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Long lost sedge now on a knife edge

Last modified: 27 June 2008

St Helena sedge

Botanists hope the neglected tuft sedge has a long-term future on St Helena

Image: The RSPB

The chance rediscovery of a plant - a type of sedge not seen for over 200 years and feared extinct - has delighted botanists working on the remote South Atlantic island of St Helena – a UK Overseas Territory and a noted global extinction hotspot.

Although the plant has been plucked from the pages of extinction, competition from non-native species, including a recently-colonised African grass sweeping across the island, could consign the sedge to the extinction roll-call for good. The plant’s discoverer, Dr Phil Lambdon, has stated that without action to remove the threats from invasive plants, the sedge could be lost within a decade.

RSPB-employed staff working on the island found the plant – one of the world’s smallest sedges. Dr Dave Simpson of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew (RBG Kew) an expert in sedges verified the identification in London.

Napolean

The tiny plant, named by its rediscoverers as the ‘neglected tuft sedge’ was found in a remote, western part of the island, known as High Hill. Prior to its rediscovery, it was last seen in 1806, nine years before Napoleon was exiled on the island for six years after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

Dr Phil Lambdon, one of the botanists who made the chance discovery, said: “At the back of every botanist’s mind is the dream that one day you’ll discover a new plant or rediscover a long-lost one.

"You could stil fit the entire world population of the neglected tuft sedge in a sports bag!"

“Before I arrived on the island, I’d studied the historic herbarium specimens at RBG Kew, which were collected by the English Explorer William Burchell on the island in the early 1800s, but I didn’t believe at that time that I’d actually see the living plant. We have since made more discoveries of the neglected sedge since and we estimate there could be around 4000 plants. Although that sounds like a lot you could still fit the entire world population in a sports bag!”

The plant’s Latin name is: Bulbostylis neglecta. Dr Lambdon added: “We liked the fact that the sedge was christened neglecta; it seemed appropriate for a plant that hadn’t been seen for two centuries.”

Dr Lambdon is working for the South Atlantic Invasive Species project, which is funded by the European Union and managed by the RSPB, on behalf of the St Helena Government, and supported by RBG Kew.

Claire Miller manages the South Atlantic Invasive Species project. She said:  “St Helena’s wildlife has been ravaged by species introduced to the island. Goats, gorse, grasses, and cage birds have all been liberated on the island where they have wreaked havoc with the native species.

“St Helena is a noted extinction hotspot, driven largely by non-native species, and the native birds have suffered more here than many other islands. Of eight species of bird confined to the island, seven have become extinct since the island’s discovery in 1502.

Wildlife secrets

“The rediscovery of the sedge does give some renewed hope that other extinct species may be still be lurking in isolated spots on St Helena. For example, it is not completely beyond possibility that one of the nocturnal seabirds may yet be discovered still nesting in burrows in remote parts of the island. We wonder whether this island has given up all its wildlife secrets.”

Colin Clubbe, who heads up RBG Kew’s work on St Helena said: “When we are losing plant species around the world at such an alarming rate, this exciting discovery gives us hope that species can cling on and that recovery of species is a very real possibility. It also highlights why botanical survey remains a very important conservation tool.

“As well as making sure this small population of plants is conserved in the wild, we will try to collect seeds to be banked at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank for safe keeping and repatriation to St Helena. If we are successful, the seeds will join seeds from almost 22,000 other wild flowering plant species already conserved in the Seed Bank.”

Dr Corinda Essex, Chief Development Officer with the St Helena government, said: “It is very exciting that a further example of St Helena's unique and vulnerable biodiversity has been re-discovered as a result of the European Union-funded activities on the island. Such a find is particularly opportune at a time when St Helena is embarking upon tourism development and ecotourism is one of the niche markets to be targeted. St Helena has few other valuable natural resources, so its comparatively high number of endemic plant species is one of its key possessions.”
 
Mr Ladislav Miko is Director of Directorate for "Protecting the natural Environment" in the Environment General Directorate of the European Commission"  (DG ENV, Directorate B)
Mr Miko, who has a special responsibility for the EU’s Overseas Countries and Territories, said: “The Commission recognises the unique biological importance of the OCTs as an integral component of Europe's rich natural heritage. The recent discovery of the sedge on St Helena and its vulnerability with regards to biological invasions highlights the need to include the OCTs in a possible future EU Framework on invasive alien species currently under preparation.”

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