More than half of the world’s palm species may soon face extinction according to a new study.
Scientists conducted a study using artificial intelligence to assess the entire palm family, from tall trees to climbing plants. The international team was composed of researchers from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the University of Amsterdam, and the University of Zurich. They coupled new machine learning techniques with existing International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List data to forecast the future of palms.
Their results were published last week in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.
According to the study, almost half—more than 1,000 of nearly 1,900—of all palm species could be at risk of extinction.
Palm trees are the most useful plant group in the tropics
Palm trees are vital, as they provide millions of people with food, drink, and shelter. They also serve a variety of purposes. They can be used as stable crops, such as for the production of coconut palm oil, or in the making of furniture, rubber, and ropes. The researchers designated Madagascar, the Philippines, Hawaii, Borneo, New Guinea, Jamaica, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Sulawesi and Vietnam as regions of top palm conservation priority.
“We need to do all we can to protect biodiversity and that encompasses more than a thousand palm species that we now know may be threatened,” said study leader, Dr. Sidonie Bellot of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London.
She also mentioned that action was needed to conserve plants on the ground and to collect more data on them, which cannot be done without the people who use the palms daily and live in the regions where palm trees grow.
According to Steven Backman, research leader in Kew’s Conservation Assessment and Analysis team, “The biodiversity crisis dictates that we take urgent action to stem biodiversity loss.”
Backman adds that “we need to use all the tools at our disposal, such as prediction and automation, to generate rapid and robust assessments. The addition of plants to the Red List is one of the vital steps conservationists can take to raise awareness of species at risk.”
Moreover, scientists are concerned about extinction risks to lesser-known wild relatives of popular ornamental or commercially grown palms. They say wild plants are invaluable to local people, but could vanish even before their full potential is determined.
Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, senior researcher at the University of Zurich, and one of the participants of the research, said in a statement that “after this study, we have a much better idea of how many, and which, palm species are under threat.”
“It is our hope that the prioritized list we provide of useful palms facing extinction and of their non-threatened alternatives may foster collaborations across all stakeholders and accelerate actions to conserve them,” said Cámara-Leret.
The researcher also highlighted the importance of palm trees, calling the tree the most iconic and useful plant group in the tropics.
Palm trees are also amongst the most economically significant of all plant families. Hundreds of wild species support millions of people across the world, especially in indigenous communities in tropical areas, such as the Amazon. They provide building materials for homes and tools, as well as food and medicine.
According to the study, at least 185 palm species that are of critical use may be threatened in ninety-two regions. This further emphasizes the need to protect these vital trees.