Recognizing the Significant Role Ex Situ Conservation Collections Play in Preventing Plant Extinctions

Wesley M. Knapp, North Carolina Natural Heritage Program

Preventing extinction is the lowest bar for conservation success we can set and the roll of ex situ conservation efforts in preventing extinction is becoming more significant. Continued work to document the extinct plants of North America north of Mexico has resulted in the discovery that up to 7 plants are extinct in the wild (EW). While these extinct plant taxa have no naturally occurring populations, they are still found in ex situ collections at botanical gardens. These collections may have issues in having full conservation value. Many collections were taken from few or single individuals and not necessarily intended to prevent the extinction of a species, but now represent the last known individuals. Some species reported as present in seed banks or botanical gardens are incorrectly identified. Additionally, botanical gardens having the last known individuals of a species are not necessarily aware of the significance of these collections. Evidence suggests a species has gone extinct while at a botanical garden because the specimen was destroyed before the significance of the collection was recognized. A prioritization of ex situ conservation efforts, using the best data is critical to prevent future extinction events. Single site global endemics or species of extremely narrow geographic distributions are the most susceptible to extinction. I will discuss a collaboration with NatureServe to identify global single site endemics that we hope will help prioritize seed banking and ex situ collections for these species following best practices to ensure quality/genetic diversity of collections. Additionally, an ongoing collaboration with the North Carolina Botanical Garden to prioritize the rarest plants in North Carolina for ex situ conservation efforts has already seen significant results.