Cycad Conservation

 

Dioon spinulosum

 

 

Encephalartos ferox

The Fairchild Cycad Conservation Initiative

Cycads are the planet's oldest seed-bearing plants and are now highly threatened with extinction. They have outlived the dinosaurs and have been part of some remarkable transitions in climate and ecology. They are a unique and integral part of the tropical world's biodiversity as well as its cultural heritage. Cycads are venerable members of botanic garden collections and contribute an impressive presence in the conservatory or tropical garden.

Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden has one of the largest cycad collections on public exhibit in North America and has had a long history of research in cycad biology and conservation. As part of Fairchild's strategic planning we reviewed the role of this collection as a conservation resource. In parallel to our palm conservation activities we took the strategic decision that conservation of wild plant species is best delivered in their range country rather than over emphasizing the value of overseas ex situ collections.

In consultation with colleagues from the World Conservation Union's Cycad Specialist Group we developed the following strategy that would use Fairchild's geographic location and resources to advance the goal of directly supporting in country conservation initiatives in Mexico, Central America and Africa.

1. Scientific research to support cycad conservation.
Using our joint Fairchild-Florida International University DNA laboratory we are undertaking phylogenetic research to assess evolutionary diversity and species definitions in Ceratozamia, Dioon, Zamia, and Encephalartos. This work is being undertaken in collaboration with colleagues at the New York Botanical Garden, United States Department of Agriculture (Miami), the South African National Biodiversity Unit and the Jardin Botanico Francisco Javier Clavijero in Veracruz, Mexico. This year Jack Fisher a member of Fairchild's Center for Tropical Plant Conservation undertook research on the control of cycas scale-a highly pathogenic insect prest that is destroying wild populations of Cycas in the Pacific islands. Jack's work will focus on the interaction between Cycas stem anatomy and the use of systemic insecticide injections.

2. The ex situ management of high priority species.
Following guidance from the Cycad Specialist Group we are focusing our propagation work at Fairchild on a number of Critically Endangered Encephalartos species from Africa and the threatened Microcycas that is endemic to Cuba. We are members of the Cycad Specialist Group Ex Situ Conservation Consortium managed by Anders Lindstrom at the Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical Garden in Thailand and exchange pollen and seed with collaborating gardens. In addition we maintain a unique cycad DNA bank that is used for research, breeding research and potentially will provide a forensic tool for identifying stolen plants. Our pollen bank provides pollen for our own controlled breeding program and supplies other conservation focused institutions.

3. Supporting in country cycad conservation.
Over the last three years we have expanded our field investments to directly support the conservation of wild populations. For instance we have supported the field surveying of wild populations in East Africa including support to wildlife rangers protecting populations against poachers. In addition we have raised money at Fairchild through our annual Rare Event plant and art auction to fund graduate training of colleagues from the Jardin Botanico Francisco Javier Clavijero (JBFJC) in DNA analysis techniques and in 2006 we raised funds for Terence Suinyuy of Cameroon to undertake a PhD program in cycad conservation at the South African National Biodiversity Institute under the tutelage of Dr John Donaldson, the world expert on African cycads. Africa is suffering from a chronic shortage of trained plant conservationists. A large part of our work at Fairchild focuses on training the next generation of conservationists. One of our Ph.D. students (Jeremy Moynihan) of our joint graduate program with FIU has undertaken a conservation genetics and phylogenetic study of the Mesoamerican genus Dioon, this study is being conducted in close association with colleagues from Jardin Botanico Francisco Javier Clavijero and USDA (Miami) and has received support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Cycads are remarkable plants-they are potent symbols of ancient and lost worlds. Yet they are also part of today's challenge to retain the biodiversity that supports humanity. By focusing our collaborative efforts on the conservation of cycad species we can contribute to the conservation of highly endangered species and also promote the establishment of ecosystem and habitat reserves in tropical America and Africa. By linking our botanic garden resources with overseas researchers and conservationists we can translate our resources into real conservation progress.