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Leonardo DiCaprio has been a vocal environmental activist for years, and scientists honored his efforts by naming a critically endangered plant—and the first plant species described by science this year—after him, Damian Carrington reports for the Guardian.
The plant, Uvariopsis dicaprio, is an evergreen tree found in Cameroon. It reaches about 13 feet tall and has glossy, yellow-green leaves growing in bunches along its trunk. Researchers credit DiCaprio’s activism with helping save the tropical Ebo Forest, the plant’s home, Chen Ly reports for New Scientist.
Researchers from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBG) in the United Kingdom led the study to describe U. dicaprio, which was published this week in the journal Peer J.
“We very much appreciated the support Leo gave us in campaigning to protect Ebo last year so it seemed fitting to honor him in this way, naming a species unique only to this forest, after him,” study author Martin Cheek, a researcher at RBG Kew, says in a statement.
Botanists call this plant a “spectacular” species, but they counted fewer than 50 individuals in the forest. Concerningly, all known specimens grow in an unprotected region of the forest, earning it critically endangered status, New Scientist reports.
“It’s only once we know that a species exists, that we can do anything about getting it protected,” Cheek tells New Scientist.
In 2020, the government of Cameroon announced an initiative to log nearly 170,000 acres of the Ebo Forest’s 500,000 acres. The forest is home to a variety of endangered species, like critically endangered western gorillas and endangered forest elephants, sending conservationists into a panic, Elizabeth Claire Alberts previously reported for Mongabay.
Activists like DiCaprio sprang into action, petitioning against the logging.
Three weeks after the initial announcement from Cameroon’s government, the prime minister announced that the plans would be suspended, Mongabay reports.
“Had the logging concession gone ahead, we would have likely lost this species to timber extraction and slash and burn agriculture that usually follows logging concessions,” Cheek says.
Though plans to log Ebo came to a halt, U. dicaprio still grows in an unprotected part of the forest—threats like deforestation and mining could still threaten the plant, according to RBG Kew.
Researchers from RBG Kew described 205 plant and fungus species new to science in 2021. Some highlights include a tobacco plant in western Australia that traps insects with a sticky substance; a tiny fungus found growing inside a banana plant seed; and a “ghost orchid” that grows in complete darkness. Of the 400,000 plant species known to science, around 40 percent are at risk of extinction. Scientists say they’re racing to catalog the planet’s biodiversity before it’s too late, the Guardian reports.
“The planet is a poorer place when we lose the species that have taken, in most cases, millions of years to evolve,” Cheek tells New Scientist. “With so many useful products, from medicines to food to fibers, that come from plants, we don’t know what options we’re losing when these become extinct.”