The daredevil, the vanishing green sphinx and the plant that found a friend

Brighamia insignis - vulcan palm

High on a sea cliff on the Hawaiian island of Kauai grows a strange and very special plant. Its grey stem is swollen at its base to conserve water, and atop the stem sits a rosette of shiny green leaves. “It sort of looks like a cabbage on a bowling pin,” says Steve Perlman, the botanist who has repeatedly risked his life to save it from extinction.

The plant is Brighamia insignis, and it’s a species with many problems. Like 90 percent of Hawaii’s 1,200 native plant species, it grows nowhere else on Earth. And like hundreds of those species, it is under threat. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List ranks it as critically endangered. Perlman wants to stop it joining the more than 100 Hawaiian plant species that have already gone extinct.

Hawaii is a special place. For millions of years its species evolved in isolation, free from our distorting influence. That all changed around 1500 years ago when the first Polynesian people arrived.

Those original Hawaiians found in Brighamia insignis a minor pharmacy. They ate the plant raw to treat tuberculosis, or mixed its crushed leaves with salt to treat infected cuts. They may even have cultivated this plant for its medicinal properties, as they did with its close relative Brighamia rockii on the island of Molokai. But overall, the arrival of people in Hawaii spelled trouble for Brighamia insignis.

The Polynesians and, more so, the Europeans who arrived in the 1700s, disturbed the local ecology, bringing new species that could out compete the native ones. Feral goats, rats and invasive weeds have all taken their toll. Many species suffer from such a surfeit of enemies, but Brighamia insignis has also lost a friend: the insect it relied upon to pollinate its fragrant flowers.

Each flower is made of five petals that are fused along most of their length so they form a long trumpet shape that opens to form a five-pointed star. The nectar is so far from the opening that only the long proboscis of a butterfly or moth could reach it.

Perlman thinks its natural pollinator is a large moth called the fabulous green sphinx of Kauai. This species is so rare that until 1998 it was thought to be extinct, not having been seen for decades. No pollination, meant no seeds, no future generations to replace the older plants that died each year. “That is why I began doing the pollinating,” says Perlman.

In the 1970s, he spearheaded action to save the species. The plant’s rarity called for extreme measures. To find Brighamia insignis, Perlman first had to take to the sea, battling rough waves in a bright red canoe to reach otherwise inaccessible parts of the rugged coastline. He then had to haul himself up the sheer sea cliffs without a rope.

Video footage of Perlman in action makes for dizzying viewing. As he climbs, his fingers dislodge great chunks of crumbling rock. “It is exciting and thrilling to say the least”, he says. “But that is where the plants are.”

Only once he was on the clifftop, 3,000 feet above the sea, could he secure a rope. Now the botanising could begin. Perlman abseiled back down the cliff, bouncing himself across its face in search of Brighamia insignis plants. He patiently transferred pollen between plants, by hand, to ensure they would produce seeds. He would return months later to harvest the seeds, so they could be grown into adult plants in controlled conditions.

Back in the 1970s when Perlman began working with Brighamia insignis there were a couple of hundred of these plants on Kauai. But two hurricanes wiped many of them out. “As far as we know there is only one plant left in the wild on Kauai,” he says. The species no longer exists on Ni’ihau, the other island where it once grew.

But thanks to Perlman’s bravery and dedication, there are now hundreds of thousands of Brighamia insignis in cultivation, especially in Europe, where they are now popular houseplants. Perlman and colleagues at Hawaii’s Plant Extinction Prevention Program have also planted hundreds of their nursery-grown plants back in the wild.

“We will not lose this species,” says Perlman. In rescuing Brighamia insignis, he learnt cliff-climbing skills that have benefited many other rare plants. But of all the species Perlman has worked with in his 44 years of botanising, Brighamia insignis and its sister species Brighamia rockii are his favourites.

“I love to work with them on the cliffs where they grow,” he says. “I like their shape with the large swollen base and long fragrant flowers. They grow in incredible places in Hawaii and it is a thrill to have helped save them from extinction.”

For Perlman it is personal. He has witnessed the extinction of twenty species, something he has described as being like losing a family member. The main reason he endeavours to save Brighamia insignis, is simply because it exists, and so deserves to endure. This curious plant may have lost its pollinator, but in Perlman at least, it has found a new best friend.

Photo credit: Forest Starr and Kim Starr  (Wikimedia / Creative Commons)

A version of this article first appeared in BBC Earth magazine.


Can eulogies for lost species help prevent future extinctions?


I sometimes ask people if they can name an extinct species and am never surprised when they cannot list much more than the dodo or the dinosaurs.

Yet, hundreds of species have become extinct since the year 1500. So why do so few people know about them? It may be that we lack rich stories of individual vanished species, with which to connect and relate.

Daniel Hudon’s new book Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals is an attempt to fill this gap for a hundred of the lost species. The pages are filled with tributes to many birds, as well as frogs and snakes and antelopes, monkeys, mice and marsupials.

