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Pioneering project returns rare fern to wild

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A pioneering conservation project to reintroduce a rare species of fern that has been extinct in the wild for more than 100 years has begun to bear fruit.

The Governor Laffan's fern was last seen growing in Bermuda in 1905 and efforts to reestablish the plant in 1960 failed.

But now, thanks to a partnership between conservation experts on the Island and the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, there is a chance the fern could make a comeback from the brink of extinction in Bermuda.

Last November, thousands of fern spores cultivated by Marge From in Omaha were brought to Bermuda and planted across the Island.

Alison Copeland, a biodiversity officer for the Department of Conservation Services, said: “Between November 24, 2014, and March 4, 2015, 41 Governor Laffan's fern were planted at three sites in the Walsingham Nature Reserve.

“Additionally, in January 2015, eight ferns were placed in the Bermuda Audubon Society's nature reserve at Sear's Cave.

“This was the first attempt at reintroduction using the plants produced by Omaha Zoo. One of the sites was a total failure, but at least some of the ferns survived at the other three.

“We really won't be able to call the reintroduction a success until the ferns survive to adulthood and reproduce viable juveniles in the wild. What we eventually want to see is self-sustaining populations that do not need any assistance from us.”

Last month, Ms From and lab technician Melanie Landry from Omaha returned to Bermuda with more Governor Laffan's ferns. The duo also joined Ms Copeland in visiting the sites where the ferns had been planted the year before. Ms Copeland said: “When Marge and Melanie were in Bermuda delivering the latest ferns in November, Kimberly Burch from the plant protection lab and I were able to take them into Walsingham and show them six ferns at one of the caves which had survived since last year. It was a really special moment for all of us.”

Ms Burch has been working since 2009 on techniques to help the ferns to grow in pots and to get them to successfully produce roots.

“Great care has been taken to recover this fern species,” she said. “Like most endemic plant species, it is slow-growing and due to the lack of historical data on where and how this plant was growing in the wild, we have to start from scratch for us to have growing success.

“Various growing and planting trials are taking place to provide us with data on what media and environmental conditions the fern grows best in.

“We receive little official funding for this project but have received donations of equipment from the public, which is very helpful. It is truly a labour of love for us.”

Ms Copeland told The Royal Gazette that further reintroductions were planned this winter.

“The work of separating and potting the new fern shipment will continue into the New Year,” she added. “Last winter, data loggers were placed at seven sites where I either have planted ferns, or am planning to plant them. This month I downloaded the loggers, so we now have a full year of temperature, light intensity and relative humidity data for the sites.

“I have also been able to put two sets of data loggers at a cave that had Governor Laffan's fern growing in the early 1900s.

“This environmental data should be helpful for interpreting why the planted ferns are surviving in one place and not another.”

Back from the brink: two Governor Laffan's ferns that were planted on November 24, 2014
Returning to Bermuda: some of the sterile flasks containing Governor Laffan's ferns that were brought to the Island last month
Making a comeback: large Governor Laffan's ferns that were planted at Walsingham Nature Reserve in January of this year

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Published December 23, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated December 23, 2015 at 8:26 am)

Pioneering project returns rare fern to wild

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