Freelance Science Writer & Editor

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An occasional blog about plants, people and landscape.

If the Kardashians were endangered plants (Part 1)

Viki Cramer - Tuesday, May 23, 2017

In the first few months of 2017, the media reported on two species that had been ‘rediscovered’ in parts of Australia where they had not been seen for decades. The first species was thought to have been extinct for two centuries, so finding it again on the south-west fringe of the nation’s largest city was indeed momentous. Yet the discovery was kept from the media for some months until an infrastructure project slated for the site gained federal approval. The modest media coverage that followed focussed as much on allegations of government staff being told to “keep it quiet” until the project was approved as it did on how excited scientists were to find a species thought long-extinct.

A couple of months later, the second rediscovery in the vast expanses of inland Western Australia was widely reported with jubilation, exhilaration and a somewhat loose interpretation of just how ‘lost’ the species was. This was, of course, the sighting and – more importantly – the photographing of the night parrot in the spinifex country of Western Australia.

But the first species?

That was Hibbertia fumana, a shrublet that grows along the ground and bears the simple-yet-showy five-petalled yellow flowers common to all species of Guinea flower. It was rediscovered by botanists undertaking flora surveys for an environmental impact assessment for the SIMTA Moorebank Intermodal Terminal Facility near Sydney.

The fact that there’s taxonomic bias in the newsworthiness of species rediscovery is, ahem, not news. Scientists have even done the modelling: the rediscovery of a bird classified as endangered, lost for 100 years or more and thought to be possibly extinct (a so-called Lazarus species) is the most newsworthy rediscovery possible. It’s a little more disheartening, though, for the plant-lovers among us that this taxonomic bias is also reflected in government funding and promotion of projects to conserve threatened species.

Are endangered plants (and fish, invertebrates and amphibians for that matter) to be forever the entourage to celebrity mammals and birds, just out of focus on the edge of the frame, obscured by the shadow of feather and fur? Endangered plants have all the qualities – manipulation, dominance, intrigue, blatant displays of fragrant beauty – admired in social-media darlings. Could they ever have the celebrity status of the Kardashians? Surely it just requires a little leap of imagination?

I have taken that leap, dear reader, in a thought experiment that required me to read and think more about the Kardashians than was possibly safe for my state of mind.

I present to you [drumroll please] the Kardashians as endangered plants.

Kris Jenner is New Zealand Kauri (Agathis australis)

Kris Jenner, mother of the Kardashian clan, is credited as being the mastermind behind the meteoric rise of the Kardashian brand. In ecology, this makes Jenner an ecosystem engineer. Even in forests where she’s not the most common tree, Kauri’s influence on the other plants growing around her is conspicuous. Kauri’s ability to make the soils under her canopy more acidic means that you’ve got to be a pretty stress-tolerant plant to share her space. This means Kauri has a big impact on what types of plants grow where in these forests. You’re either with Kauri (tolerant of acidic soils), against Kauri (can’t tolerate the acidity) or don’t give a damn about Kauri (grow where you like). Jenner’s own daughters vary in their tolerance of her potentially toxic egotism and fame-seeking. Daughter Khloe famously ‘took down’ her mother for her selfishness. Phytophthora agathidicida, a fungal pathogen, is taking out kauri in the small pockets of forest in which it remains.

Kourtney Kardashian is Robbins’ Cinquefoil (Potentilla robbinsiana)

The television identity of the oldest Kardashian sibling seemingly revolves around her on-again/off-again relationship with partner and father-of-her-children Scott Disick: just like the relationship between Robbins’ Cinquefoil and the USA’s Endangered Species List. Except in the Cinquefoil’s case, it was just the once. In 1980, fewer than 4000 individuals of the small, yellow-flowered herb remained high up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. A partnership between the (USA) Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Appalachian Mountain Club and New England Wild Flower Society raised awareness of the plight of Robbins’ Cinquefoil. Improved land management, public education, seed collection and transplanting followed. These efforts were so successful that, in 2002, Robbins’ Cinquefoil was the first plant species to be removed from the Endangered Species List. [Cue music for voice-over]…It’s a powerful and moving story of how seemingly insurmountable challenges can be overcome when a family of endangered species protectors unites together in the fight against extinction.

Kim Kardashian West is Brazilian Rosewood (Aniba rosaeodora)

The most famous of the Kardashians has published a 445-page book of selfies and, like all enterprising pop-culture icons, has developed her own make-up and perfume line. The oil distilled from Brazilian Rosewood is a central ingredient in the most iconic of perfumes, Chanel No. 5. The public’s demand for the ‘unmatchable bouquet’ of rosewood oil in perfumes, soaps and candles meant that, by the late 1980s, Brazilian Rosewood had been seriously over-exploited in the forests of the eastern Amazon and she was placed on the IUCN Red List. Illegal harvesting of Rosewood for the clandestine trade in rosewood oil continues. In late 2016, masked thieves broke into Kardashian West’s Paris apartment and stole AU$14 million worth of jewellery at gunpoint. Deeply affected by the robbery, Kardashian West retreated from the social-media spotlight. Likewise, Brazilian Rosewood has largely disappeared from accessible forests, but it is believed that substantial wild stands may still exist in areas that are unlikely to be harvested. Fortunately, Brazilian Rosewood’s preference for outcrossing of genetic material over the selfie approach to pollination has maintained genetic diversity and structure in the remaining populations.

Khloe Kardashian is Madagascan Ocotillo (Alluaudia procera)

Known for her cutting words of wit, Khloe Kardashian lost a lot of weight and then wrote a book about it called Strong looks better naked. Down in the spiny forests in the south-east of Madagascar, Ocotillo is one of the sharpest wits in a region where spiky personalities are a popular defence against the withering spotlight of desert heat. Khloe might be the Kardashian sister that’s a little different, but Madagascan Ocotillo and her sisters in the subfamily Didieroidaea are found nowhere else on Earth. While Madagascan Ocotillo herself is not currently considered endangered, she’s fast losing her place of residence. The rapid physical transformation of Madagascar’s spiny forests by shifting cultivation and charcoal production has left them naked, but not stronger. Helping the Malagasy to conserve the spiny forests while they subsist in extreme poverty is complex, but hundreds of conservationists are dedicated to a finding a solution. Now that’s a fight about losing stuff that’s worth writing about.

In my next post: the Kardashian brother, the Jenner sisters and Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner.

This post was inspired by the ideas of Jack Hobbs of Auckland's Botanic Gardens, as tweeted by Australia's Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews.

All original images of the Kardashians and Jenners via Wikimedia Commons. Images of Kim and Kourtney by Glenn Francis (CC BY-SA 3.0). Image of Kris by Jim Jordan (CC BY-SA 2.0). Image of Kendall by Georges Biard (CC BY-SA 3.0). Image of Kylie by KathyaG.2002 (CC BY-SA 4.0). Image of Caitlyn by US Mission to the UN. Image design by Viki Cramer.

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    Science Writer and Editor Perth Australia
    Viki Cramer   PhD BSc
    Freelance science writer specialising in ecology and the environment.
    Ecologist - Science Communicator - Editor
    Perth, Australia
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