WAILUKU - Scientists have discovered what they believe is a new plant species found only in East Maui's Ko'olau Forest Reserve and documented several plant species thought to be near extinction, the Nature Conservancy reported this week.
"We set out to document rare plants in areas not known to have much human presence . . . and the discoveries were pretty amazing," said Pat Bily, the conservancy's invasive plant specialist on Maui.
The findings come from a four-month survey that stretched across 24 miles and four separate large drainage areas of the state's forest reserve, at elevations ranging from 2,700 to 4,400 feet.
Nature Conservancy photo
Nature Conservancy officials and other local researchers surveying the East Maui watershed recently came upon an undetermined species presently dubbed as Melicope sp, which they believe is a new species. The National Tropical Botanical Garden and the Smithsonian Institution are currently verifying whether the single mature seed capsule from the plant is a new species.
The Nature Conservancy conducted the survey in cooperation with the state Division of Forestry and Wildlife.
Among the most important finds were two species related to the fragrant Hawaiian mokihana, according to the conservancy.
About 10 trees of the endangered Melicope ovalis, or wild pelea, were counted.
"Melicope ovalis is only found in East Maui," Bily said. "We had a hunch we'd see some, but we definitely found more than we expected."
Researchers also came upon an undetermined species presently dubbed Melicope sp., which they believe is a new species.
During the survey, the researchers also found a single mature seed capsule that is being used to confirm the identification of the species, Bily said. Botanists have been aware of the plant for years, but they haven't been able to find any fruit or seed capsules that are essential for the confident identification of species.
The National Tropical Botanical Garden and the Smithsonian Institution are currently verifying whether the capsule is a new species.
Field crews from the East Maui Watershed Partnership and the Maui Invasive Species Committee assisted in the survey. The work is part of an ongoing partnership effort to map the biological richness of the 100,000-acre East Maui watershed, which is home to 74 rare plant species and the greatest concentration of endangered forest birds in the United States.
Also during the survey, new ranges and populations were found for some of East Maui's rarest plants, including five lobeliad species found only in East Maui and three rare species that scientists had worried were on the brink of extinction: Christella boydiae (a fern, also known as Kupukupu makali'i), Clermontia samuelii subsp. hanaensis (a terrestrial shrub), and Cyanea mceldowneyi (an unbranched shrub).
The findings have increased the known population of the plants by 50 percent, Bily said.
Because new populations of the three rare species were found in a secure habitat, the three are no longer considered priority high-risk species, added Hank Oppenheimer, the Maui Nui coordinator of the Division of Forestry and Wildlife 's Plant Extinction Prevention Program.
Oppenheimer, along with Ken Wood, a botanist and conservation biologist with the National Tropical Botanical Garden and Kerri Fay, the data/GIS specialist at the Nature Conservancy's Maui field office also assisted with the project.
The Nature Conservancy funded the survey. For more information, contact Bily at 856-7665 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.