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‘Extinct’ fern found clinging to volcano

A botanist traversing a harrowing knife-edge ridge on the South Atlantic's Ascension Island has stumbled upon a little fern long believed extinct.
Image: Conservationist Olivia Renshaw examines a fern, Anogramma asccensionis, that had once been considered extinct.
Conservationist Olivia Renshaw examines a fern, Anogramma asccensionis, that had once been considered extinct. The find lends hope that some long-lost plants may just be in hiding.Discovery.com
/ Source: Discovery Channel

A botanist traversing a harrowing knife-edge ridge on the South Atlantic's Ascension Island has stumbled upon a little fern long believed extinct.

The last time anyone saw one of the delicate little parsley ferns was in 1958. Since then it appeared the native fern was probably crowded out of its rocky nooks and crannies by the more aggressive imported ferns.

Earlier this year local conservation officer Stedson Stroud and botanist Phil Lambon found four of the native ferns growing out of an almost bare rock face under very harsh, dry conditions. In the months since, botanists have used climbing gear to regularly weed and water the little fern patch.

"This is fantastic — a great surprise," said Colin Clubbe, who heads the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, overseas territory program. "It gives you hope that (other extinct species) are hanging on."

Spores from the plants have been used to cultivate more of the exceptionally rare ferns at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the U.K., as well as on Ascension Island.

The small, yellow-green parsley fern, Anogramma ascensionis, was first described by one of the greatest British botanists and explorers of the 19th century, Sir Joseph Hooker, when he visited the island in 1876. It was next collected by a scientist on the north side of Ascension Island's Green Mountain in 1958.

Although no one is certain why the fern disappeared, it's thought to have been crowded out, along with other native ferns, by invasive maidenhair ferns.

Now, with the parsley ferns safely growing in England as well as on Green Mountain, there is every reason to believe they can be replanted in areas where maidenhair ferns have been cleared.

"We're pretty sure it's not going extinct now," said Clubbe.

Among the other extinct plants which Clubbe hopes can defy their official status on Ascension Island is a small shrub of the coffee family named Oldenlandia adscensionis.

"That would be the prize," said Clubbe. "A few cases like these are inspirational" and uplifting at a time when most stories about rare species are rather gloomy, he said.

And more stories like the parsley fern are likely, say botanists, so long as there are people out there looking.

"I think the islands of the South Atlantic are the Galapagos of the Atlantic, and Ascension is the gateway to these sometimes forgotten islands," Stedson Stroud told Discovery News. Stroud has been involved in the re-discovery of no less than three extinct species in the South Atlantic.

Nor is the South Atlantic the only place species can be re-discovered, explained Ellen Dean, curator of the University of California at Davis' Center for Plant Diversity.

"In my experience, the rediscovery of 'presumed extinct' plants has everything to do with exploring previously unexplored lands — or lands that have been unavailable for exploration for decades — or changes in land management," said Dean.

Changes can be as simple as getting weeds under control or using some kind of disturbance or fire to encourage fire-dependent seeds.

"In California, invasive plants and population pressure are major causes of plants losing ground," said Dean. "Funding for ... botanical surveys is critically important when deciding how best to manage lands, because botanists need to get in to see what is there prior to major land use decisions."