A Relictual Palm in the American Southwest

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Scattered throughout hidden oases nestled in the southwest corner of North America grows a glorious species of palm known to science as Washingtonia filifera. This charismatic tree goes by a handful of common names such as the desert fan palm, petticoat palm, and California fan palm. No matter what you call it, there is no denying that this palm is both unique and important to this arid region.

Populations of the desert fan palm are few and far between, occurring in a few scattered locations throughout the Colorado and Mojave Deserts. This palm can’t grow just anywhere in these deserts either. Instead, its need for water restricts it to small oases where springs, streams, or a perched water table can keep them alive.

Fossil evidence from Wyoming suggests that the restricted distribution of this palm is a relatively recent occurrence. Though not without plenty of debate, our current understanding of the desert fan palm is that it could once be found growing throughout a significant portion of western North America but progressive drying has seen its numbers dwindle to the small pockets of trees we know today.

The good news is that, despite being on conservation lists for its rarity, the desert fan palm appears to be expanding its range ever so slightly. One major component of this range expansion has to do with human activity. The desert fan palm makes a gorgeous specimen plant for anyone looking to add a tropical feel to their landscape. As such, it has been used in plantings far outside of its current range. Some reports suggest that it is even becoming naturalized in places like Death Valley, Sonoran Mexico, and even as far away as Florida and Hawai’i.

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Other aspects contributing to its recent range expansion are also attributable to human activity, though indirectly. For one, with human settlement comes agriculture, and with agriculture comes wells and other forms of irrigation. It is likely that the seeds of the desert fan palm can now find suitably wet areas for germination where they simply couldn’t before. Also, humans have done a great job at providing habitat for potential seed dispersers, especially in the form of coyotes and fruit-eating birds.

It’s not just an increase in seed dispersers that may be helping the desert fan palm. Pollinators may be playing a role in its expansion as well, though in a way that may seem a bit counterintuitive. With humans comes a whole slew of new plants in the area. This greatly adds to the floral resources available for insect pollinators like bees.

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Historically it has been noted that bees, especially carpenter bees, tend to be rather aggressive with palm inflorescences as they gather pollen, which may actually reduce pollination success. It is possible that with so many new pollen sources on the landscape, carpenter bees are visiting palm flowers less often, which actually increases the amount of pollen available for fertilizing palm ovules. This means that the palms could be setting more seed than ever before. Far more work will be needed before this mechanism can be confirmed.

Aside from its unique distribution, the desert fan palm has an amazing ecology. Capable of reaching heights of 80 ft. (25 m) or more and decked out in a skirt of dead fronds, the desert fan palm is a colossus in the context of such arid landscapes. It goes without saying that such massive trees living in desert environments are going to attract their fair share of attention. The thick skirt of dead leaves that cloaks their trunks serve as vital refuges for everything from bats and birds, to reptiles and countless of insects. Fibers from its leaves are often used to build nests and line dens.

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And don’t forget the fruit! Desert fan palms can produce copious amount of hard fruits in good years. These fruits go on to feed many animals. Coupled with the fact that the desert fan palm always grows near a water source and you can begin to see why these palms are a cornerstone of desert oases. There has been some concern over the introduction of an invasive red palm weevil (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus), however, researchers were able to demonstrate that the desert fan palm has a trick up its sleeve (leaf skirt?) for dealing with these pests.

It turns out that desert fan palms are able to kill off any of these weevils as they try to burrow into its trunk. The desert fan palm secretes a gummy resin into damaged areas, which effectively dissuaded most adults and killed off developing beetle larvae. For now it seems that resistance is enough to protect this palm from this weevil scourge.

It is safe to say that regardless of its limited distribution, the desert fan palm is one tough plant. Its towering trunks and large, fan-like leaves stand as a testament to the wonderful ways in which natural selection shapes organisms. It is a survivor and one that has benefited a bit from our obsession with cultivating palms.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]


On Soil and Speciation

Lord Howe Island

Many of you will undoubtedly be familiar with some variation of this evolutionary story: A population of one species becomes geographically isolated from another population of the same species. Over time, these two separate populations gradually evolve in response to environmental pressures in their respective habitats. After enough time has elapsed, gradual genetic changes result in reproductive isolation and eventually the formation of two new species. This is called allopatric speciation and countless examples of this exist in the real world.

At the opposite end of this speciation spectrum is sympatric speciation. Under this scenario, physical isolation does not occur. Instead, through some other form of isolation, perhaps reproductive or phenological, a species gives rise to two new species despite still having contact. Examples of this in nature are far less common but various investigations have shown it is indeed possible. Despite its rarity, examples of sympatric speciation have nonetheless been found and one incredible example has occurred on a small oceanic island off the coast of Australia called Lord Howe Island.

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Lord Howe Island is relatively small, volcanic island that formed approximately 6.4–6.9 million years ago. It is home to four distinct species of palm trees from three different genera, all of which are endemic. Of these four different palms, two species, Howea belmoreana and Howea forsteriana, are quite common. Interestingly enough, H. forsteriana, commonly known as the kentia palm, is one of the most commonly grown houseplants in the entire world. However, their horticultural value is not the most interesting thing about these palms. What is most remarkable is how these two species arose. 

