04/07/2003

World's oldest plant could soon be just a 'frond' memory

The oldest seeding plants on earth, Cycads, are now also amongst the most threatened plants in the world, according to a new publication from IUCN - the World Conservation Union.

The union says that two species are already not found in the wild, and continuing pressures from modern lifestyles suggest that more are likely to join them.

The palm-like plants first appeared in the fossil record about 300 million years ago, well before the dinosaurs roamed the planet. Today, there are about 297 species and sub-species distributed over Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas.

According to the 1997 IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants, 53% of all cycads are threatened with extinction compared to an average 12.5% for plants in general.

The main threats to wild cycads include habitat destruction for farming, mining and urban development, habitat modification, traditional use (medicinal and magical), invading alien vegetation, and the collection of plants and seeds from the wild for horticultural purposes.

"In South Africa and Swaziland, 60% of the decline in populations of Encephalartos cycads could be attributed to trade in wild-collected plants", said Dr John Donaldson, Chair of the Cycad Specialist Group.

"Cycads experience the same problems that many other plant species face, but their biology makes them more vulnerable to human induced disturbance."

With an estimated 270,000 species of plant, cycads make up a small proportion of the total plant diversity. Yet, it is their antiquity and endurance that make cycads so special, providing clues about plant evolution and insights to a prehistoric world, the agency says.

(GMcG)

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