Extraordinary Giant Palm Found in Madagascar
21 January 2008
A gigantic palm that flowers itself to death has been discovered in Madagascar. This previously unknown genus is entirely new to science and has been named Tahina spectabilis.
‘Tahina’ is Malagasy for "to be protected" or "blessed" and is a given name of Anne-Tahina Metz, the daughter of the discoverer of the palm. ‘Spectabilis’ is Malagasy for spectacular.
The palm has a huge trunk which towers over 18m high and enormous fan leaves which are 5m in diameter – the most massive palm ever to be found in Madagascar. It has an unusual and spectacular lifecycle; growing to dizzying heights before the stem tip converts into a giant terminal inflorescence and bursts into branches of hundreds of tiny flowers. Each flower is capable of being pollinated and developing into fruit and soon drips with nectar and is surrounded by swarming insects and birds. The nutrient reserves of the palm become completely depleted as soon as it fruits and the entire tree collapses and dies a macabre death.
Xavier Metz, a Frenchman who manages a cashew plantation nearby, and his family were walking in a remote area of north-western Madagascar when they stumbled across the giant palm with its huge pyramidal flowering structure sprouting out of the tip. They had never seen anything like it before and their photographs soon reached John Dransfield, co-author of the Field guide to the Palms of Madagascar and an Honorary Research Fellow of Kew, who was astonished when he saw material and images of the tree.
“I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the images posted on the web,” he says. “The palm appeared superficially like the Talipot palm of Sri Lanka, but that had never been recorded for Madagascar. Clearly this was going to be an extremely exciting discovery and I just couldn’t wait to examine specimens in detail.”
When material of the palm collected by John’s Malagasy student Mijoro Rakotoarinivo finally reached the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, the details of the flowers and inflorescence branches immediately suggested it was a new, undescribed species and genus with an affinity to the palm tribe Chuniophoeniceae.
Analysis at Kew Unravels Mystery
Leaf fragments were sent to the Jodrell Laboratory at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew for DNA analysis, where John’s conclusion was confirmed, that the palm was not just a new species but an entirely new genus within the tribe Chuniophoeniceae. There are only three other known genera in this tribe, Nannorrhops in Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Kerriodoxa in southern Thailand and Chuniophoenix in Vietnam, southern China and Hainan. The palm is from an evolutionary line not previously known to exist in Madagascar.
“The tribe has an extraordinary distribution and it is very difficult with current knowledge to explain how it could ever have reached Madagascar” says Dr Dransfield.
He travelled out to meet Xavier and Nathalie Metz - who had discovered the palm. It was concealed at the foot of a limestone outcrop in the rolling hills and flatlands of the Analalava district. This area has eight dry months a year and a mean annual temperature of 27ºC. The palm grows in deep fertile soil at the foot of the limestone hill in ground that is seasonally flooded. He was astonished that this enormous palm had never been discovered before and concluded that the life-cycle must be unusually long for this extremely rare flowering and death sequence to have never been detected. The palm is so massive that it can even be seen in Google Earth.
The Most Exciting Discovery
“Ever since we started work on the palms of Madagascar in the 1980s, we have made discovery after discovery – new species and new genera – but to me this is probably the most exciting of them all,” says Dr Dransfield. “Most particularly it represents an evolutionary line not previously known from the island and one with a highly paradoxical distribution. Coupled with the great scientific interest of the palm is the fact that it is such an amazingly spectacular species and with such an unusual life cycle. Discovering this palm is every bit as significant from a biological point of view as when the extraordinary Aye-aye lemur was first discovered.
Significant Conservation Challenge
“With less than a hundred individuals, this new palm presents significant challenges to conservationists, especially as the habitat seems so limited and flowering and fruiting of such a rare occurrence. We have very few opportunities to manage regeneration at the site or to disseminate it to botanic gardens in Madagascar and elsewhere. In a way the palm highlights the conservation challenges for all palms in Madagascar, many of which are seriously threatened with extinction mostly through habitat loss.”
Madagascar is home to more than 10,000 plant species and 90% of Madagascar’s plants occur nowhere else in the world. The country has a highly diverse palm flora with over 170 known species, all but six of which are endemic. Scientists predict that there are less than 100 individuals of this palm in Madagascar. Only 18 percent of Madagascar’s native vegetation remains intact and a third of Madagascar’s primary vegetation has disappeared since the 1970s.
Dr Dransfield had long talks with Xavier and Nathalie and local people from a nearby village to discuss how they thought the palm could be conserved. They worked together to set up a village committee to take control of the conservation of the palm and a patrol to protect the area it was found in. They are currently working with Kew and the Millennium Seed Bank to develop a method of selling seed to raise income for the villagers and to distribute the palm as widely as possible to botanic gardens and growers around the globe.
The name for this new genus and species appeared in print for the first time in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society on 17 January 2007 - making the names valid for use by all.
In Summer 2008 a completely rewritten and extensively illustrated new edition of the acclaimed standard reference work for the palm family will be published by Kew in association with the International Palm Society. Since the first edition, published in 1987, several new genera have been discovered and the wealth of new research into the phylogeny of palms has revealed relationships not appreciated in the past, resulting in substantial reorganization of subfamilies, tribes, subtribes and genera. An illustrated glossary and geographical listings will complete this authoritative text. www.kew.org/publications
Madagascar’s native palms are of enormous economic and biological importance. Not only are they used for food, house building, crafts and medicines, most are found in no other part of the world, they are a part of Madagascar’s great natural heritage and many are becoming increasingly rare. Simple keys and lavishly illustrated pictorial descriptions, distribution maps and diagrams of leaf, fruit and flower arrangement enable quick and easy identification. Notes on local uses, rarity and in what type of vegetation each grows in follows. This is not just a field guide, it is a book that shows why palms are so important to the culture, economy and the natural heritage of Madagascans. It is available in Malagasy as well as English.
This first vegetation atlas for Madagascar, supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, has combined vegetation data from fieldwork and satellite images into a map-based information system. The result is a conservation tool which will help Madagascar’s government and people to plan a more sustainable future. This atlas is also of great use to anyone studying or visiting the island, and is presented in both French and English
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A World Checklist of Palms
"The World Checklist of Palms" is the unique resource that lists all validly published names of palms. It will provide a standard nomenclatural reference for further research into this important family.
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