Giant palm flowers itself to death
PARIS (AFP) - Botanists on Thursday announced they had identified a new species of palm that is so enormous it can be spotted from space and whose bizarre life cycle requires the plant to kill itself after it has flowered.
The gigantic, pyramid-shaped plant was discovered accidentally by a French family walking in remote northwestern Madagascar, according to the publishers of their study.
The palm's trunk is over 18 metres (58.5 feet) high and its leaves are an extraordinary five metres (16.25 feet) in diameter, which could make them the largest ever known among flowering plants.
It is not only a new species, but also a new genus -- the taxonomic term for a group that incorporates species. In layman's terms, the plant is in a classification of its own.
Experts at Britain's Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, London, say the plant grows to dizzying heights before the stem tip bursts into branches of hundreds of tiny flowers.
"Each flower is capable of being pollinated and developing into fruit and soon drips with nectar and is surrounded by swarming insects and birds," British journal publisher Blackwell Publishing Ltd. said in a press release.
"The nutrient reserves of the palm become completely depleted as soon as it fruits and the entire tree collapses in a macabre demise."
It added: "The plant is so massive, it can even be seen on Google Earth."
The paper was to be published on Thursday in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society. The London-based Linnean Society is an international association of naturalists devoted to the naming and classification of biodiversity.
Secrecy, though, surrounded the palm's taxonomic name.
The nomenclature was being kept closely under wraps until publication, in line with tradition involving new plant finds, the Royal Botanic Gardens told AFP on Wednesday.
A French couple, Xavier and Nathalie Metz, who run a cashew farm in Madagascar, stumbled upon the palm as they were walking with their family at a limestone outcrop in the hills of Analalava district, Blackwell said.
Stunned by the sight, they took pictures of it and posted them on the Web.
Kew research fellow John Dransfield, an expert on Madagascar's palms, saw the photos and asked a local researcher to send him material.
DNA analysis proved the plant to be a new genus within a palm tribe called Chuniophoeniceae.
Only three other genera within this tribe exist, scattered across the Arabian peninsula, Thailand and China.
"Coupled with the great scientific interest of the palm is the fact that it is such an amazingly spectacular species and with such an unusual life cycle," said Dransfield.
"In a way, this palm is every bit as significant from a biological point of view as when the extraordinary Aye-aye lemur was first discovered."
The Aye-aye, a denizen of Madagascar first described in 1788, is the largest nocturnal primate in the world, and is believed to use echolocation to detect grubs in tree branches, which it extracts with its long fingers.
Less than a hundred individuals of the palm probably exist, which means protecting it from habitat loss and bounty hunters will be a huge challenge.
More than 90 percent of Madagascar's 10,000 plant species occur nowhere else in the world.
But less than a fifth of the island's cover of native vegetation remains intact.