“I felt these species deserved to be better known,” Hudon told me. “I felt they could be celebrated more. They evolved on the tree of life just like we did and it’s our fault they’re gone so I wanted to acknowledge them somehow.”

Hudon brings into stark focus the final moments of species such as the Laysan honeycreeper — whose last three individuals were obliterated by a sandstorm in 1923. This extinction happened just days after an expedition managed to find and film one of the birds singing. The film, like the bird now, is sadly silent.

Hudon hints at how other species met their end. He tells how the last people to see the Wake Island rail were Japanese soldiers who, during World War II, found themselves on the atoll in the middle of the Pacific. The soldiers were stranded, and starving…

Many of the lost species evolved on islands where no humans had trod – where paradise was not yet lost. Hudon tells how, as people came to settle, to fell trees and collect feathers and hunt for meat, the tide soon turned on these island innocents.

Alone, our species might have left more alive, but we brought rabbits and cats and rats that ravaged the native flora and fauna. Nature got redder in tooth and claw.

Hudon is not alone. In 2016, the New York Times published this eulogy when the last known Rabb’s tree frog died. Outside Magazine published an obituary for the Great Barrier Reef. And John Platt has spent more than a decade documenting dead and dying species.

His Extinction Blog evolved into Scientific American’s Extinction Countdown and has now dispersed to a new home at The Revelator. “I have lost track of how many extinctions I have written about over the years,” Platt wrote in 2014. “There will be more to come.”

Indeed there will.

Some of Hudon’s eulogies are just half a page or, in the case of the Tahitian sandpiper, only four poetic sentences. Others are longer. In them, Hudon stirs black-and-white facts into the rainbow of his imagination. He quotes poets and writers. So we learn what Borges and Blake thought of beasts that are now forever beyond our gaze.

Hudon wrote his eulogies to celebrate lost species in the hope they won’t be forgotten. They are reminders that as one species goes extinct another takes its place, next-in-line on the grim conveyor belt that is accelerating as it rumbles into our future.

In telling these stories Hudon may help to slow that machine.


*Read an extract of Brief Eulogies for Lost Animals by Daniel Hudon in the August 2017 edition of the journal Alterity.

Related posts:

Unhappy endlings: What tales of the last days of extinct and dying species can bring to our own story

Photo credit: Extinct animals cemetry, Beijing — Shizhao/Wikimedia Commons; sunset — PJL/Wikimedia Commons

Film credit: The Swan Song of the Laysan Honeyeater (Donald Ryder Dickey, 1923) / Wikimedia Commons

The empty forest where 100+ bird species are feared extinct


In the latest study to report rapid loss of wildlife, researchers estimate that 106 bird species have disappeared from an area of forest in Mengsong, in China’s Yunnan province.

The air there should be full of bird song: Yunnan lies in the zone where the tropics and subtropics meet and is one of the most biologically diverse areas of the planet.

There’s plenty of high quality habitat too. Amid Mengsong’s villages and paddy fields and plantations of tea and rubber, about 50,000 hectares of natural forest stand tall. Nearly three-quarters of this is protected in a nature reserve, created in 2009. The amount of forest cover has been stable since 1988. If anything, it has increased.

But when biologist Rhett Harrison* and colleagues spent two years looking for the birds in and around the nature reserve, they failed to find more than 40 percent of the species that should be there.

Their study, published this month in the journal PLoS One, rules out disease, habitat loss, predation and climate change as likely culprits. Instead it blames hunting for most of the losses.

Hunting pressure in Mengsong is extremely high, despite the fact that gun ownership has been illegal in China since 1996. In fact, the researchers spotted 59 hunters in just 107.5 hours of looking out for them. They write:

“In addition to people with guns, we frequently encountered hunters employing nets and snares. The use of nets, in particular, indicates that hunters are actively harvesting even the smallest birds, which they barbeque on skewers.”

In 2012, Harrison recorded a similarly rapid loss of wildlife from a forest in Malaysia. He told me he thinks the situation in Mengsong is typical of that “over all of South China and large parts of tropical South-East Asia.”

This raises questions about the value of creating more protected areas if they are not in fact protected at all. In 2010, China, along with nearly every other country, agreed a global conservation target, which said protected areas should be expanded to cover 17% of the planet’s terrestrial area by 2020, and that these areas should be effectively and equitably managed.

“Everyone is focusing on the former part but very few on the latter,” says Harrison. “People need to recognise that there may be a compromise in countries that are already struggling to deliver management of their existing reserves.”

Harrison and colleagues are keen to point out that they do not blame the authorities responsible for Mengsong’s nature reserve, as most of the local bird extinctions happened before it was created.

Nonetheless, what they show is that yet another protected forest is falling quiet with the silence of extinction. When the birds go, it is more than just their songs and calls we lose. The challenge is for us to decide how much loss is acceptable and what we want the word forest to mean.

