Polymotu precursors: Pathi (Maprao Kathi) Island in Thailand

Polymotu concept is to use geographical and reproductive isolation to conserve and reproduce varieties of plants and trees. When a small isolated place is planted all with the same variety, the plants conserved there breed only within the same variety, and certified seed and seednuts can be produced at the lower cost. These isolated places can be small islands or small valleys; they can also be located in flat mainland, with landscaping designed to create pollen barriers.
There is, at least, one modern example of an island which was recently devoted to the conservation and use of a unique coconut variety,. This is a great success story, because it is a profitable business and it could also lead to a major improvement of this coconut variety. Click on the pictures to enlarge them.
Makapuno is an economically important coconut variety. Instead of coconut water, this coconut contains a soft, white jelly-like mass which is considered a delicacy. Makapuno is preserved in heavy sugar syrup and bottled for local consumption and export. In the Philippines alone, the domestic market needs 4 million kg of the highly-priced Makapuno meat annually. Less than 3% of that demand is being met. Makapuno coconuts are sold for at least 5 times the price of an ordinary coconut.
Growing Makapuno is unlike growing ordinary coconut trees. In each coconut bunch produced by such a palm, 15 to 20 % of the fruits only are Makapuno, the remaining are normal coconuts. Makapuno coconuts do not germinate because the abnormal jelly-like kernel does not support the growth and development of the embryo (Mujer et al., 1984). So the only way to reproduce a Makapuno coconut was to germinate a normal coconut from a Makapuno palm ; and not all these germinated coconuts will give Makapuno palms.
The coconut embryo culture technology was developed in the Philippines in the 1960s. Using in vitro culture, Dr. Emerita de Guzman rescued the first embryo from a non-germinating Makapuno coconut. Dr. Erlinda P. Rillo and her team did further research and exploited this technique to develop a Makapuno-based industry in the Philippines (Rillo & Paloma, 1992 ; Areza-Ubaldo & al., 2003).oo
The opportunity to create a Makapuno Island in Thailand was seized 25 years ago, when the Thai government built the huge Srinakharin dam at Kanchanaburi. The hills were submerged and their peaks turned into more than 100 islands. All the coconut trees in one island were destroyed. Then the island was planted with Makapuno embryos rescued by using in vitro culture. In order to get a large amount of embryos, the Makapuno seednuts were collected from whole Thailand. Researchers paid 50 Bath for each Makapuno nut. Then, they split the nuts, took the embryos, and sell the remaining half Makapuno nuts each at 50 Bath in the Bangkok markets (Thai way, never miss a business). Not all the collected Makapuno nuts were the big round fruits typical from the Thailand tall varieties. A few dwarf palms were producing
On the way to Makapuno Island
Makapuno coconuts not typical to the Thailand Tall. About 20000 coconuts were bought. 8000 good embryos were obtained and cultivated in vitro. 2000 plantlets were obtained, then transferred and planted in the Island.
The island is located near the Burmese border, at about 200 km North-West from Bangkok (Latitude: 14°54'32.34"N; longitude:  98°31'29.40"E). No stray coconut pollen can reach the island of the because of the distance across the water barrier and pf absence of coconut palm on the closest land. All the marketing of the island was based on the fact that its coconuts never germinate, because they are 100 percent Makapuno.

Makapuno Palms
Departure to Makapuno Island
On the 25th November 2009, Thanks to Thai researchers and the Department of Agriculture of Thailand, we had the great opportunity to visit the Pathi or Makapuno Island. It takes about 20 minutes to reach the island using a small boat.
When arriving, the island looks like any nice traditional Thai coconut plantation, except for one detail: no forgotten germinated seednuts are growing on the ground. Many fruit species are growing there. Some of the coconut palms are heavy producers; the average production seems to be 80 to 100 coconuts per palm per year. Nobody can imagine that these coconut palms were grown in glass tubes.
One of the best Makapuno palms
Dr Narong Chomchalow, President of the Thailand Network for the Conservation and Enhancement of Landraces of Cultivated Plants (TNCEL), gave us the following information about Makapuno in Thailand: "There are two main types of Makapuno in Thailand. One is called Kathi Khao Chao (non-glutinous) - the meat is rather hard, borne on the fruit which is not fully mature or those newly harvested fruits. If the palm is planted on fertile land, the fruit has thicker meat than when the palm is planted in infertile land. Its general characteristics are as follow: light (non-viscous) water, thin meat, rather hard and not as fluffy as the other type (see later); it is used in food processing such as boiled in syrup, blend, or make into ice cream.oo The second type is called Kathi Khao Niao (glutinous) - derived from fruits which are picked when fully mature, i.e. remaining on the tree for a longer period, or has been stored for a long time before opening. Its general characteristics are as follow: viscous water, thick meat, soft and more fluffy than Kathi Khao Chao.oo It is popularly consumed fresh. If the fruit is kept for a longer period, the meat disintegrates with rancid odor. Sometimes all the meat disappeared.
Dr Narong Chomchalow, Dr.Uthai Charanasri and a worker

