Drones yield plant discoveries

Conservationists at National Tropical Botanical Garden have discovered new populations of a number of species listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, including laukahi (Plantago princeps var. anomola).

The discoveries were made in a cliff habitat using drone technology in NTBG’s Limahuli Garden, a 1,000-acre nature preserve located in Haena and considered one of the most biodiverse eco-regions of the Hawaiian archipelago.

“These are some of the first rare-plant discoveries made using drone technology in the Pacific region,” said Ben Nyberg, geographic information systems specialist and lead drone pilot at NTBG.

Due to its isolation and high percentage of endemic native flora, Hawaii is the extinction and endangered species capital of the United States, which makes plant population discoveries such as these a thrilling event, he said.

Exploration of difficult-to-reach areas by NTBG’s field botanists has yielded many discoveries of new species and undocumented populations of rare plants in Hawaii and other island groups in the Pacific. For four decades field botanists have risked their lives rappelling down cliff faces, dangling at times more than 1,000 feet above ground level, to find plants that have only survived due to their remote locations away from invasive species.

Yet, even after 40 years of extreme botanizing, some of the more treacherous areas have remained impossible to access. That is until the advent of drone technology, which has opened up opportunities to conduct botanical reconnaissance more safely and efficiently.

“It’s amazing how much of a game changer this is for field botanists. Discovering a population like this would usually take days of searching under life-threatening conditions, but this happened in 20 minutes,” said Merlin Edmonds, a conservationist at NTBG who assisted in the discovery while training to be a drone pilot.

The rarest plant in this latest batch of discoveries is the native, laukahi. It was previously estimated that fewer than 25 individuals remain in the wild, making it one of the rarest plants in the world.

Just clinging to existence, this species is a part of the Plant Extinction Prevention Program, which collaborates with NTBG to target plants with fewer than 50 individuals remaining in the wild. The discovery of this new population may have just doubled the known remaining individuals.

That is the good news. The bad news is this population is spread across a vertical cliff face that is completely inaccessible to humans, at least with current technologies.

“We’ve always felt that there was something special up there, but until now we’ve had no way of knowing for sure,” said Dr. Kawika Winter, director at Limahuli Garden, as he describes the relevance of such work. “Plants contribute to the fabric of humanity, even the rare ones.”

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