Reintroduction experiments give new hope for plant on brink of extinction

A critically endangered plant known as marsh sandwort (Arenaria paludicola) is inching back from the brink of extinction thanks to the efforts of a UC Santa Cruz plant ecologist and her team of undergraduate students.Ingrid Parker, the Langenheim professor of plant ecology and evolution at UC Santa Cruz, got involved in the marsh sandwort recovery effort at the request of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Although it used to occur all along the west coast, from San Diego to Washington state, this wetland plant with delicate white flowers had dwindled to one population in a boggy wetland in San Luis Obispo County. Federal biologists wanted to reintroduce the plant to other locations, but they weren’t sure where it would be likely to thrive.”When you have a species that’s only known from one place, how do you figure out where it could live? We had very little information about its biology that would allow us to predict where it might be successful,” Parker said.Her team, which included undergraduate students and greenhouse staff at UCSC as well as USFWS biologists, propagated cuttings from the last remaining wild population, studied the plant’s tolerance for different soil conditions in greenhouse experiments, and conducted field experiments to identify habitats where the plant could thrive. They published their findings in the April issue of Plant Ecology (available in advance online).Surprisingly, the plants tolerated a much wider range of soil moisture and salinity than biologists had expected. “This really brought home to me the importance of experiments to help guide conservation,” Parker said. “The one place where this species is found in San Luis Obispo County is a freshwater bog where the plants are in standing water. There are so few places like that left in California, we wondered if that’s the only kind of place where it can grow. Instead we found that it actually does better without standing water.”In addition, field studies showed the importance of small-scale habitat variations, according to first author Megan Bontrager. …

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