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UF/IFAS Cycad Research Helps Save “Living Fossils”

HOMESTEAD—They were around for the real Jurassic Park, Stone Age plants called cycads that likely fed the herbivorous dinosaurs millions of years ago. Just like the venerable cockroach, these prehistoric plants that look like squat palm trees have survived the ages.

Today, however, many varieties of these “living fossils” are so rare they are being poached from the wild on several continents, prompting scientists at the University of Florida to develop alternative ways to propagate the waning primitive species, thought to have originated in the Permian Era.

“Many of the cycads are on the verge of extinction,” said UF Professor Richard Litz of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead. “Many species exist in the wild in populations of less than 100 individuals. And many of the rarest species exist only as non- reproducing male or female specimens.”

For the world’s rare-plant enthusiasts, Litz said, “This is like collecting art. There are people willing to pay thousands of dollars for some of the rare species.”

Litz, a tissue culture expert, and his UF colleagues have been propagating the cycads in-vitro, using leaf samples from mature plants to regenerate artificial embryos. By nurturing the cycad embryos in a lab, Litz hopes to develop a technology for propagating the cycads commercially. And he hopes to stop an illegal trade that has poachers from Mexico to Australia to South Africa trampling the wilds in search of rare finds that bring big bucks from rogue private collectors.

Internationally, all cycads are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 placed restrictions on export, import and reexport of certain species and requires permits to be issued if the plants are moved from country to country.

“With this tissue culture research, we’ve learned a lot about how very ancient plant embryos develop,” Litz said. “I think this is a significant piece of work botanically, and it should go somewhere toward protecting our heritage.”

Litz’s research has not gone unnoticed and is an important piece of the puzzle in saving the cycad, said Chuck Hubbuch, director of curators at Fairchild Tropical Gardens in Coral Gables.

“Tissue culture research is not the whole answer to solving the problem, but it is a valuable part of it,” said Hubbuch, who is Fairchild’s curator of palms and cycads. “We need to protect the greater diversity of this species. Tissue culture won’t do that, but this research is one way of preserving the species in cultivation.”

Habitat destruction that comes with encroaching development is the largest problem cycads face in the wild, Hubbuch points out. That is followed only by collectors and horticulturalists who will go to great lengths to obtain rare cycads because they “want to have one of everything,” he said, or collect threatened or endangered species for their sales value.

The popularity of cycads has increased in recent years as more has been written about the plants in popular literature, he added.

“There are a few dozen people out there who have the money to get whatever they want and in many cases, these are the rarest species with only a handful left in the world,” Hubbuch said.

Fairchild’s collection of cycads numbers about 1,200 individual plants, including rare varieties that have been collected for conservation and for the use of researchers all over the world, he said.

“What we are hoping is that our collection will help with research and education,” Hubbuch said. “We hope this and a little more awareness will help stem the loss of cycads in the wild.”