Mediterranean Island Plants Vanishing Under Human Pressures

GLAND, Switerland, November 14, 2005 (ENS) - Many of the some 25,000 species of native plants that make the islands of the Mediterranean Sea one of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots are disappearing under pressure of human activities, but the World Conservation Union is now offering a new handbook that could help protect these special plants.

"The Top 50 Mediterranean Island Plants," launched last week at the 14th meeting of the Barcelona Convention on Protection of the Mediterranean Sea, lays out a conservation strategy for species from the familiar hyacinth, carnation, and violet families, and less familiar plants such as the moon trefoil, Lefkara milkvetch, Troodos rockcress, and Casey’s larkspur.


Moon trefoil or Tree medic, Medicago citrina. This critically endangered species grows in small, fragmented populations on the rocky slopes of some Balearic Islands, the Columbretes archipelago, and on one small islet just off the coast of the Cape of St. Antoni, province of Alicante, Spain. (Photo courtesy )
With the new handbook, the Mediterranean Island Plant Specialist Group aims to reverse the decline of these plant species by helping policy makers in the countries where they are still found to take appropriate decisions to protect their natural heritage.

“Protected areas are an important tool in conserving entire ecological communities, not just the Top 50 species,” says Bertrand de Montmollin, chair of the Mediterranean Island Plant Specialist Group of the IUCN’s Species Survival Commission.

Only about half of the Top 50 species are found in protected areas and many of these areas are not being managed adequately, he says.

“However, monitoring the conservation status of specific species can serve as an indicator for how well we are managing these areas,” de Montmollin said.

Crete, Malta, Majorca, Sicily - the Mediterranean basin encompasses nearly 5,000 islands large and small, many of which are inhabited by a wide variety of plants.

Nearly 25,000 species of flowering plants and ferns are native to the countries surrounding the Mediterranean basin and 60 percent of these are endemic, that is they are found nowhere else in the world.

Due to their isolation on islands, some ancient plant species have survived while their relatives on the mainland became extinct. The plant specialists explain that this is because some mainland species could not compete with the migration into their habitat of new species, caused by climate change during the last glacial periods.

Because natural exchange of genetic material between the island and mainland species has been limited or non-existent, successive mutations caused the gradual formation of new plant species unique to each island.


The Maltese rock-centuary, Cheirolophus crassifolius, is found only on the northwestern and southern cliffs of the islands of Malta, southern Gozo and Fungus Rock. (Photo by Alfred Baldicchino courtesy IUCN)
The Top 50 plants presented in the handbook have been selected from these many rare and threatened species. It outlines why they are threatened, what is being done to protect them, and what more is needed to prevent them being lost forever.

The threats are many and most have arisen or intensified only during the last few decades.

Intensive agriculture, infrastructure development, urbanization and mass tourism have wreaked havoc on natural habitats. Rapid population growth, climate change and the spread of alien invasive plants have also eliminated many native species. Many more are on the point of extinction.

Endemic species are often localized with a small number of individuals, making them susceptible to extinction. Any major disturbance such as fire or construction work could wipe them out, says de Montmollin.

The handbook emphasizes the need for on-site conservation rather than cultivation and reintroduction, as this is complicated and expensive. It is far more efficient to protect plants where they naturally occur and maintain “insurance” populations for worst case scenarios.

As this handbook is written for the lay person, the text has been made as simple and non-technical as possible. It is available in English and French, and the factsheets covering islands where Spanish, Italian and Greek are spoken have been translated into those languages.

Many more species than those listed in the booklet need urgent conservation action. The Mediterranean Island Plant Specialist Group, together with partners and the IUCN Centre for Mediterranean Cooperation, continues to identify threatened species in the region and propose further conservation action.

Find the Top 50 Mediterranean Island Plants at: