When people picture paradise, they often conjure up an idyllic island with palm fronds waving in the wind. But paradise is in imminent danger. More than half the world’s palm species may soon face extinction, according to a new study conducted with artificial intelligence (AI).

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An international team was composed of researchers from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the University of Amsterdam and the University of Zurich. They coupled new machine learning techniques with existing International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List data to forecast the future of palms. Their results, published last week in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, estimated that more than 1,000 of nearly 1,900 palm species could be at risk of extinction.

Related: Bangladesh is planting 1 million palm trees to reduce lightning fatalities

The scientists embraced AI to help update the IUCN Red List. Inadequate funding, lack of scientific resources and a public preference for fauna of the cuddly or magnificent varieties has left gaps in the list — especially for plants. Which are less charismatic than, say, polar bears.

“The biodiversity crisis dictates that we take urgent action to stem biodiversity loss,” said Steven Backman in a statement, research leader in Kew’s Conservation Assessment and Analysis team. “We need to use all the tools at our disposal, such as prediction and automation, to generate rapid and robust assessments. The addition of plants to the Red List is one of the vital steps conservationists can take to raise awareness of species at risk.”

Palms aren’t just another pretty tree.  Millions of people globally rely on them for food, medicine and building materials. The researchers designated Madagascar, Philippines, Hawaii, Borneo, New Guinea, Jamaica, Vanuatu, New Caledonia, Sulawesi and Vietnam as regions of top palm conservation priority.

“After this study, we have a much better idea of how many, and which, palm species are under threat,” said Rodrigo Cámara-Leret in a statement, senior researcher at the University of Zurich. “It is our hope that the prioritized list we provide of useful palms facing extinction and of their non-threatened alternatives may foster collaborations across all stakeholders and accelerate actions to conserve them.”

Via Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Lead image via Kew Science



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