'Extinct' Plant Rediscovered on Remote Volcano Cliff

The long-lost Ascension Island parsley ferns were discovered on the volcanic Green Mountain. kwest/Shutterstock

Presumed functionally extinct for the last 60 years, the Ascension Island parsley fern (Anogramma ascensionis) was believed to have been gobbled into oblivion by goats first introduced to the island by Portuguese explorers back in the 1500s. But in a remarkable survival story, four tiny budding plants have been rediscovered clinging to life on the edge of a volcano.

According to the BBC, exploratory botanists noticed the minute plant, which looks like a very small parsley bush, while repelling down Ascension Island's Green Mountain, the island's large, foreboding and steeply sloping volcano.

"We came across this beautiful little fern and immediately knew it was the lost Anogramma that had been extinct for the last 60 years," said conservationist Stedson Stroud, one of the explorers who discovered the plant. "We were scrambling around, looking to see if there were more, and then we realized, we should really have safety ropes and stuff around us."

After a thorough examination, the two researchers discovered a total of four ferns barely clinging to existence on the remote rock face. Stroud noted that in the excitement of the moment, both he and his colleague Phil Lamden "forgot where they were".

As far as they knew, these were the last four Ascension Island parsley ferns in the world, so a rescue effort was immediately organized. Stroud recruited his colleague, Olivia Renshaw, and for several weeks the researchers dangled perilously by ropes to nurse the plants to health.

"Olivia and I went down twice a week carrying water and we set up a drip feed," Mr. Stroud recalled. "You have to be really careful because if you slip you're a goner."

Anogramma ascensionis is one of only 10 plant species endemic to Ascension Island, a remote volcanic island dominated by lava flows in the middle of the Southern Atlantic Ocean. The plant was officially declared extinct in 2003, since not a single specimen had been seen-- until now-- since 1958.

After the plants were sufficiently restored to health, Stroud and Renshaw descended the cliff one last time to collect a few small samplings of the fern's spores. The samples were then placed in a sterile container and rushed to a nearby airfield and flown to a military airport in the UK, where a car was waiting to race them to London's Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

Today as many as 60 Anogramma are safely growing in cultures at Kew, an incredible recovery for a plant believed to have been lost forever. A few more plants are also growing back in their native home on Ascension Island, in a shade house designed by Stroud himself.

"Each and every day, you're there, tending and looking, and hoping that something will happen. Then one day you see something and, watching the plants grow, you can't ask for anything more," said Stroud. "It's so satisfying, bringing a plant back from the brink of extinction."