DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
For generations, golfers have gotten goosebumps as they drive down Magnolia Lane, under the canopy of southern magnolias framing the Augusta National Golf Club. Farther north the deciduous magnolias are now in flower. In some parts of the country, these magnolias are even past their prime, their petals stomped into a sticky brown pulp on the sidewalk. But the fate of many of the world's wild magnolias is far, far worse. They may never see spring again. We tell their story this week on Science Out of The Box.
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ELLIOTT: Empty forests. That's what researchers found when they looked for wild magnolias around the globe - from Asia, where about two-thirds of wild magnolias live, to the United States and as far south as Colombia. Sara Oldfield is secretary general of Botanic Gardens Conservation International and one of the authors of a study published this week by two British conservation groups.
Ms. SARA OLDFIELD (Secretary General, Botanic Gardens Conservation International): Well, we contacted expert in all the countries where magnolias occur in the wild and found that over half of all the species of magnolias in the wild are threatened with extinction.
ELLIOTT: That's 131 of the world's 245 known wild species in danger. Mostly, Oldfield says, because of deforestation. The researchers compared maps of magnolia trees with satellite maps of the forests they live in. They found, not surprisingly, that as forests were cut back magnolias were cut back too.
Ms. OLDFIELD: For example, in Colombia, one species, magnolia wolfii, is reduced to less than 10 individuals and that's the consequence of coffee plantations taking over the national habitat of that species.
ELLIOTT: But Richard Figlar, scientific advisor of the International Magnolia Society, says wild magnolias themselves are partly responsible for their predicament.
Mr. RICHARD FIGLAR (International Magnolia Society): They are gap colonizers. That is a tend to seed themselves in little disturbances in the forests, sometimes called gaps. So as a result, all 240 or so species of magnolias is relatively uncommon where they grow, or in fact I can say mostly rare.
ELLIOTT: Wipe out just one little pocket of magnolias and the whole species is gone, just as of all the finches died on an island in the Galapagos. So about that species in Colombia where only 10 trees are left? Not surprising, Figlar says.
Mr. FIGLAR: In fact in Colombia, all 30 species are endangered species in remote mountain areas.
ELLIOTT: It was a kind of gamble that magnolias took millions of years ago, heading for the hills. That debt, though, paid of for a really long time.
Mr. FIGLAR: The earliest magnolia fossils are known to be about 75 to 85 million years old. They would have seen the end of the dinosaurs, for example. Perhaps dinosaurs munched on these trees at one time.
ELLIOTT: They've survived continental drift, mountain formation, even ice ages. But there is not much a magnolia tree can do about a chainsaw. So Sara Oldfield and her colleagues are trying to store away samples of the threatened magnolias in botanical gardens across the world, hoping for a time when they can be replanted in the wild.
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