Related posts:

The near empty forest that proves conservation is failing

Unhappy endlings: What tales of the last days of extinct and dying species can bring to our own story

Photo credits: Wikipedia/Creative Commons (From top left to right: Black-naped Oriole – J.M. Garg; White-crested laughingthrush – Dibyendu Ash; Rufous-necked hornbill – Ujjal Ghosh; Great hornbill – Kalyanvarma). Each of these species is among those the researchers believe to be locally extinct in their study area.

* Disclosure: Rhett Harrison is a friend and former colleague. He is based at the Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the World Agroforestry Centre, East Asia Node.

Reference: Rachakonda Sreekar, R., Zhang, K., Xu, J. & Harrison, R.D. 2015. Yet Another Empty Forest: Considering the conservation value of a recently established tropical nature reserve. PLoS One. Published: February 10, 2015. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0117920

Unhappy endlings: What tales of the last days of extinct and dying species can bring to our own story

dodoinstagrambannerThey are all now dead and can never be replaced but at least they got names. Martha, Benjamin and Incas… Booming Ben and Lonesome George. They were endlings, each one the last known member of its species. Their names remind us that we have epic tales to tell of the decline and fall of entire species.

Martha and Incas were the first to fly into my life. It was 1997 and I described and drew them both in a leaflet about extinct birds I produced for a small bird garden in the north of England. Martha’s story is best known. She was the last Passenger Pigeon, a species we reduced in number from billions to zero in just over a hundred years. She died on 1 September 1914 in Cincinnati Zoo but her body resides still in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. Journalist Eric Freedman visited her there for his 2011 article Extinction is Forever. He wrote:

“Martha arrived at the Smithsonian encased in a block of ice for scientific study. There she was mounted and placed on a small branch now fastened to a block of Styrofoam. The Smithsonian custodians paired her with a male passenger pigeon that died in 1873 in Minnesota. They had no connection with each other during life and were mated only for public display, which hadn’t happened for a long time. Nowadays, Martha and her anonymous pseudo-mate spend virtually all their time in a nondescript locker next to one containing birds Theodore Roosevelt had shot, collected, and studied as a boy. Martha’s organs are preserved separately in fluid. I didn’t ask to see them.”

Freedman chose to see Martha’s body rather than visit her death-place in Cincinnati Zoo, but had he gone there he could have killed two birds with one stone. That’s because on 21 February 1918 — four years after Martha died and in the very same cage — Incas expired. He was the last Carolina Parakeet. Another species had gone extinct. Other endlings include the last known Heath Hen. It acquired the name Booming Ben because it spent years calling out in vain for a partner. More recently we lost Lonesome George, a giant tortoise from Pinta Island in the Galápagos archipelago — and, again, the last of his kind.

Freedman has tracked down other endlings over the years. He saw the stuffed body of what its Uzbek owners claim is the last Caspian Tiger. He visited the zoo in Hobart, Tasmania where Benjamin, the last Thylacine — seen in the video above — died in 1933. Freedman explains:

“To some people, these journeys of mine could seem macabre, a weird fascination with avoidable-turned-inevitable large-scale deaths. But, like a cemetery visit to read ancient headstones, there are lessons to be found in these markers to the dead. So I undertake my endling pilgrimages hoping the visits will make the reality of extinction tangible.”

Named endlings are rare. In most species that we have extinguished, the last member was gone before we even noticed. Take the dodo — Raphus cucullatus, among the most famous of all the species we have driven extinct. Here’s one I drew in 1997, a little over 300 years after the last one died.


And here’s how David Quammen imagined that last dodo’s last stand in his brilliant book The Song of the Dodo:

“Raphus cucullatus had become rare unto death. But this one flesh-and-blood individual still lived. Imagine that she was thirty years old, or thirty-five, an ancient age for most sorts of bird but not impossible for a member of such a large-bodied species. She no longer ran, she waddled. Lately she was going blind. Her digestive system was balky. In the dark of an early morning in 1667, say, during a rainstorm, she took cover beneath a cold stone ledge at the base of one of the Black River cliffs. She drew her head down against her body, fluffed her feathers for warmth, squinted in patient misery. She waited. She didn’t know it, nor did anyone else, but she was the only dodo on Earth. When the storm passed, she never opened her eyes. This is extinction.”

“Endling,” wrote science writer Lucas Brouwers last week on Twitter. “A fine, sad word.” He’s right. Sad it may be, but fine it is too. The endlings are creatures upon whose shrugging shoulders we have thrust a kind of nobility. In naming them and in telling their stories, we have made them ambassadors of not only their own species but of all species whose numbers we deplete to the edge of existence and beyond.

Freedman says that when he considers the stories of the endlings, the “abstract becomes personal and allows me to see that these animals’ fates were not inevitable. Their endings had human authorship.” That’s it. We are writing the stories of so many other species. And while stories with endlings don’t have happy endings, they are important tales to tell. They make real our impacts on nature. They remind us that nothing is forever, that one day in some far future there will be a human endling too. What we don’t know yet is how the fate of other species will affect the date of our own departure. There’s a story there to tell.

[Update: 9 May 2013 — Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia (Environment and Development) Magazine in Lebanon has published this Arabic version [PDF] of this article]