(ORDO NEWS) — Botanists have found that more than a thousand of the approximately two and a half thousand modern palm species are endangered.
There are especially many such species in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands.
At the same time, a number of rare and endangered palm trees are of great economic importance for people who use them as a source of food, medicine and building materials.
Palm trees (Arecaceae) are widely distributed in the tropics and subtropics around the world. They play key roles in many ecosystems, providing food and shelter for a variety of animals.
In addition, palm trees are one of the most valuable plant families from an economic point of view.
Some of its representatives, such as coconut (Cocos nucifera), date (Phoenix dactylifera) and oil (Elaeis guineensis) palms, have long been domesticated and cultivated on an industrial scale. People also use hundreds of wild species.
Today, many palm species are suffering from overfishing, deforestation, invasive species and climate change.
However, despite the importance of these plants for nature and humans, the risk of their extinction has not been studied enough.
For example, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has awarded conservation status to only 797 of the approximately 2,500 existing palm species (ie 31 percent of the total diversity of the family).
These are mainly species from Africa and Madagascar. However, only 23 percent of palm species have recent status estimates that are less than ten years old.
A team of botanists led by Sidonie Bellot at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, set out to figure out how many palm species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades.
To do this, the researchers collected information on the distribution, human use and threats to existence for 1381 palm species.
They were supplemented with fresh assessments of the conservation status of another 508 palm species. The final sample contained information on approximately 75 percent of the total diversity of the family.
After analyzing the data using a machine learning model, Bello and her colleagues concluded that 703 of the 1,381 palm species studied are threatened with extinction.
If we take into account another 353 species that have been assessed as vulnerable, endangered or on the verge of extinction in publications over the past ten years, it turns out that more than 1000 palm species are threatened, i.e. 56 percent of the species included in the sample.
This is a high proportion, but lower than previous estimates that 69-80 percent of all palm species are at high risk of extinction.
Endangered include 48 percent of evolutionarily and functionally distinct palm species. And among the species used by humans, 29 percent – or 185 species – are endangered.
Species that serve as a source of food or material for building, making utensils and tools are more vulnerable than those that are necessary for the production of medicines or are of cultural importance.
In most cases, rare palm species used by humans can be replaced by related species with similar characteristics if they become extinct. However, no such substitution was found for 16 species.
At the next stage, the authors found out where especially many rare and endangered palms grow. It turned out that in some species-rich regions, more than 40 percent of all native palm trees that are evolutionarily and functionally different or used by humans are in danger of extinction.
Among them are Madagascar, New Guinea, Philippines, Hawaii, Borneo, Jamaica, Vietnam, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Sulawesi.
The results of the study show that more than a thousand species of palm trees may become extinct in the coming decades.
To prevent this, additional environmental measures must be taken. At the same time, species from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands require special attention.
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