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AI is helping to find a female partner for the world's loneliest plant: 'Tale of unrequited love'

As the male plant is close to extinction, the University of Southampton researchers are hoping to find a partner for it.

AI is helping to find a female partner for the world's loneliest plant: 'Tale of unrequited love'
Cover Image Source: Instagram | @lauracinti

The potential of AI to help in climate and global crisis is still unknown. However, there have been several efforts to use Artificial Intelligence for many environmental issues around the world. Recently, AI has been the driving force in many scientific research, particularly in conservatory efforts to protect certain rare plants and wildlife on the verge of extinction. One such notable application of AI was harnessed by a research project led by the University of Southampton that is trailing a South African forest in search of a female partner for the world's loneliest plant dating back more than 300 million years.

Representative Image Source: Pexels | Google DeepMind
Representative Image Source: Pexels | Google DeepMind

In 1895, the only known male plant of the cycad species, Encephalartos woodii - referred to as E.woodii was first found in Ngoye Forest, South Africa. Since then, the critically endangered species have been sampled and sent to several botanical gardens around the world for propagation including London's Kew Gardens. However, till today, experts could only propagate male clones since they haven't explored the Ngoye forest a female cycad of the same species. So, a project led by Dr Laura Cinti, a research fellow at the University of Southampton’s Winchester School of Art and co-director of C-Lab is on a fervent hunt for a female E.woodii using AI and drones.


 
 
 
 
 
View this post on Instagram
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Laura Cinti (@lauracinti)


 

Sharing a glimpse of the endangered plant from Kew Gardens on her Instagram, Cinti remarked that the loneliness of E.woodii, "dramatically highlights how easy it is to lose species and, therefore, biodiversity." She added that it was a dioecious plant where the male and female reproductive systems occur on separate plants. In the university's press release, Cinti stated that she was inspired by the story of the E.woodii as it, "mirrors a classic tale of unrequited love." She noted, "I’m hopeful there is a female out there somewhere, after all, there must have been at one time. It would be amazing to bring this plant so close to extinction back through natural reproduction."


 
 
 
 
 
View this post on Instagram
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Laura Cinti (@lauracinti)


 

Cinti along with AI-tech expert Howard Boland and conservation scientist Debbie Jewitt executed the "AI in the Sky," in which drone flights scoured hundreds of acres of the Ngoye forest. So far, 195 acres out of the 10,000-acre forest have been hunted through for E.woodi's female counterpart. "With the AI, we are using an image recognition algorithm to recognize plants by shape. We generated images of plants and put them in different ecological settings, to train the model to recognize them," Cinty explained. The images of AI identifying cycads in the deepest parts of the Ngoye forest and creating maps with multispectral sensing are so incredible as intricate details of the vegetation invisible to the human eye are revealed.


 
 
 
 
 
View this post on Instagram
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Laura Cinti (@lauracinti)


 

The project that has been on the charts since 2022 hopes to naturally propagate the species that has existed since the era of dinosaurs. However, there is a threat of these rare cycads being pilfered for their hefty value in the black markets. Considering the seriousness of the species' endangerment, scientists are not solely relying on AI and are constantly working on an alternate option. "There have been reports of sex change in other cycad species due to sudden environmental changes such as temperature, so we are hopeful we can induce sex change in the E.woodii too," Cinti explained giving a new hope for the lonely plant.



 

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