The United States has lost its only specimen of the massive Key Largo tree cactus, an event researchers believe to be the first local extinction caused by rising sea levels in the country, as reported by the Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. The Key Largo cactus, or Pilosocereus millspaughii, still exists on some Caribbean islands, including northern Cuba and parts of the Bahamas.

In the U.S., the cactus was confined to a single population in the Florida Keys, discovered in 1992 and intermittently monitored since. Saltwater intrusion from rising seas, soil depletion due to hurricanes and high tides, and herbivorous mammals have significantly pressured this population. By 2021, what was once a thriving group of about 150 stems had dwindled to six ailing fragments, which researchers have since collected to cultivate off-site to ensure their survival.

“Unfortunately, the Key Largo tree cactus might indicate how other low-lying coastal plants will respond to climate change,” said Jennifer Possley, regional conservation director at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and lead author of a study documenting the cactus’s decline. Little is known about Florida’s rare cacti.

Researchers initially encountered the Key Largo tree cactus in an isolated mangrove forest, and its identity remained uncertain for several years. Most thought it to be a unique population of the Key Largo tree cactus, Pilosocereus robinii, an endangered species found in other parts of the Florida Keys. The two cacti look similar: both have stems that rise perpendicularly from the ground and can exceed six meters in height. They have creamy-colored flowers that smell of garlic and reflect moonlight, attracting bat pollinators, while their bright red and purple fruits catch the attention of birds and mammals.

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