Mixing it up for Endangered Thursdays today and this species is brought to you straight from South Africa. When I first read the name “cycad” I thought of cicadas and figured it was some type of insect but it’s actually a plant! There are over 300 different species of cycads known to man and sadly, over 2/3rds of these species are endangered to the point of possible extinction.
Cycads have an interesting look. They are sort of a cross between a palm plant and a fern even though they are not related or remotely in the same family as a palm or fern. They have been on this planet for over 250 million years. That’s right, they were here during the dinosaur age and even before dinosaurs. They have survived three natural mass extinctions in that timeframe including the Ice Age, being munched on by dinosaurs themselves and the asteroid. Scientists have figured this out due to finding cycad remnants in fossils of dinosaur poop! Amazing.
Cycads, in ancient times were commonly used in food and in ceremonies. Preparing a cycad for consumption is a bit of process that requires extreme care because the fronds do contain toxins that are harmful if ingested. In ceremonies or in times of war, crossing cycad fronds were seen as a sign for peace. In fact, the country Vanuatu uses cycad fronds in their national flag:
The Y represents the chain of islands, red represents bloodshed for freedom, green represents fertile lands and black is representative of the original natives. The fronds crossed in the middle are symbolic of peace.
Cycad reproduction is quite interesting as well. It takes many years for a cone to be produced on a cycad plant and when it does, the cones is either male or female. They rely on insects to reproduce so what they’ll do is emit an odor that attracts insects like weevils to come and gather pollen from them and then they’ll turn around and emit a different odor to repel the insects when they’re done. A single cycad can live over 1000 years.
Cycads are the most endangered species on this planet; i.e. more than any group of animal or plant. The main cause for their steep decline is because they have been extensively overexploited. Poachers and even just some regular people illegally uproot them from the wild and transfer them to a domestic garden, assuming they survive. Cycads are worth a lot of money. There was an incident in 2014 where Albany cycads were stolen from Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town. Albany cycads are critically endangered as there are barely 100 mature individuals left in the wild and they have to receive hand pollination in order to reproduce. The thieves stole 24 cycads for a combined total of roughly $55,000 dollars USD.
There are a few conservation policies in place but not as much because the cycads aren’t cute like tigers, elephants and rhinos. Like other species in this world however, these are a piece of history, even prehistory if you want to get technical, that must be saved if we are able to do so. If you’re interested in donating to help preserve cycads, there are numerous organizations around the world that are putting in the effort to do their part. Just google “cycad conservation” and click any of the links to support.