Are plants going the way of the dinosaurs?

As many species head toward extinction, scientists worry about the globe's health.

Over the years, people have banded together to save tigers, seals, and the American bald eagle. Governments have outlawed whaling and the US has forced fishermen to change their fishing nets to save the dolphin.

But will anybody stand up for the Lectoris fernandeziana, an endangered brittle shrub that grows only in the Juan Fernndez Islands off the coast of Chile?

"If it were an animal, everyone would know about it," says Dan Crawford, a researcher at Ohio State University in Columbus. "But who knows anything about Lectoris?"

Only some 1,000 of the plants are left. The Hawaiian Lobeliads are in worse shape: 20 percent of the various species are thought to be extinct. Many others have only one to five plants left.

The world is hurtling toward a mass extinction of plants that could rival the climactic change that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, scientists have concluded. Such a biological crash could cause two-thirds of the globe's plant species to disappear. It would transform habitats and threaten animal species that rely on those plants.

Although mass extinctions have taken place five times on earth, this would be the first one driven by people.

The world won't starve as a result, researchers agree. But unique native habitats would become the botanical equivalent of a McDonald's restaurant. And humans would lose access to potentially invaluable plants just at the point when scientists are developing the tools and techniques to use such plants to bioengineer new foods and other products.

If present trends continue, scientists warn, two-thirds of the world's 300,000 plant species will disappear by the end of the next century.

"You would lose many of the basic foods of many of the animals and many of the ecosystems that nourish them," says Peter Raven, president of the International Botanical Congress, which is meeting in St. Louis this week. "It would not only be an incredible crime, it would be incredibly stupid to blow away so much."

Congress was expected at press time to endorse a major push to get the United Nations and world governments behind an international effort to save the world's plants. Dr. Raven is pushing a seven-point plan that would boost funding for plant conservation as well as establish a UN body that would monitor plants around the world, detect the most endangered, and then take steps to preserve them.

Raven, who also directs the Missouri Botanical Garden, estimates the effort could be up and running in as little as three years. But researchers concede they face an uphill battle.

"Human nature being what it is, you're not going to get people as excited about plants as they are about animals," says Wendy Strahm, plants officer for the IUCN-World Conservation Union, which is headquartered in Gland, Switzerland, and represents 85 governments and nearly 900 non-government groups in conservation issues. "People like wet noses and big brown eyes. [But] without the plants, the animals can't live."

The IUCN together with the World Wildlife Fund has designated nearly 300 places around the world as "centers of plant diversity" worthy of protection. They're mostly located in the tropics.

In fact, many islands are flashing early warning signs of the mass extinction that could lie ahead. "The extinction that we are beginning to see in North America ... has been going on much longer on islands," says Gregory Anderson, a professor at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.

Take the wild coffee plant of Mauritius. Long thought to be extinct, a single plant was rediscovered in the 1980s. The government moved to protect it - eventually building four fences around it to keep natives from breaking off pieces of the plant, thought to have medicinal value.

Dr. Strahm has taken cuttings that are now growing in Britain. But it is at best a half step.

"The plant is the living dead," she says. "It's destined for extinction because it can't reproduce." The clones in Britain are exact replicas, thus the species has no genetic variation to defend itself against disease or environmental change.

Ironically, Mauritius was also the home of the dodo bird, which first brought home the idea that man could push an animal to extinction.

"We're losing species daily," says Javier Francisco-Ortega, a researcher at the Fairchild Tropical Garden in the Canary Islands. A major reason: The islands are swamped by 10 million tourists every year.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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