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Strange Plant is a Diamond Detector

Jun 01, 2015 04:42 AM EDT
diamond ring

(Photo : Pixabay)

Early gold and oil prospectors had their divining rods, and even truffle hunters had their pigs. Now a strange and spiny plant may be the first natural tool that can help experts sniff out diamonds in the ground - a first for the botanical world.

Traditionally, diamond prospecting has remained a relatively inexact art. You may have heard that diamonds are not nearly as rare as the jewelry industry would want you to believe, and for the most part, that's absolutely true. Still, for prospectors to even find a chunk of earth that's rich with diamonds, they first have to find a region with the right conditions.

During sub-surface diamond formation, intense heat and pressure help to mold carbon into crystallized structures. Experts have long suspected that the layer between the crust and core of the Earth is probably laced with countless tiny diamonds. However, sub-surface shifts and volcanic activity will only bring the largest of the incredibly sturdy raw gems to the surface, with their associated mantle rock disintegrating during the trip.

Prospectors then are usually on the lookout for things called kimberlite pipes - concealed geological structures that form as the result of violent volcanic eruptions. Deep sub-surface eruptions, it is suspected, are what carry most diamonds closer to the surface, making them accessible to miners. For this reason, despite the fact that science has long been able to create perfect diamonds in a properly equipped lab, kimberlite pipes continue to serve as the primary source of the world's commercial diamond production. However, to make use of these natural resources, you still have to find them.

Enter Pandanus candelabrum, an unusual palm-like plant known to Liberian locals as pamaya. (Scroll to read on...)

Stephen Haggerty poses with Pendanus candelabrum, which is typically 6 to 8 ft tall.
(Photo : FIU) Stephen Haggerty poses with Pendanus candelabrum, which is typically 6 to 8 ft tall.

Researcher Stephen Haggerty of Florida International University first began searching for one kimberlite pipe that he had "lost" in Liberia back in the late 1970s. After various civil wars and in-fighting in the region finally settled four decades later, the prospecting scientist was able to return in 2013, tracing the pipe, called the Camp Alpha pipe, once more.

That's when he realized that tall and spiny pamaya plants were growing directly above the discovered pipe. Subsequent surveys via ground and air showed that this kimberlite pipe wasn't unique for its floral neighbors. Pamayas appeared to be exclusively growing around multiple kimberlite pipelines in Liberia, potentially because the soil in these regions had been altered in a way that fits the plant's needs.

"We don't know if this plant can grow anywhere else where there aren't kimberlite pipes present. It's too early to tell," Haggerty, who is also the chief exploration officer of Youssef Diamond Mining Company, explained in a recent statement. "The roots of the plant are typical of swampy areas, but for Liberia, it appears to be kimberlite-specific."

Still, the researcher adds that if the plant is as effective a marker for kimberlite pipes as he thinks it is, it could become the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly form of prospecting in West Africa.

According to Science Magazine, Haggerty has also managed to get some heavy machinery in place above the Camp Alpha pipe, and - following the current rainy season - will soon be able to determine if the earth around the region is worth mining. Even as he and his colleagues wait to go to work, the researcher also hopes to continue analyzing local pamayas, potentially revealing how key nutrients are exchanged in this ideal soil.

Results of Haggerty's study were published in the journal Economic Geology.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS


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