“ The sea will always hold one last secret which escapes all description and analysis ”
PIER GROEN, Dutch oceanographer
The coconut palm is one of the ten most important plants on the planet Earth. In tropical regions the coconut is the main source of fats and proteins for over 400 million people. The whole plant is essential, and forms the very basis of life for many populations. On the threshold of the third millennium, its genetic centre of origin is still a much-debated mystery, due to the fact that its fruits are dispersed by sea currents and have also been diffused by the peoples who colonised the oceanic islands. Over the last 250 years, scientists have proposed many theories regarding its place of origin: Central America, Polynesia, Malaya, Fiji. The Author of this candidature to the PIRELLI INTERNATIONAL AWARD 2003 will carry out an expedition to the island of Praslin in order to explain how this plant diffuses along the tropical coasts. The Author will follow the migratory sea paths of the fruits by satellite monitoring.
The migratory dynamism of the coconut palm, one of the most important plants for mankind (more than 500 million are cultivated), although a fundamental aspect of its ecology following complex environmental, geophysical and bio-climatic alterations, is still unknown today. Despite the scientific discoveries at the threshold of the third millennium, the mystery of its place of origin continues to be one of the last great enigmas of plant biology. Since the phases of diffusion, the migratory paths, the age and place of origin of the coconut palm cannot be deduced with certainty from its present distribution, its native land is a controversial matter.
The fruits of the coconut palm, disperse from their remote origins across the Indian and Pacific Oceans in such an elusive way that one has rarely been spotted on the open sea, at the mercy of the waves and of raging winds. Adrift, they passively move along, carried by sea currents like a sort of floating plankton. In the past there was some doubt over the theory that these reproductive structures were dispersed by the sea, and it was believed that in any case, this hypothesis was more a product of “botanical romance” than of scientific findings. Nevertheless, in one-way or another the coconuts must have carried out long sea crossings. Otherwise, there is no other explanation for their presence in Africa, America, India and Polynesia, where they have colonised the zones of the Earth between the two tropics.
Perhaps initially it was prehistoric man who was responsible for the plant’s movements, though it remains to be seen how these men could have made such long voyages in their rudimentary canoes. In 1976, PICKERSGILL pointed out that it was still unclear how the coconuts could have crossed 11,000 km of Pacific Ocean to arrive on the coasts of Central America before COLUMBUS got there.
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Over the last 250 years, renowned naturalists and scientific explorers (LINNÉ, BROWN, WALLACE, BECCARI, VAVILOV and STANDLEY, to name a few) have tried to solve this problem. A bio-systematic method – certainly innovative in the field of plants – to throw light on the argument today is proposed by the Author of this application to the PIRELLI INTERNETIONAL AWARD 2003. The Author has spent two years preparing this venture, researching the historical-scientific, ethnic, geographical, geological and biological background, and setting up the programme and telemetric support. An expedition to the Seychelle islands is planned in order to follow the paths of a batch of coconuts, which will be set adrift in the Indian Ocean, with transmitters for satellite tele-location attached to the fruits. This radio-satellite mapping will help to find an explanation for the impressive colonisation of the coconut palm on the Earth and to trace its origins.
This plant, has been, is and will very likely continue to be one of the most important on the planet Earth, as it is of fundamental importance to 7% of the world’s population, in particular in the tropics where it truly is a “life-sustaining” plant without which whole populations would never have existed. Clarifying the reproductive mechanisms of the coconut palm will certainly be useful for the preservation in time and the propagation in space of this plant which has been so important for mankind that it could not fail to find a place in the beliefs and myths of various peoples, earning it the title “jewel of the tropics”.