The rugged basaltic rock terrain of the islands makes research slow and difficult. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
For more than a century, the Marquesas Islands have been a destination for artists, writers, and musicians from the West, looking for a tropical hideaway. French painter Paul Gauguin and Belgian singer Jacques Brel both moved to the islands at the end of their lives and eventually died there. Writers such as Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Thor Heyerdahl visited the islands and were inspired to write books about their experiences.
In spite of this notable attention, the small island chain in the South Pacific has received little attention from botanists and biologists. Until the late 1980s, in fact, no comprehensive surveys of the islands' biodiversity had been conducted. This is slowly changing and with each new expedition a number of new and highly specialized species are discovered.Since 1988, two projects—the Vascular Flora of the Marquesas Islands and the Flore de la Polynésie Française—have worked in conjunction to document the unique flora of the islands. In that time, 62 new species have been discovered, including 18 during the most recent survey. This represents a 20 percent increase in the number of species known on the island prior to the beginning of the projects.
Researcher Steve Perlman collects specimens on cliff, Ua Huka, Marquesas Islands. Photo credit: Jean-Yves Meyer, Tahiti
Senior project leader David Lorence explained:
Intensive field work has revealed that most of these new species are extremely rare and localized endemics, often confined to a single island. Many are known only from one or two localities harboring intact native vegetation that have so far escaped pressures from invasive plant species and feral animals.
This means that all of the new species are immediately classified as either critically endangered, endangered, or threatened.
The project underscores how poorly understood the ecology of many tropical islands is.