Science | April 11, 2022 6:30 am

Cycads Survived Multiple Mass Extinctions. Can They Survive Poaching?

A number of species are at risk

Some species of cycads are older than dinosaurs.
andy_king50, CC BY-SA 3.0

Travel to certain corners of the world and you might just find yourself sharing space with a type of plant that has endured since before dinosaurs walked the earth. Those would be cycads, which trace their history back to hundreds of millions of years ago — and whose distinctive biology and means of reproduction reflect their long history and relatively early evolution.

As a new article in Smithsonian Magazine points out, cycads have managed to endure three different mass extinction events. That’s the good news. The bad news? Like a host of other species, their continued survival is at risk due to human actions.

In this case, the culprit has to do with poaching. A 2005 New York Times Magazine article explored the phenomenon of poaching cycads, which is done in large part due to their scarcity. (It also mentions that several prominent celebrities were — at least at the time — rumored to have amassed legal cycad collections.) International treaties have sought to put an end to poaching, but an illegal trade in some cycads persists.

As the Smithsonian Magazine article notes, humanity’s ability to alter the natural world has also been a contributing factor in the threats cycads face. Hopefully we won’t see the day when “wiped out a line of plants hundreds of millions of years old” can be added to the list of humanity’s accomplishments.