Florida Cactus Becomes First Local Extinction in the USA Due to Rising Sea Levels

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The Key Largo tree cactus, a unique plant once found in Florida, has become the first species in the USA to go extinct due to rising sea levels.

This cactus, known scientifically as Pilosocereus millspaughii, can still be found in the Caribbean, but it’s no longer present in the United States.

A Brief History

Discovered in 1992 in the Florida Keys, the Key Largo tree cactus faced harsh conditions from the start.

By 2021, its population had dwindled from 150 to just six plants.

This sharp decline was due to a combination of severe weather, saltwater intrusion, and grazing by mammals.

These conditions made it nearly impossible for the cactus to survive and reproduce.

“Sadly, the Key Largo tree cactus might be a sign of what’s to come for other coastal plants as climate change progresses,” said Jennifer Possley from Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

Unique Features

This cactus is notable for its impressive height, capable of growing over 20 feet tall.

Its flowers have a unique garlic scent and reflect moonlight, attracting bat pollinators essential for its reproduction.

Initially, it was mistaken for the Key tree cactus due to their similarities.

However, the Key Largo tree cactus has distinctive long, woolly hairs at the base of its flowers and fruits, making it appear as if it is covered in snow.

Additionally, its spines are twice as long as those of the Key tree cactus, providing another identifying feature.

Rescue Efforts

Facing extinction, researchers initiated a rescue mission in 2016.

They collected stem fragments to cultivate in nurseries, hoping to preserve the species.

By 2021, it was clear the cactus had no chance of recovery in the wild.

The researchers managed to collect fruits containing viable seeds and harvested the remaining green parts of the cactus.

These efforts resulted in preserving 36 fragments, 25 seedlings, and over 1,000 seeds in storage.

Challenges and Future Plans

The rescue team returned to the area in 2022 and 2023, hoping to find more surviving fragments.

In 2023, they found a small piece, which they chose to remove, recognizing it would not survive the rising sea levels.

The low-lying nature of the Florida Keys makes species like the Key Largo tree cactus especially vulnerable to climate change.

Extreme weather, habitat destruction, and poaching have all contributed to the decline of vulnerable species in the area.

The Key tree cactus, a similar species, has also faced significant challenges, with its population declining by 84 percent between 1994 and 2007, leading to its listing as federally endangered in 1984.

Conservation plans for other at-risk plants are already in progress.

Long-term strategies include protecting these species both in their natural habitats and in controlled environments.

Cooperation at local and governmental levels is crucial to the success of these efforts.

By learning from the challenges faced by the Key Largo tree cactus, conservationists hope to prevent similar extinctions in the future.


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