Gasteranthus extinctus  flowers next to a waterfall

Gasteranthus extinctus was pessimistically named after its forests were largely razed for agriculture. Image © Riley Fortier

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'Extinct' flower rediscovered in Ecuador after forest destruction

It may be extinct by name, but Gasteranthus extinctus  is not extinct in nature.

The flowering plant, named after it was believed to have been wiped out during the destruction of its forest home, has now been rediscovered in remaining patches of Ecuador's cloud forests. 

Rumours of one plant's demise turned out to have been exaggerated.

Found only in a small area of Ecuador, Gasteranthus extinctus was believed extinct when it was named almost a decade after its forest home in the Andes had been largely razed for farmland. Two decades on, and the small flowering plant has now been found clinging to life in the remnants of cloud forest.

Dr Dawson White, one of the paper's authors, says, 'G. extinctus was given its striking name in light of the extensive deforestation in western Ecuador.

'But if you claim something's gone, then no one is really going to go out and look for it anymore. There are still a lot of important species that are still out there, even though we're in an age of extinction.'

Though its name is now something of a misnomer, G. extinctus will keep its moniker due to scientific naming conventions where changes are very rarely made. Its name also stands as a reminder that the ongoing biodiversity crisis can still be turned around, if there is the will to do so.

The rediscovery of the species was published in the journal PhytoKeys

Scientists walk through the remaining patches of forest in Centinela Ridge

The habitat destruction at Centinela Ridge was thought to be so devastating it became a scientific term for extinction. Image © Dawson White

What happened to Ecuador's forests?

Discovered in 1981, G. extinctus is a small herb which lives on the forest floor. It produces bright orange flowers, whose distinctive shape gives the genus its name as Gasteranthus is Greek for 'belly flower'.

It is a resident of Centinela Ridge, an area in the foothills of the Andes located near to the city of Santo Dominico in Ecuador. At one time, this entire area was covered in cloud forest, with high levels of rainfall contributing to its unique biodiversity.

It is estimated that 20% of species are endemic to northwest Ecuador, with at least 90 species found only in Centinela Ridge. Six species of Gasteranthus plants, around a fifth of the world's total, were discovered on the ridge alone

However, by the 1980s the forest was already on borrowed time. Ecuadorean land reform laws enacted in the 1960s advocated the conversion of 'unproductive' forest into farmland and plantations, with land being seized by the government if it was not used in such a way. 

Along with the human population expansion, this gave the country one of the highest deforestation rates in South America during the twentieth century, with 97% of western Ecuador's forests estimated to have been felled. 

This was also the case at Centinela. While the ridge was untouched when it was first sampled for plants in 1975, almost the entire site had been cleared for agriculture just 13 years later.

While some of Centinela's species were subsequently rediscovered nearby, many others were assumed extinct. This was the case for G. extinctus, with the four specimens collected in 1981 thought to be the only record this species had ever existed and leading to its pessimistic name.

The impact of the deforestation of Centinela was so severe that a biological term, Centinelan extinction, was named after it. This describes the extinction of species before they have been discovered by science, leaving it too late to put conservation measures in place.

At least in the case of G. extinctus, the world has been given a second chance to get it right this time. 

How was Gasteranthus extinctus  rediscovered?

Following a number of failed expeditions to try and relocate the species, a team of scientists from Ecuador, the US and France looked through satellite images to identify the remaining patches of Centinela forest that could still harbour G. extinctus.

They set out in November 2021 and didn't have to wait long to rediscover the missing plant, as co-author Dr Nigel Pitman recalls.

'As soon as we got on the ground we found remnants of intact cloud forest, and we spotted G. extinctus within the first couple hours of searching on the first day,' he says. 'We didn't have a live photo to compare it to, just images of dried herbarium specimens, a line drawing, and a written description, but we were pretty sure that we'd found it based on its poky little hairs and showy pot-bellied flowers.'

However, the team couldn't just pick the flowers to confirm their identity, as they could have been the last in the world. Instead, flowers that had already fallen were collected and sent alongside photographs to taxonomic experts to confirm the survival of G. extinctus.

While further specimens were subsequently found in other forest fragments, the species remains Critically Endangered, with efforts underway to ensure that its home is protected. 

These are hoped to act alongside initiatives aimed at continuing to bring down Ecuador's rate of deforestation, which despite having halved since the 1990s remains among the highest in the world for the country's size.

With their discovery, the team hope to inspire other conservationists to search for species assumed lost and redouble efforts to protect as much biodiversity as possible.

'Rediscovering this flower shows that it's not too late to turn around even the worst-case biodiversity scenarios, and it shows that there's value in conserving even the smallest, most degraded areas,' says Dawson. 'Though the forests of western Ecuador are heavily degraded, new species are still being found and we can still save many things that are on the brink of extinction.'