their slow growth and reproductive cycle, which typically takes ten to 20 years to mature, and habitat loss due to deforestation, grazing and overcollection. Cycads have become symbols of botanical rarity.

Their attractive appearance and ancient ancestry make them popular in exotic ornamental gardening and this has led to illegal trade. Rare Cycads Exorbitant prices From US$620 (£495) per cm Some samples for sale Millions of pounds eachPoaching of cycads is a threat to their survival.

It is one of the most valuable species E. WoodyIt is protected in botanical gardens with security measures such as cages designed with alarms Deterring predators,

AI in the sky

In our quest to find a woman E.woodie We have used innovative technologies to explore forest areas from a vertical perspective. 2022 And 2024Our drone surveys covered an area of ​​195 acres, or the size of 148 football fields, generating detailed maps from thousands of photographs taken by the drones. This is still just a small part of the Ngoye Forest, which stretches over 10,000 acres.

Our AI system increased the efficiency and accuracy of these searches. E. Woody Believed to be extinct in the wild, synthetic images were used in training the AI ​​model to improve its capability through image recognition algorithm. Identify Cycads by Shape in different ecological contexts.

Plant species globally are disappearing at an alarming rate. Since all existing E. Woody Although these samples are clones, they are likely to have limited genetic diversity due to environmental changes and disease.

Notable examples include the great famine in Ireland in the 1840s, where the uniformity of cloned potatoes exacerbated the crisis, and the susceptibility of cloned Cavendish bananas to Panama disease, a serious disease. threats to their production As was the case with the Gros Michel banana in the 1950s.

finding the female would mean E. Woody It is no longer on the brink of extinction and could revive the species. Having females would enable sexual reproduction, add genetic diversity and help conservation efforts.

E. Woody It's a grim reminder of the fragility of life on earth. But our quest to find a woman E. Woody This shows that there is hope for even the most endangered species if we act fast.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Original article,

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