Diversity of apples and frogs could secure all our futures
The Golden Toad, a Costa Rican native last sighted in 20 years ago and one of the stars of our Last Chance to See blog posting, might not be extinct after all. It might just resurface as a result of the international search for ‘lost’ amphibian species announced this week. It’s not merely of interest to biologists, or to admirers of its striking orange skin: along with other frogs and toads, it’s particularly vulnerable to environmental change and is therefore gives advance warning of adverse patterns which could affect us all. What’s more, the chemicals in their skins can be used to make lifesaving drugs – for us humans, not the frogs.
From Russia, meanwhile, come reports that the world’s first global seed bank, the Pavlovsk agricultural station, is facing the prospect of being obliterated by a new housing estate, wiping out a collection of plants established over 85 years.
Fortunately, there are international organisations working as hard as ever to maintain plant diversity. The BGCI (Botanic Gardens Conservation International) aims to ensure that specimens of species under threat are kept in garden collections in case the worst happens and they become extinct in the wild.
Like the aforementioned amphibians, plant species at risk include those with known or potential medicinal uses. The BGCI has published the results of its year-long investigation into the state of medicinal plant species around the world, highlighting the role botanic collections must continue to play. Plant-based medicines are especially vital to the populations of developing countries.
Closer to home, this is the time of year when the first UK apples of the season appear in our shops. If you haven’t yet discovered the Discovery, then August is the month to sample its delicious pink-tinged flesh.
If we don’t keep up a healthy supply of and demand for our lesser-known apple varieties, we risk losing them and thus coming to rely on Braeburns, Royal Galas and an alarmingly shallow gene pool.
Meanwhile, there is a ‘Red List’ of Central Asian fruit trees, the ancestors of British varieties, which could disappear for ever unless prompt action is taken. The geography of the mountainous former Soviet republics, with their scattered enclaves, means that the species are genetically highly diverse and have a higher tolerance of pests and disease than the mass-produced likes of Granny Smiths.
So in the interests of biodiversity, if you have an interesting variety of apple tree in your garden defend it with some of the passion of the Russian scientists who starved to death while Leningrad was under seige rather than eat the Pavlovsk’s priceless collection of seeds and plants.