The Naples Botanical Garden Conservation Department recently began an exciting project assessing Caribbean plant species for their risk of extinction. Working with our partners in the Caribbean, we are using the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red Listing process to evaluate plants in this crucial first step toward their conservation.

So, what is the IUCN Red List? It is a record of biological organisms that have been evaluated, using the method developed by IUCN, for their likelihood of going extinct. Numerous methods for evaluating a species’ extinction risk have been created over the years, and the Red List method is regarded as the most meaningful one for global assessment projects. Scientists developed it as they learned to identify the telltale signs of a species’ impending disappearance. It can be used to assess most of earth’s living organisms (excluding microorganisms).

The assessment process is a checklist of sorts, examining whether a species is exhibiting “telltale signs,” such as: very small population size; limited geographic range; and substantial decrease in population or distribution size. You can find a link to the summary sheet of these criteria here and all the information you could ever want to know about the Red Listing process and assessed species. Using these criteria, species are evaluated on a scale ranging from Extinct to Least Concern.

Collaboration has taken a slightly different form since mid-March, as is shown in this screen grab of a recent Red Listing video chat. Clockwise from top left: Lewis Barrett, plant conservation biologist; Chad Washburn, Vice President of Conservation, Naples Botanical Garden; William Cinea, Director, Department of Research Science and Conservation, Jardin Botanique Des Cayes, Haiti; and Carly Roland, Conservation Associate, Naples Botanical Garden.

While 72% of all vertebrate taxa have been assessed, including 100% of bird species, only 10% of plant species have been assessed for their risk of extinction. Without understanding which plants are the most threatened, it is impossible to effectively prioritize species and carry out conservation efforts. This meager percentage was brought to attention when the 2011–2020 Global Strategy for Plant Conservation included a target for “An assessment of the conservation status of all known plant species, as far as possible, to guide conservation action.” There is clearly a lot of work to be done to meet this target, and the Garden will contribute meaningful assessments towards the effort.

The plants in the Caribbean are especially important to assess. The region is defined as a “Biodiversity Hotspot” by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, with approximately 70% plant endemism (species that only exist in the Caribbean) and severe threats that are putting the biodiversity at risk. With strong connections built over the years, the Garden is able to collaborate with many Caribbean nations. Good teamwork is at the base of this project, as the most useful information about a plant’s viability comes from the researchers working in that location. By sharing information from their respective countries, researchers will better understand the status of plant species.

Once an assessment is completed, conservation efforts can begin for those deemed to be at risk of extinction. As part of these efforts, the plants we are assessing could one day end up in our own botanical garden and backyards, as the climate and plants of South Florida are incredibly similar to those of the Caribbean. We will keep you updated as the project moves forward, explaining more about the process and sharing some of the amazing plants we are assessing!

About the Author

Carly Roland is a Conservation Associate at Naples Botanical Garden. She spent last year at Kew Gardens working towards a master’s in plant conservation and found that out of all of the garden’s areas, she enjoyed being in the hot and humid Palm House most of all.

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