In a thrilling breakthrough, a team of explorers has discovered the Pernambuco holly tree, an elusive species considered extinct after almost two centuries of invisibility. The tree, scientifically known as Ilex sapiiformis and capable of reaching a height of almost 40 feet, was found in northeast Brazil by an expedition led by renowned ecologist Gustavo Martinelli. The team’s discovery, made in March, consists of four specimens – two males and two females – nestled in a forest fragment adjacent to a sugarcane plantation in Igarassu, a municipality within the greater metropolitan area of Recife in Pernambuco state.
The rediscovery of the Pernambuco holly, initially described by science in 1861 from a specimen collected in 1838, represents a significant leap in botanical research. Until this recent discovery, the original specimen was the only confirmed record of this species. The team, in a painstaking effort to locate the tree, spent months reviewing herbarium records worldwide before an unidentified sample from 1962 offered a clue that guided researcher Juliana Alencar to potential survey areas. This triumphant discovery underscores the persistent resilience of nature, even amidst the urban sprawl and sugarcane plantations that have largely replaced the once-dominant tropical Atlantic Forest.
Rediscovery of the Rare Pernambuco Holly Tree: A Botanical Triumph
In an unprecedented botanical discovery, ecologist Gustavo Martinelli and his team have located the rare Pernambuco holly tree (Ilex sapiiformis) in northeast Brazil, nearly two centuries after the last confirmed sighting. The tree, which can grow up to 12 meters (almost 40 feet) in height, was believed by many to be extinct. The team found four of these trees, two male and two female, nestled in a fragment of forest adjacent to a sugarcane plantation in the Igarassu municipality of Pernambuco state.
The Joy of Rediscovery
Upon finding the trees, local researcher Juliana Alencar said that the discovery was like a pause in the world’s turning, a rare and incredible moment of joy for the entire team. This sentiment was echoed by Professor Milton Groppo from the University of São Paulo, who likened the discovery to finding a long-lost relative known only from old portraits.
An Arduous Search
The Pernambuco holly was first recorded by science in 1861 from a specimen collected in 1838. Until now, that lone specimen was the only confirmed record of this species. The team combed through herbarium records globally for months before a previously unidentified sample from 1962 provided a lead that helped Alencar pinpoint areas for survey. The team faced challenges in identifying the inconspicuous greenish flowers of the tree among similar species, but they successfully located the four Pernambuco holly trees on their second day in the field.
A Threatened Habitat
The Atlantic Forest, where the trees reside, once dominated the area but now primarily consists of urban sprawl interspersed with sugarcane plantations. Less than 7% of the original forest biome remains, primarily in fragments of less than 50 hectares, or about 120 acres. Unfortunately, one of the rediscovered trees has already died, likely due to flooding.
The Fight for Conservation
Given the perilous situation of the Pernambuco holly, researchers are eager to find more trees, work with landowners to better protect the site, and collect seeds to germinate more trees. However, funding these efforts remains a challenge. U.S.-based NGO Re:wild is collaborating with Martinelli to get the area listed as an Alliance for Zero Extinction site, as it is the only known habitat of the Pernambuco holly. If successful, this could unlock resources to help the tree’s survival. The Pernambuco holly is one of the 25 "most wanted" lost plant and animal species targeted for rediscovery by the Search for Lost Species project. It is the ninth species to be "rediscovered" since the initiative began in 2017.
The rediscovery of the Pernambuco holly in a metropolitan area home to nearly six million people reinforces the importance of continued exploration and conservation efforts. Despite the absence of confirmed sightings for over 186 years, this tree managed to survive in the last fragments of the wild, serving as a powerful reminder of nature’s resilience and our responsibility to protect it.