‘Extinct’ waterlily back from the dead

By Melissa Leong 21 May 2010
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The world’s smallest waterlily is flourishing in captivity after it was found to be extinct in the wild in 2008.

THE CRITICALLY ENDANGERED thermal waterlily has been brought back to life from banked seeds, after a close shave with extinction following its sudden disappearance in the wild in 2008.

Horticulturalist Carlos Magdalena at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, United Kingdom, has now raised over 30 healthy baby plants growing at Kew. “Some are producing seeds,” Carlos told Australian Geographic. “So soon we may have an army of these tiny waterlilies here at Kew. Its future in botanical collections seems secured for the long term.”

World’s smallest waterlily

Nymphaea thermarum, grows in freshwater hot springs and is a rare species of African waterlily endemic to Mashyuza, Rwanda, in east central Africa. It is the smallest waterlilly in the world with pads as tiny as 1 cm in diameter and a spread of only 5 – 20 cm.

Cultivating the species was tough, says Carlos, because unlike other waterlilies, the thermal waterlily does not start life submerged but grows at the damp edges of thermal hot springs. “I was obsessed with a possible solution — and scared, trying to imagine how I would feel knowing that the last chance for a species would have vanished in my hands,” he says.

After countless futile attempts, Carlos managed to create ideal growth conditions. By placing the seeds and seedlings into pots of loam surrounded by water of the same level in a 25°C environment, eight began to flourish and mature after a few weeks. In November 2009, the waterlilies flowered for the first time.

This tale of survival is rare among many tales fo tragedy, as seasonal wetlands are increasingly threatened. Botanist Professor Stephen Hopper, director of the Kew Botanic Gardens, says, “Typically, these places [seasonal wetlands] are small in areal extent and often targeted for uses that threaten biodiversity. Yet [they] often are richer in endemic species of plants and animals than “traditional” wetlands of permanent water.”

Lost hope for curing disease

Extinction means the loss of genetic diversity, a concept that gives hope for the future: “If we lose species before we fully understand them, we could lose the opportunity to improve human well-being. We might lose the very species that holds compounds that could help find cures for life-threatening diseases,” says Stephen.

Carlos agrees that plants contain the secrets of millions of years of evolutionary history and we cannot afford to lose them. “Who’s to say what secret is hidden in a cell of a leaf of an undiscovered species in a remote forest — and when we are going to have the technology or the chance to find it?”

Carlos says that plants are like books — mankind has a massive library filled with them but “we are putting most in the bin before we even read the title.”

The smallest waterlily was first discovered in 1985 by botanist Professor Eberhard Fischer of Koblenz-Landau University, Germany. Eberhard made this conservation effort possible by collecting specimens before the species disappeared.

For more on the Kew Botanic Gardens seed bank, see the current issue (98) of Australian Geographic.

Seed banking in Kew, UK

VIDEO: Species back from the bring, Kew, UK