John Dransfield

Pathological palm.
A new species of palm found in Madagascar flowers itself to death.

Suicidal Palm Debuts in Madagascar

A gigantic, suicidal palm tree has been discovered in Madagascar, researchers announced today. The palm represents a genus seen nowhere else in the world--and a unique conservation challenge for a nation with a poor environmental track record.

"This palm really is an amazing discovery," says palm biologist Scott Zona of the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Florida. "It adds a completely new branch to the palm family tree, something that happens very rarely." It's a spectacular find, adds research botanist James Miller of the New York Botanical Garden in New York City. "It makes you wonder how much we've already lost."

Xavier Metz, the French manager of a cashew plantation in remote northwestern Madagascar, found the flowering palm while picnicking with his family 2 years ago. His photos of it eventually made their way to John Dransfield, a palm expert at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in Richmond, U.K. Dransfield was astonished by the palm's appearance, but he was even more surprised by a study of its DNA: Lab tests showed that the palm was a previously unknown genus and species within a family of palms found primarily in Afghanistan, Thailand, and southern China.

The palm bears only a meager resemblance to other members of its family. It is more than 18 meters tall, has fanlike leaves 5 meters across, and, when in bloom, has hundreds of flowers towering above its crown. Its Chinese cousin, by comparison, is chest-high and shrubby. The palm's life cycle is also unusual. Based on an analysis of the trunk, the palm appears to grow for decades before exploding with nectar-rich blossoms that develop into fruit, deplete the plant's nutrients, and cause it to collapse. According to Dransfield, only a handful of palm species flower themselves to death. It's still unclear how long these palms live before their dramatic demise, or how the genus arrived on the island in the first place.

In a study published in the January 2008 issue of Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, Dransfield officially names the palm Tahina spectabilis. "Tahina," the name of one of Metz's daughters, is Malagasy for "blessed" or "to be protected"--an appropriate name, given the opportunity that preserving it presents. That's because Madagascar, long known as an "ecological hot spot," is a conservation disaster, according to some environmentalists. Illegal logging and slash-and-burn practices to clear land for farming--two major sources of income for impoverished Malagasy--have destroyed most of the country's native vegetation, including 90% of its original forests.

Since the discovery, researchers have found 91 other Tahina palms, along with 50 seedlings, all within a quarter-kilometer stretch of the island. That offers Malagasy villagers a chance to reclaim some of what's lost, Dransfield says. He, the Metzes, and local villagers have set up a committee to protect the palm and have plans to cultivate and sell seedlings to botanical gardens and growers worldwide. Proceeds from the sales would come back to the villagers and help fund rural development and education efforts--in hopes, says Dransfield, that the Malagasy people might finally reap some benefit from preserving the environmental resources that remain.

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Posted in Plants & Animals, Environment