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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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NMSU Scientist Studies Endangered Plants

LAS CRUCES - People usually think of cuddly pandas, spotted owls and soaring eagles when they hear the words "endangered species." But Mark Andersen, a New Mexico State University wildlife scientist, thinks of orchids with strange flowers and other tropical plant species.

"All sorts of species are going extinct on a yearly basis and the bulk of them are plants and some insects," he said. "When species go extinct, that's considered a loss in biodiversity.11

Andersen, an assistant professor of fishery and wildlife sciences, uses mathematical models to study bio diversity losses in tropical rain forests and other habitats.

Models are important because they provide estimates of losses that can't easily be measured directly. "Slogging through tropical rain forests and trying to cover every square inch would be nearly impossible and very expensive," Andersen said.

Worldwide, the biggest threat to biodiversity is habitat loss. Deforestation in the tropics, marine pollution of coral reefs and coastal development all contribute to the loss.

Before coming to NMSU in July 1994, Andersen was on the faculty at the University of California, Irvine. He worked with researchers there on modeling species extinction rates. Th ey estimated that in Latin American tropical nations between 71 and, 95 plant species are lost each year to deforestation.

The researchers also studied distribution of two types of orchids that are very popular with plant enthusiasts Masdevallia and Dracula.

The majority of the species of these two orchids, which grow on tropical trees and bear strange flowers shaped like bats, are found at only one location each. Researchers estimated that 46 Masdevallia and 14 Dracula species have already been lost, with annual extinction rates of 1 and 0.3, respectively.

"The main result of our model-is that plants with highly restricted geographic distributions plants found in only one, or two places are really prone to habitat loss and extinction," he said.

Andersen said scientists are concerned with losses in biodiversity for a number of reasons. "One of the most important arguments for protecting biodiversity is that we still don't really understand the way complicated ecosystems work.

Therefore, we don't know how individual components affect other components in the system," he said.

For example, in Hawaii human colonization has wiped out most of the state's native birds. Because a lot of Hawaiian plants depend on these birds for pollination and seed dispersal, the plants are now going extinct. "Once the plants are gone, you have to wonder what depends on them," he said.

Another reason to be concerned about biodiversity is that most plants worldwide have yet to be studied for pharmaceutical properties. "We don't know whether there are rare plants out there that are potentially useful as medicines, or even as food," he said.

Also, because of their scientific curiosity, researchers don't want species to go extinct before they have the chance to study them. "Different plants and animals are pretty interesting in their own right," he said.

At NMSU, Andersen is continuing his collaboration with the researchers at Irvine. They're trying to come up with better descriptions and more precise mathematical equations for the geographic ranges of certain plants species. They're also studying plant distributions closer to home in more temperate regions to see if the same patterns of extinction occur as in tropical regions.

Andersen also studies desert tortoises, and birds and reptiles at White Sands Missile Range. In addition to his research, he teaches courses in population ecology and research methods at NMSU.