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Nov 2011 cover image

Rare Find

Biologists discover a new aquatic fern on the Texas coast.

By Cullen Hanks

There are more than 300 species of plants endemic to Texas, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world. Considering that botanists have been scouring the state for more than 150 years, finding a new plant species requires luck, a skilled eye and a unique piece of intact Texas habitat.

Falcon Point Ranch in Calhoun County is crossed by what used to be a barrier island 50,000 to 75,000 years ago. That ancient island is now an isolated sand ridge called the Ingelside Sand Sheet. The combination of sand and freshwater ponds along the coast creates a unique habitat there.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department botanist Jason Singhurst took one look at an aerial map of the ranch, pointed to the ponds and said, “I want to go there!”

With the blessing of co-owner Bill Ball, ranch manager Bobby Henson agreed to give Singhurst and me a tour. As we approached the sand sheet in his truck, we noticed that a barely perceptible increase in elevation caused a dramatic change in habitat. Instead of salty flats, we found oak mottes and our first endemic plant sighting: seaside beebalm.

The combination of elevation, fresh water and oaks makes the sand sheet a good place for life to grow — and an attractive place for people to want to live. Falcon Point is one of the last large tracts in the area that hasn’t been subdivided and developed, thanks to the conscientious management of the land by one family for more than a century.

However, in 2005, the ranch was bought by a group of investors looking for an interesting project. They planned to develop it but to keep the majority of it in a natural state for the benefit of the owners and the resident wildlife.

Henson drove us farther into the sand sheet, where we found more oak mottes and a dry pond.

“Beaksedges!” Singhurst exclaimed as he got out of the truck. “You know this place is good.”

Soon we were hard at work mapping, photographing and documenting the unique plants we found there: yellow-eyed grasses, lady’s tresses orchids and St. Johnswort, as well as many different sedges, rushes and grasses. To top it off, we found two carnivorous plants: the sundew and the bladderwort.

Henson took us to a few more dry ponds, all containing rare plants, and then down an overgrown track pocked with huge holes dug by feral hogs. As the truck bounced wildly, Henson called out, “I think this pond up here still has water in it.”

He was right. We walked out into the water, and within seconds Singhurst reached down and pulled up a clump of delicate bright-green plants.

“Holy cow, this is a new species!” he yelled.

The plants were aquatic ferns in the genus Isoetes. Singhurst had recently published a paper on the genus, so he knew well that there were no known Isoetes found anywhere near the coast.

The plant Singhurst pulled up is indeed a new species and will be named Texas quillwort. In addition, we documented 12 other species of Texas endemics, an impressive total for a single ranch.

Finding a financially viable solution to managing and preserving a 6,000-acre ranch isn’t easy, but the more the owners get to know about the place, the more they want to conserve it.

“Over time, we have really come to appreciate what a unique place Falcon Point really is,” Bill Ball says. “Our goal is to someday place over 90 percent of the ranch in permanent conservation easements.”

The owners envision some residential development, but most of the land will be kept in its natural state and open to hunting, fishing and birding. With the help of conservation easements, they think it can work out financially.

How many more ranches harbor undescribed species? Only time will tell. More private landowners are working with TPWD to maintain or improve the health of the habitats on their property for the benefit of future generations. Who knows what future plant discoveries will be made on private lands, thanks to these conservation partnerships?

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