Kathi Khao Niao (glutinous)
This is known as dumb coconut or Duean Kin (meaning Moon Eats), probably the same as those which are called eaten by the devil or eaten by the moon in other countries."
It seems that it exists a type of Makapuno in the Philippines that does not exist in Thailand. This type is called ‘Type 3’ by the Filipinos; when the fruit is 10-11 month old, the cavity of the nut is already almost fully filled with meat. In Makapuno island in Thailand, we observed an overmature fruit with the cavity almost filled with meat, but this is not the same. In Thailand, it occurs only for overmature fruits while in the Philippines, this can be encountered on younger fruits.
Another island on the same lake was designed for producing oil palm seeds. As this island is completely isolated from any other pollen source, there is no need to bag the inflorescences for producing seedlings. This generates subsequent economy of manpower. We made the observation that producing of both Makapuno coconut and Oil palm seeds production could be conducted on the same island.
Kathi Khao Chao (non-glutinous)
A few years back, the Makapuno Island Company received a complaint from one of their customers that one of their 100-percent guaranteed Makapuno fruits germinated. The owner investigated and upon opening the fruit, it turned out to be Makapuno. As the evolutionary process is continually unfolding, one individual Makapuno was somehow able to develop enzymes to digest and metabolize the endosperm, thereby enabling germination. This began a search for the mother tree that bore this very unusual and attractive germinating Makapuno fruit. This palm was found and its progeny planted.oo
Arrival at Makapuno Island
Dr Somchai Watanayothin, Coconut Breeder at the Horticulture Research Institute of Thailand, added the following information: "During the year 2000, the owner of Makapuno Island in Thong pa-phumi District, found out the mother palm that produced Makapuno fruits germinated. He harvested Makapuno nuts and raised them in the nursery. After three months he have got 5 seedlings but two of them grew up. The other three seedlings dead. He brought two Makapuno seedlings to plant in Palm oil Island, at about 30 minutes of Makapuno by a rapid speed boat. Now they are six years old but they have not yet bared fruits. That is a history of the new strain of germinating Makapuno in Thailand.” Makapuno Island could lead to a great and unexpected improvement of the Makapuno variety.
So, we can assert that the precursor of the Polymotu concept is a Thai researcher; the reason why Drs Somchai Watanayothin and Uthai Charanasri were searching for geographical and reproductive isolation of palms was more specific than ours; it was linked to the special habit of the Makapuno coconut variety. This was also made on the Thai way, directly as a profitable business: up to now I am not sure that Thai researchers really realize the huge conservation value of what they did.
Anyway the Polymotu concept can be seen as a generalization of the pioneer work of Drs Uthai Charanasri, Somchai Watanayothin and Narong Chomchallow.

Srinakharin lake, at departure from Makapuno Island


Bird conservation in New Zealand

Kakato birds in captivity
Polymotu concept is to use geographical and reproductive isolation to conserve and reproduce varieties of plants and trees. When a small isolated place is planted all with the same variety, the plants conserved there breed only within the same variety, and certified seed and seednuts can be produced at the lower cost. These isolated places can be small islands or small valleys; they can also be located in flat mainland, with landscaping designed to create pollen barriers.
We discussed about Polymotu concept with Dr Jean-Dominique Lebreton, the director of the Centre for Functional and Evolutional Ecology at Montpellier, France. Then Dr Lebreton made a very interesting connection between Polymotu and what is achieved in New Zealand in the field of conservation of endangered birds.
Humans have had a profound effect on many bird species. Over one hundred species have gone extinct in historical times, although the most dramatic human-caused extinctions occurred in the Pacific Ocean as humans colonised the islands, during which an estimated 750-1800 species of bird went extinct. According to Worldwatch Institute, many bird populations are currently declining worldwide, with 1,200 species facing extinction in the next century.
Translocations involve moving populations of threatened species into areas of suitable habitat currently unused by the species. There are several reasons for doing this; the creation of secondary populations that act as an insurance against disaster, or in many cases threats faced by the original population in its current location.
Kakato Bird in the wild
One famous translocation was of the Kakapo of New Zealand. The kakapo (Strigops habroptilus Gray 1845) is a large, flightless, nocturnal parrot, endemic to New Zealand. Once abundant throughout New Zealand, the whole population in the wild was reduced to approximately 50 individuals. In situ conservation of natural populations has proved impracticable. These large flightless parrots were unable to cope with introduced predators, such as rats and cats in their remaining habitat on Stewart Island.
Between 1974 and 1992, kakapo birds were translocated to four of New Zealand's offshore islands (Maud, Little Barrier, Codfish, and Mana). Few, if any, kakapo now remain within their former range. Regular monitoring and intensive management of the translocated populations is being undertaken. In April 1998, a total population of fifty-six kakapo was known to survive on offshore islands.
Maud Island in New Zealand
Twenty-six kakapo, thirteen males and thirteen females, were temporarily transferred to Pearl Island (518 ha), southern Stewart Island, from April 1998 to April 1999. The translocation of kakapo to Pearl Island, and subsequent breeding season, provided an ideal experimental framework to study kakapo dispersal, movement patterns, home range development, habitat selection, and lek development during the non-breeding and breeding seasons (Leigh, 2009). The study have shown that Kakapo selected habitat mosaics and vegetation types with higher species diversity and moderate to high abundance of mature rimu and yellow silver pine trees.

