Sheffield scientists bring cacti centre stage

Cacti have long been thought to be one of the groups of species that has in recent times suffered most from human activities, including over-harvesting and habitat change. However, the evidence to date has been rather limited. It has been clear that some species are highly threatened with extinction, but not so obvious how typical this is.

As part of the Global Cactus Assessment, researchers at the University of Sheffield have so far worked alongside experts from Costa Rica, Mexico and the USA, to review the Meso-American region in order to identify the distribution, threats and status of each of the species that occur there.

Supported by funding from the National Commission on the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO), the National Commission for Protected Areas (CONANP), Conservation International, and the National Institute of Ecology (INE), the experts drew on their combined knowledge of taxonomy, occurrence and ecology, and were able to evaluate a total of 225 species.

Dr Bárbara Goettsch, from the University´s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, who co-leads and coordinates the Global Cactus Assessment, said: "It has been fantastic to see the world´s experts on this group of plant species coming together with the common goal of bringing their years of experience and vast knowledge to best understand the plight that they face."

Professor Kevin Gaston, also from the University´s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, and who co-leads the Global Cactus Assessment, observed: "This is the first attempt systematically to assess the international conservation status of a diverse group of plants, and will hopefully set a new benchmark for how we think about the threats that plants face. Previous work on amphibians and mammals has been very influential on conservation thinking and we trust that the same will be true of this research."

Future research will address cactus species from the Andes, the Caribbean, and the Chihuhuan and Sonoran deserts, allowing scientists to build up an overall picture of this truly charismatic group of plants.