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Enlarge / Map of the Encephalartos Woodii drone search mission in Ngoye Forest in South Africa.

“This is surely the loneliest organism in the world,” wrote paleontologist Richard Fortey in his book on the evolution of life.

He was talking about Encephalartos woodii (E. woodii), a plant from South Africa. E. woodii It is a member of the cycad family, heavy plants with thick trunks and large, stiff leaves that form a majestic crown. These resilient survivors have survived the dinosaurs and multiple mass extinctions. Once widespread, today they are one of the most endangered species on the planet.

The only known savage E. Woodii It was discovered in 1895 by botanist John Medley Wood while on a botanical expedition in the Ngoye Forest in South Africa. He looked for others in the surrounding area, but could not find any. Over the next two decades, botanists removed stems and shoots and cultivated them in gardens.

Fearing that the final stem would be destroyed, the Forestry Department removed it from the wild in 1916 to a protective enclosure in Pretoria, South Africa, making it extinct in the wild. Since then, the plant has spread throughout the world. However the E. woodii faces an existential crisis. All plants are clones of the Ngoye specimen. They are all males and without a female natural reproduction is impossible. E. woodii The story is one of survival and loneliness.

My team’s research was inspired by the dilemma of the solitary plant and the possibility that there is still a female out there. Our investigation involves the use of remote sensing and artificial intelligence technologies to help us in the search for a woman in Ngoye forest.

The evolutionary journey of cycads

Cycads are the oldest surviving groups of plants that exist today and are often referred to as “living fossils” or “dinosaur plants” due to their evolutionary history dating back to the Carboniferous period, approximately 300 million years ago. During the Mesozoic era (250-66 million years ago), also known as the Age of the Cycads, these plants were ubiquitous and thrived in the warm, humid climates that characterized that period.

Although they look like ferns or palm trees, cycads are not related to either. Cycads are gymnosperms, a group that includes conifers and ginkgos. Unlike flowering plants (angiosperms), cycads reproduce using cones. It is impossible to distinguish between male and female until they mature and produce their magnificent cones.

Female cones are usually wide and round, and male cones appear elongated and narrower. The male cones produce pollen, which insects (weevils) transport to the female cones. This ancient method of reproduction has remained virtually unchanged for millions of years.

Despite their longevity, today cycads are classified as the most endangered living organisms on Earth and most species are considered endangered. This is due to their slow growth and reproductive cycles, which typically take ten to twenty years to mature, and habitat loss due to deforestation, grazing and over-harvesting. Cycads have become symbols of botanical rarity.

Their striking appearance and ancient lineage make them popular in exotic ornamental horticulture and this has led to illegal trade. Rare cycads can fetch exorbitant prices from $620 (£495) per cm with some specimens selling for millions of pounds each. Poaching of cycads is a threat to their survival.

Among the most valuable species is the E. woodii. It is protected in the botanical gardens with security measures such as alarmed cages designed to deter poachers.

AI in the sky

In our quest to find a female. e.woodii We have used innovative technologies to explore areas of the forest from a vertical point of view. In 2022 and 2024, our drone surveys covered an area of ​​195 acres or 148 football fields, creating detailed maps from thousands of photographs taken by the drones. It remains a small portion of the Ngoye forest, which covers 10,000 acres.

An example of the still images used to train the AI ​​software.
Enlarge / An example of the still images used to train the AI ​​software.

Our AI system improved the efficiency and accuracy of these searches. As E. woodii is considered extinct in the wild, synthetic images were used in training the AI ​​model to improve its ability, through an image recognition algorithm, to recognize cycads by their shape in different ecological contexts.

Plant species worldwide are disappearing at an alarming rate. Since all existing E. woodii The specimens are clones, their potential for genetic diversity in the face of environmental change and disease is limited.

Notable examples include the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840s, where the uniformity of cloned potatoes worsened the crisis, and the vulnerability of clonal Cavendish bananas to Panama disease, which threatened their production as it did with the Gros Michel banana. in the 1950s.

Finding a woman would mean E. woodii It is no longer on the brink of extinction and could revive the species. A female would allow sexual reproduction, would provide genetic diversity and would mean a great advance in conservation efforts.

E. woodii is a sobering reminder of the fragility of life on Earth. But our quest to discover a woman E. woodii shows that there is hope for even the most endangered species if we act quickly enough.The conversation

Laura Cinti, researcher in bioart and plant behavior, University of Southampton. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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