While drones have been actively involved in conservation projects globally a recent drone reconnaissance flight over the extremely biodiverse area on a remote part of Kauai’s Kalalau Valley made an interesting and exciting discovery as per reports from CNN.
The startling discovery: Hibiscadelphus woodii, a relative of hibiscus was last seen in 2009 and believed to be extinct was found growing on the Cliffside. According to a statement from the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG), Hibiscadelphus woodii was discovered on a vertical cliff face making it the seventh recorded hibiscus species. The species was first discovered in 1991, named in 1995, and deemed extinct in 2016.
NTBG has been using drone technology for the past two and a half years to observe and study the unique flora at the remote, rugged cliff faces of Kalalau Valley in Hawaii which is largely inaccessible to humans. For decades, researchers from the NTBG accessed these cliffs by hiking along treacherous ridgelines and rappelling down vertical cliff faces, scouring each nook and cranny for rare native plants. Now the high risk job has been taken over by drones.
H. woodii grows in a shrub or small tree and produces bright yellow flowers, which turn purple or maroon as it ages. It faces threats from invasive plants, animals and rock slides. Falling boulders were a large factor in the extinction of the known colony in the late 1990s.
This study, lead by GIS coordinator and drone specialist Ben Nyberg, revealed three of the rare plant growing in a small cluster on the cliff face. Nyberg says, “Still photos captured one individual in late January 2019, [and we] confirmed identification and found an additional two individuals in late February.” Nyberg piloted the drone and used a grid system to scan the cliffs, also using his intuition to home in on patches to search. He gathered GPS points and marked attributes like elevation so the plants can be found again.
Dr. David Lorence, director science and conservation for the garden, said, “This incredible rediscovery was made possible by our staff using drone technology and was supported by a grant from the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund. Drone technology greatly facilitates botanical surveys in rough terrain areas.”
In a statement given to National Geographic, NTBG research biologist Kenneth R. Wood said, “When examining floristic diversity throughout the Hawaiian Islands, no other valley compares to Kalalau in the number of its unique species.” Before rediscovering the flower this year, scientists did make efforts to propagate H. woodii through grafting, cutting, and cross-pollination but were unsuccessful.
As for the future of the H. woodii, Nyberg says they will once again actively try keeping it alive. “We are exploring a drone cutting mechanism that with some testing could provide a platform for collecting plant material such as seeds or cuttings.”
Scientists are now pretty optimistic about the potential drone technology holds in finding new species—and rediscover ones thought to be extinct—in the most remote and treacherous areas.
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