In order to promote the persistence and possible spread of extremely rare plant species, ecologists need to know why a species is rare in the first place. In 1986, Deborah Rabinowitz identified seven forms of rarity, where rarity could mean several things depending on range size, habitat specificity and population sizes. When considering rarity, it often feels intuitive to look for environmental causes for these different forms of rarity. Habitat alteration is an obvious environmental change that affects abundance and distribution, but are rare species generally limited by habitat or resource availability? The alternative cause of rarity could just be that sufficient habitat exists, but that the rare species is simply unable to find or disperse to other sites. An extreme example of this would be the Devil's Hole pupfish which exists at only a single pool. It can survive elsewhere (such as in artificial tanks) but natural dispersal is impossible as its pool is in a desert.
In a recent paper by Birgit Seifert and Markus Fischer in Biological Conservation, they examine whether an endangered plant, Armeria maritima subsp. elongata, was limited because of a lack of habitats or if it was dispersal limited. They collected seeds from eight populations and experimentally added these seeds to their original populations and to uninhabited, but apparently appropriate sites. They found that seeds germinated equally well in inhabited and uninhabited sites and seedlings had similar survivorships. They found that variation in germination rates were likely caused by originating population size and that low genetic diversity and inbreeding reduce viability.
These results reinforce two things. First is that conserving species may only require specific activities, such as collect and distributing seeds. Here ideas like assisted migration seem like valuable conservation strategies. Secondly, we really need to be doing these simple experiments to better understand why species are rare. If we fail to understand the causes of rarity, we may be wasting valuable resources when try to protect rare species.
Seifert, B., & Fischer, M. (2010). Experimental establishment of a declining dry-grassland flagship species in relation to seed origin and target environment Biological Conservation DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2010.02.028