Learning from Extinct Plants

By McKenna Coyle

Sep 19 2019

From the woolly mammoth to the passenger pigeon, many extinct species owe their demise in part to human activities. In the modern era of climate change and rapid habitat destruction, countless species are faced with extinction, and many have already gone extinct. When I began working in the New York Botanical Garden’s herbarium this year, I knew I was in the midst of a treasure trove of old plants, and constantly wondered if any of the roughly 8 million specimens in the herbarium represented species that have since gone extinct. Since our collection includes specimens over 200 years old, it seemed more than likely.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature is considered the authority on the conservation status of species. By comparing the IUCN’s Red List of Extinct Plants with the databases in the NYBG herbarium, I found specimens from 21 extinct species.

Herbarium specimens of extinct species are remarkable glimpses into the past, capturing a moment before something tragic happened. Because shape, size, tissue content, and even color are preserved in good herbarium specimens, the specimens I uncovered of extinct plants seemed more akin to mummies than fossils. There is something eerie about holding such a specimen in your hands, knowing that even though it appears so close to life, there is no living individual of the species anywhere on earth.

There are also scientific benefits to finding herbarium specimens of extinct plants. They can teach us many things about their living relatives, including evolutionary relationships and vulnerability to threats. DNA can be recovered from even very old herbarium specimens, and in a few rare cases, seeds recovered from 100 year-old specimens have been germinated!¹ Additionally, some species that have been classified as extinct have since been rediscovered in the wild. Such research means that we may not have reached the end of the line for all extinct plants.

Browse through the slideshow to see some of the extinct plants housed in the NYBG herbarium.


Godefroid, S., Van de Vyver, A., Stoffelen, P., Robbrecht, E., & Vanderborght, T.  (2011). Testing the viability of old seeds from herbarium specimens for conservation purposes. Taxon, 60(2), 565-569.

Humphreys, A.M., Govaerts, R., Ficinski, S.Z., Nic Lughadna, E., & Vorontsova, M.S. (2019). Global dataset shows geography and life form predict modern plant extinction. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 3(7), 1043-1047

Levin, D.A. (2019). Plant speciation in the age of climate change. Annals of Botany, 20, 1-7

Pimm, S.L. & Joppa, L.N. (2015). How many plant species are there, where are they, and at what rate are they going extinct? Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 100(3), 170-176

IUCN (2019). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, version 2019-2. Retrieved 18 September 2019, from  www.iucnredlist.org/