A plant facing extinction is now thriving due to the efforts of one professor and her team. Though this white-petaled plant is small, its disappearance could play a large role in the degradation of habitats and other species.

“The organisms within a habitat rely on each other to an extent,” said UC Santa Cruz greenhouse director Jim Velzy, who is currently managing the plants. “When you remove an individual and it doesn’t grow in a certain area anymore, the other individuals relying on it suffer. That’s the biggest reason to maintain diversity within a population.”

The Arenaria paludicola, or marsh sandwort, is a plant once found all along the West Coast, until it was only found in a wetland in San Luis Obispo, Calif. UCSC professor and Jean H. Langenheim Chair in plant ecology and evolution Ingrid Parker was asked by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to lead the efforts in the plant’s recovery.

“For all of us who care about biodiversity, the chance to help save an endangered species from extinction is a great opportunity to make a great impact on the world,” Parker said.

The marsh sandwort couldn’t be found in its earlier habitats due to the impact of human development, such as agricultural and urban projects. Much of its historical locations have been converted to housing developments, Parker said.

The effort began in 2008 with some experiments in the UCSC greenhouses both to determine conditions the marsh sandwort needed to grow and to discover possible long term habitats. Additional pilot experiments occurred in Santa Cruz County, leading to experimental transplants at Marin Headlands, which involved much undergraduate assistance. One of the undergraduates involved was Krystal Acierto, who joined the team as a lead student investigator.

“Most transplants are not successful, especially those involving endangered species,” Acierto said. “It was difficult watching many of the plants die off and trying to draw conclusions on exactly why they were dying, given that there are so many different environmental factors that could be playing a part.”

UCSC greenhouse director Jim Velzy said a number of different locations and environments were tested in researching which conditions the plant needs to grow.

“I’ll grow whatever they give me,” Velzy said, laughing.

Velzy said the majority of the collection is successfully being maintained at UCSC.

“We have all of the different individual [plants] growing that were originally collected so we can simulate and propagate them,” Velzy said.

The experiments led the team to find new information about the plant which would allow them to better understand the habitat that the marsh sandwort could thrive in. The team learned that the plant can survive in habitats different than the population’s original habitat. The researchers also discovered that the plant does better without standing water, despite being found in a freshwater bog of standing water in San Luis Obispo.

Megan Bontrager, another undergraduate who worked on the project with UCSC professor and Jean H. Langenheim Chair in plant ecology and evolution Ingrid Parker, helped monitor the plant.

“Learning that this highly endangered plant has a little bit more flexibility for the types of habitat it can survive in gives us more options in terms of future conservation efforts,” Bontrager said.

Another critical part of the project was the plant’s ability to reproduce in the experiments. Parker said it was very exciting to see the plants flowering and making seeds because such activity had not been seen in the wild before. The plants were reproducing and producing new genetic individuals, Bontrager said. An increase in its genetic diversity then gives the marsh sandwort a better chance to survive and adapt to different habitats.

The plant is also flourishing in its varying locations in Marin County. Due to the dry conditions and the current drought, the plant will be periodically checked to see how it will fare this year, Parker said.

“One of the things about this project is we want to make a difference that lasts forever,” Parker said. “We want to save this species from extinction.”