After nearly 200 years without a sighting, the Pernambuco holly species had become lost amongst many others, but now in northeastern Brazil, blossoming plants have exposed the rare plant. Four trees were located in a forest region near a sugarcane plantation near the city of Recife. An expedition team led by ecologist Gustavo Martinelli discovered the tree back in March [2023]. To date, Martinelli has rediscovered more than 20 “lost” species during his science career, and this expedition seems hopeful.

“It seemed that the world had stopped turning its gears…Finding a species that hasn’t been heard of in nearly two centuries doesn’t happen every day. It was an incredible moment, and the emotion of it was felt throughout the entire team,” stated local researcher Juliana Alencar.

The Pernambuco holly was discovered in 1838, and announced by science in 1861, the only specimen seen and collected until now. The team spent months searching through global herbarium records eventually finding a specimen collected in 1962 that helped them narrow down surveyed pinpointed areas. They searched four areas in the Recife metropolitan area, and on their second day in the field they found the holly plant. The rediscovered trees live within an urban sprawl that was once dominated by tropical Atlantic Forests. Less than 7% of the original forest biomes exist, mostly in sporadic fragments making up less than 120 acres each. The trees also are growing close to a river, usually that would be a good growth spot as the river can supply subsequent amounts of water, but this particular river has been experiencing heavy floods. Due to the flooding, one of the trees has already died, as its roots became inundated with water.

Now the species is in a state of emergency, according to the research team. Martinelli and the team have joined forces with Re:wild, a U.S. based NGO, to develop preservation initiatives to get the growth site listed as an Alliance for Zero Extinction. If they are able to make the site an AZE site, that means more resources could potentially be available to help save the holly. Currently, the Pernambuco holly is one of the 25 “most wanted” lost species targeted for rediscovery by the Special for Lost Species project. Since the initiative began in 2017, this species is the ninth to be rediscovered.  

“Even if a plant hasn’t had a confirmed sighting in 186 years, it could still be hanging on in the last vestiges of the wild somewhere, and this tree is a perfect example of why it’s important to keep looking,” stated Re:wild’s Lost Species Program Officer, Christina Biggs.