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Scrub mints, a group of plants native to the southeastern United States, are facing an uncertain future due to rapid development and habitat loss. More than half of the 24 known species are considered threatened or endangered at the state or federal level, and many are at risk of extinction. In a recent study, researchers discovered that there are likely more species of scrub mint waiting to be described, and one species, the Titusville balm, has been left unprotected due to a technicality. The group known as calamints may also contain cryptic diversity that requires further study.

Scrub mints evolved over three million years ago during a period of rapid climate change known as the Pliocene. As temperatures cooled, sea levels receded, and the Florida Peninsula took on its modern-day shape. The newly emerged habitat, primarily composed of sand with little water, nutrients, and high wildfire risks, became home to plants and animals adapted to these harsh conditions. Today, 40-60% of species found in these areas are endemic to southeastern scrub habitats, including scrub mints, which thrived during the Pleistocene ice ages.

Genetic analysis of scrub mint species revealed that their evolutionary history was shaped by repeated hybridization events during the Pleistocene ice ages. As sea levels rose and fell, populations were isolated on scrub islands, leading to the divergence and eventual speciation of different mint species. The current scrub mints have been on separate evolutionary trajectories for hundreds of thousands of years, with unique genetic diversity that warrants new species designations. However, despite these findings, many scrub mints remain unprotected and at risk of extinction.

One of the challenges facing scrub mints is habitat loss due to development and invasive species encroachment. The decline of periodic wildfires, which once allowed these plants to thrive, has also contributed to their vulnerability. Without proper conservation efforts, including the removal of invasives and protection of remaining scrub habitats, the entire group of plants could go extinct within the next 100 years. The loss of scrub mints would not only mean the extinction of these unique species but also the disappearance of the scrub habitat, a historically significant and endangered ecosystem in Florida.

The study, published in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, highlights the urgency of protecting scrub mint species and their habitats. Researchers are calling for increased conservation efforts to prevent the extinction of these plants and the unique ecosystems they inhabit. Collaboration between scientists, policymakers, and volunteers will be essential in ensuring the survival of scrub mints and other endangered species in the southeastern United States.

Overall, the study sheds light on the plight of scrub mints, a group of plants that have long been overlooked and under-protected. With new species awaiting description and genetic diversity suggesting the need for additional conservation measures, there is hope for the survival of these unique plants. By raising awareness and taking action to preserve scrub habitats, we can help ensure the continued existence of scrub mints and other endemic species in the southeastern United States.

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