Codfish Island in New Zealand
Of course, we cannot plant coconut palms in New Zealand, because the weather is too cold. This was one of the great sadness of the Maori people - they tried so many times to plant coconut palms when arriving from their tropical islands. Anyways, we can use  as an example what Kiwis and Maoris did for bird, and apply it to the coconut palm and other species in our warmer islands.


Joyce, L. (2008) Movement patterns, home range and habitat selection by kakapo (Strigops habroptilus, Gray 1845) following translocation to Pearl Island, Southern New Zealand. Phd Thesis, University of Otago, Neaw Zealand.


A traditional genebank disapearing in the Aratika atoll?

In 2009, in the framework of a research project leaded by CRIOBE and funded by IFRECOR (French initiative for coral reefs), we had the opportunity to interview Mr. Vairaaroa Howaerd, Mayor of the Fakarava district of the Tuamotu archipelago, French Polynesia.

He told us that, on the atoll of Aratika whose mayor is a native, there is a Motu called “Tapu”. This Motu was exclusively planted with a Kaipoa variety (the fibrous envelope of the coconut is sweet and edible). A rahui (set of traditional rules with a sacred dimension) was regulating the exploitation rights of the motu. Thus, everyone was entitled to collect coconuts on the motu "Tapu", but not to make copra. For each harvested coconuts, residents were required to clean the vegetation growing at the base of the coconut palms, cutting with a machete or an axe, without using the technique of weed burning.

Notwithstanding its sacred dimension, this rahui is akin to management rules for a conservatoire of traditional coconut varieties. Polynesians have empirically used numerous small isolated islands to conserve and breed their coconut varieties. The geographical remoteness of the islets has ensured the reproductive isolation of the coconut palms necessary for variety fixation. Once planted in a limited number on a remote island, coconut palms only crossed with each other and it became possible to create new varieties. Then, by taking seednuts from those isolated islands, the ancient Polynesians were able to reproduce, in an empirical but stable manner, the coconut varieties they had created.
Indeed, people who took seeds on Motu Tapu were assured that those seeds replicate the variety they wanted. Unfortunately, in the 1980s, a series of hurricanes has greatly damaged the coconut palms. Motu Tapu was partly replanted with hybrid coconut trees. People who go to the motu Tapu to collect seeds will not get pure Kaipoa variety anymore. The traditional genebank is now threatened with extinction and not as effective as in the past. Following this interview, our recommendation was to avoid planting coconut hybrids in Polynesian islets. Islets should be devoted to the conservation of traditional varieties and to the conservation of biodiversity in a broader sense. Polymotu will consolidate the knowledge about traditional Polynesian genebanks.

Five motu of Tetiaroa to conserve traditional varieties

We had the pleasure of receiving a letter from the association « Te Mana O Te Moana ".

This letter confirms the agrement of the family of Marlon Brando and the Company Pacific Beachcomber SC for the integration of five small motu (islets) of the famous Tetiaroa atoll in POLYMOTU project.
Each of the 5 small motu will conserve a distinct Polynesian coconut variety.
The varieties to be conserved in Tetiaroa will probably be: a medicinal variety; one or two sweet husk varieties; the rare horned coconut; the moro ati (most of the fruits dry as copra before falling from the palm); or the niu kafa, (enormous and long fruits serving to make ropes in the past, and appreciated as a drink). The final choice will depend on stakeholders’ needs, the results of genetic analyses, and the availability of the seednuts. In order to find parent palms of the traditional varieties to be conserved, we will search for places where a sufficient amount of palms of the same variety are planted together. for more information about Polymotu and Tetiaroa, see the blog: http://coconut-tetiaroa.blogspot.com/


A lesson from ancient (and some contemporary) Polynesians

Before 1000 AD, the Polynesians had settled in central Polynesia (Tahiti and the Society Islands), the Marquesas, Hawaii and Easter Island (Orliac, 2000). Since that time, the coconut palms became an integral part of the Polynesian way of life. The Polynesians have patiently bred coconut palms adapted to different uses, notably by successively planting their coconut palms on new islands. They contributed to the creation of numerous varieties, with spectacular morphological diversity as shown in picture.