Multiple genetic analyses have reveled that both species originated on Lord Howe Island. This is kind of odd considering how small the island actually is. Both palms can regularly be found growing in the vicinity of one another so the big question here is what exactly drove the evolution of their common ancestor? How does a single species growing on a small, isolated island become two? The answer is quite surprising.

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When researchers took a closer look at the natural histories of these two species, they found that they were in a sense isolated from one another. The isolation is due to major phenological or timing differences in their reproductive efforts. H. forsteriana flowers roughly six weeks before H. belmoreana. Flowering time is certainly enough to drive a wedge between populations but the question that still needed answering was how do such phenological asynchronies occur, especially on an island with a land area less than 12 square kilometers? 

As it turns out, the answer all comes down to soil. Individuals of H. belmoreana are restricted to growing in neutral to acidic soils whereas H. forsteriana seems to prefer to grow in soils rich in calcarenite. These soils have a more basic pH and dominate the low lying areas of the island. Growing in calcarenite soils is stressful as they are poor in nutrients. This physiological stress has caused a shift in the way in which the flowers of H. forsteriana mature. When found growing on richer volcanic soils, the researchers noted that the flowers mature in a way that is more synchronous, not unlike the flowers of H. belmoreana.

Thanks to their attention to detailed life history events and conditions, researchers were able to show that soil preferences caused a phenological shift in the flowering of these two related species. Because they flower at completely different times when growing on their respective soil types, enough reproductive isolation was introduced to disrupt the random mating process of these wind pollinated palms. As soon as such reproductive biases are introduced, speciation can and will occur.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1]

Ancient Saw Palmettos in the Heart of Florida

When we think about long lived plants, our minds tend to fixate on bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva), coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), or that clonal patch of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) in Utah. What would you say if I told you that we can add a palm tree to that list? Indeed, recent evidence suggests that the saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) can reach a ripe old age measured in thousands (yes, thousands) of years.

Now, at this point some of you are probably thinking "how can you measure the age of a palm when there are no annual growth rings?!" This is a legitimate hurdle that had to be overcome before such a claim was made. Using a lot of attention to detail and some crafty mathematics, a team of researchers was able to age saw palmettos in Florida's most ancient habitats.

This work was performed on a peculiar geological formation. Aptly named the "Mid-Florida Ridge," this 150 mile sand ridge bisects the middle of the state. Throughout much of the Pliocene and early Pleistocene, sea levels were as much as 50 meters higher than they were today. Nearly all of Florida was underwater during this time. All that stuck out above the water were a series of small islands. These islands served as refugia for flora and fauna pushed south by repeated glaciations. Once the ocean receded to its current level, these islands were left high and dry, thus forming the ridge in question. Because of its history as a refugium, the Mid-Florida Ridge is home to a staggering array of plant species, some of which are endemic to this relatively small area of Florida.

Because of its relative stability through time, the Mid-Florida Ridge is a haven for long lived plant species. Thus, it was a prime location for trying to understand the longevity of the charismatic and ecologically important saw palmetto. By tagging individual palms and observing them year after year, researchers were able to get an idea of exactly how fast this species can grow. Depending on soil conditions, saw palmettos grow at a rate of somewhere between 0.88 and 2.2 cm per year. They certainly aren't winning any speed races at that rate. Regardless, you can begin to see that an estimate of yearly growth rate can shine a light on how long these palms have been around. Measurements of tagged palmettos growing on the sand ridge show that individuals aged at a staggering 500 years are not uncommon!

The light sandy looking area in the middle is the Mid-Florida Ridge

This estimate gets a bit complicated when we consider another aspect of saw palmetto biology - they are clonal. For a variety of reasons, as saw palmettos grow, their sprawling stem will often branch out, creating clones of themselves. Over time, the trunk portions that connect these clones rot away, giving the impression that they are unique individuals. Genetic analyses showed that many of the palmettos in the study area were actually clones. Using some pretty sophisticated models coupled with DNA evidence, the research team was able to reconstruct the growth history of many of these clones, thus allowing them to more accurately age these clonal colonies.

Their results are staggering to say the least. Based on the rate of growth and spread, the estimated age of these clonal patches of saw palmetto range anywhere between 1227–5215 years! At this point you should be asking yourself "how accurate are these data?" The truth is that the researchers were actually being quite conservative in their estimates. For instance, there were likely many clones well outside their study area. If so, they were likely underestimating the growth time of these clonal colonies. Additionally, they were only using the growth rates of adult saw palmettos in calculating average growth rates.

Seedling saw palmettos have been shown to have a reduced growth rate compared to adults, only 0.3 cm per year. Thus, they did not take into account the time it takes for seedlings to reach maturity. The team feel that accounting for such variables could increase the age estimates for such clonal patches to well over 8,000 years! I don't think we should be looking into buying that many birthday candles just yet, however, even their reported estimates are shocking to say the least.

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What we can say is that for as long as Florida has been above water, saw palmettos have played an integral role in the ecology of the region. Long before humans began developing the state, the saw palmetto was functioning as a major player, shaping these sand ridge communities into the ecosystems they are today. It is without a doubt, a species worthy of our admiration and respect.

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1]