USC academic helps protect Madagascan ‘suicide palm’

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USC academic helps protect Madagascan ‘suicide palm’

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Associate Professor in Vegetation and Plant Ecology Dr Alison Shapcott with a tahina palm.

1 February 2017

A USC academic has travelled to the remote coastline of Madagascar to help survey and protect one of the world’s rarest trees, dubbed ‘the suicide palm’.

Working with collaborators from London’s Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and local researchers, Associate Professor in Vegetation and Plant Ecology Dr Alison Shapcott recently conducted a full census of the Tahina palm (Tahina spectabilis), which was first discovered in 2006.

The palm is listed as a critically endangered species, due to its unusual characteristic of flowering just once in its lifetime.

Dr Shapcott spent three days travelling overland on rough roads, including ox-cart tracks, to access the African island’s remote northwestern peninsula which is home to the Tahina palm. The site is the only place in the world that the species is found in the wild.

“An adult Tahina can reach up to 18 metres, and for a tree of that size to not have been discovered until 2006 is very unusual,” Dr Shapcott said.

“It’s a notable plant – it flowers in a very conspicuous, spectacular fashion, spreading its seeds around, but dies very soon after that.

“I first conducted a survey in this area in 2008 in collaboration with Kew, and recorded 568 individuals. On this recent trip, we found 740, so we were pretty delighted. It shows that some of the measures we’ve put in place are working.”

Dr Shapcott said a key part of the project had been to engage with local villagers, who took on a custodian role of the palms that included firebreaks and constructing fences to prevent cattle from trampling young seedlings.

In return for their efforts, the locals have been supplied with Tahina seeds to sell to international palm enthusiasts, with funds raised paying for a school and a water well.

“It was really important for us that the local people also saw some benefit from this research project,” Dr Shapcott said.

“Everyone on our research team is passionate about conservation, so it’s been incredible to see how the villagers have stepped up to take care of this very vulnerable species.

“It was my third trip to Madagascar, and every time has been an adventure. There were points where we literally had to repair bridges to drive over them.”

— Gen Kennedy

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