The oldest description of coconut varieties in French Polynesia can be found in the book "Ancient Tahiti" by Teuira Henry, published in 1928 from data collected by her grandfather in 1840. That publication mentions 16 different varieties or forms of the coconut palm. Coconut varieties, which have been passed down from generation to generation of islanders, are now under threat from the globalization of trade, cultural levelling, industrialization and changes in agriculture.
Teuira Henry indicated the existence of particularly enormous coconuts growing the island of Niu-Fou (now known as Niuafo'ou). The name itself of this island means "New coconut". Niuafo'ou is a tiny island in the Tonga group, with an area of 52 sq. km. The distance to the nearest island is 200km. It is a very active volcano that slopes steeply down to the sea floor. Given its unusual geography, Niuafo'ou was named « Tin can island », because a strange way of receiving its postal communications was adopted. The mail was cast into the sea in a tin box and recovered by men in pirogues.There is no safe anchorage for boats. The repeated eruptions of volcano (1867, 1886, 1912, 1929, 1935-36, 1943, 1946, 1985) caused the destruction of many plantations and villages. Following the eruption of 1946, Niua-fo'ou was evacuated and the government authorized the return of the islanders only in 1958. The two islands in Tonga were different dialects are spoken are named Niuafo’ou (New coconut) and Niua Toputapu (Sacred coconut).

Another place famous for its coconuts is Rennell, a high volcanic island located in of the Solomon archipelago, with an area of 660 sq. km. Its two main features are its volcanic lake, now registered as a world heritage, and its Polynesian population, when other Solomon Islands are mainly populated with Melanesians. Except the small island of Bellona, also populated with Polynesians, the distance from Rennell to the nearest island is 170 km.

The fruits of the variety known as Rennell Island Tall (RIT) are among the biggest coconuts in the world. The fruit shape is quite variable, from oblong to pear shaped. Some of the fruits have a long nipple at the bottom, which is very specific to the RIT. The fruits have a good composition with a high content of solid albumen and free water (see picture 3). Numerous seednuts were collected from different locations in the Rennell Island and sent to other countries. The Rennell Island Tall cultivar (RIT) is now conserved in at least 11 germplasm conservation centres, national and international. RIT is involved as parental material in many coconut breeding programmes.
M.A. Foale, who visited the Rennell Island in 1964 and discovered this variety, said that the true-to-type Rennell, with big and pointed fruits, is found only around the volcanic lake on the eastern part of the island. The access from the coast to the volcanic lake is very difficult. It is needed to climb a rocky track with a hard slope, in a forest stuffed with endemic species of poisoning snakes (Laticauda sp.). But in other places, such as the coastal area, there is a mix between the Rennell Island Tall and the ordinary type, known as the Solomon Island Tall, which has smaller oblong fruits.
As far coconut varieties are concerned, Niuafo'ou and Rennell are the most famous islands in the Pacific region. Similarities between these two islands are hudge. They are both very isolated small islands, at a distance of 170-200 km from the nearest big island ; They have both additionals and successive factors of insulation : difficulties to access by boat, harsh slope to climb to reach the place where grow the coconut palms, risks linked to high volcanic activity or endemic poisoning snakes.
Another example of famous « coconut » island is quite different. In the 2000’s, we visited numerous Pacific island in the framework of surveys organized by Bioversity International (formerly IPGRI). L. M. Fili and T.H. Hoponoa, from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry of Tonga, tell us about the traditional coconut variety called «Niu 'utongau ». This variety belongs to rare forms of coconut, highly threatened, and known as « Sweet husk ». In most coconut, this husk is harsh and not edible. But sometimes, the whole husk of the young fruit is sweet and can be chewed like sugar cane. Its taste resembles that of coconut heart. Once the fruits are ripe, the husk fibres are white and particularly slender. There exist various names and various types, in which husk characteristics are more or less accentuated. Those varieties have yet to be scientifically described. The «Niu 'utongau » coconut variety can be found in quantity only on the small coral islet of Onoiki in the Ha’apai group. Tongians are still sometimes taking seedlings from that islet, which is so small that it does not appear on most maps.

Various observations made since the turn of the century also show the same tendency. The most remote islands are often those where coconut diversity has best been conserved (Labouisse and Bourdeix, 2003). Polynesians have empirically used numerous small islands to conserve and breed their coconut varieties. The geographical remoteness of the islets has ensured the reproductive isolation of the coconut palms necessary for variety fixation. Once planted in a limited number on a remote island, coconut palms only crossed with each other and it became possible to create new varieties. Then, by taking seednuts from those isolated islets, the ancient Polynesians were able to reproduce, in an empirical but stable manner, the coconut varieties they had created.