Marie Selby Botanical Gardens was recently awarded a CSSA (Cactus & Succulent Society of America) conservation grant to safeguard a federally endangered cactus species, Harrisia aboriginum, within four counties of Southwest Florida.
The species, colloquially known as the aboriginal prickly-apple, West Coast prickly-apple, or the prickly apple-cactus, is found in the dry coastal habitats of Sarasota, Manatee, Lee and Charlotte counties. Over the years, the species has dramatically decreased in numbers and has shown limited growth and repopulation due to the overdevelopment of the region’s coastal habitats. With funding from the grant, Selby Gardens’ botanical team will evaluate population-level aspects of the species, with the idea of maximizing efforts to grow out plants to boost wild populations, while introducing new populations to higher ground in light of the sea level rises predicted to occur as a result of climate change.
To do this, Selby botanists will analyze the structure of each population to determine the best method for conserving the species, the first ever such effort. This grant in particular funds the work needed to determine the total number of populations, individuals per population, and the genetic diversity within and among populations. The project will fulfill two objectives—the first being to update the status of the cactus species’ population numbers and robustness, which have not been examined since hurricane Irma, and also to reveal new populations. The second goal will be to study and understand the gene flow between populations to better understand where population boundaries, if any, may lie.
“It is very important to take population-specific factors into consideration when trying to conserve rare plants. Just as inbreeding is harmful in animals, it is also in plants and as inbreeding potential increases population sizes will dwindle. By using molecular tools, we will have the ability to uncover populations that are truly distinct, so that we can promote outcrossing as a way to increase the robustness of the population in the future,” explained Dr. Sally Chambers, Selby Gardens Research Botanist and the project’s lead investigator.
With this grant, and with additional funding support from the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Selby Gardens’ botanists will share the information gathered with local conservation groups and government partners in a team effort to bring the cactus back from the brink of extinction. “The work and collaboration will extend beyond this year-long grant,” said Bruce Holst, Vice President for Botany at Selby Gardens. “After collecting all the findings, we will share the information with our conservation partners to develop an action plan that will result in better conservation practices for the aboriginal prickly-apple, and hopefully it can be delisted from the Federal Endangered Species list.”
Fortunately, with the support of the CSSA grant, this project will lay the groundwork necessary to inform the public and conservationists of the best ways to understand the human impact on this species and keep it from disappearing from our coastline forever.
For more about Selby Gardens’ Botany program visit https://selby.org/botany/