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Australasian Plant Conservation (formerly Danthonia)

Originally published in Danthonia 9(1), June 2000

Threatened Plant Conservation in Cape York Forges Ahead

John Clarkson, Principal Botanist, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, Mareeba

Those involved in nature conservation on Cape York Peninsula find themselves in a very fortunate position. Over so much of Australia, conservationists are forced to play 'catch up conservation'. Disturbances such as land clearing, salination and weed invasion are often so pervasive that every vegetation remnant is important and the challenge is to demonstrate their value before they too are lost. This is not the case on Cape York Peninsula. Whilst there are certainly examples of species in decline or in need of active management, the opportunity to incorporate sound conservation management into planning at a regional and property scale still exists.

Jedda multicaulis. Photo: John Clarkson

The situation is further improved by the recent announcement that the Natural Heritage Trust will support a project, run by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, to secure the rare and threatened plants of Cape York Peninsula. The project will run for at least 12 months, during which time a botanist will systematically review the data on rare or threatened plants from the Cape York Peninsula bioregion, and conduct an intensive field survey. Known populations of rare or threatened plants and their potential habitats will be visited to (1) obtain information on population structure, size and habitat requirements and (2) identify possible threats to long term viability in the wild. This information has been largely lacking to date. Then, in close co-operation with land managers and indigenous traditional owners, management strategies will be planned and implemented for key species. The Queensland Herbarium has had botanists based in far north Queensland since 1979 and much of their survey work was focused on Cape York Peninsula. The status of a number of rare plants was reviewed in light of plant inventory and vegetation mapping data collected during this time (Neldner 1993). Data sets gathered during this survey work will be drawn upon heavily in the NHT funded project. The following examples illustrate some of the work to be done, as well as the importance of understanding the biology and habitat of species in order to establish their real threat status and their management requirements. Coix gasteenii is a tall, robust, perennial grass still known only from the type locality (see Ian Fox's article, this issue).

The project will conduct intensive searches for other populations. Jedda multicaulis was first found in 1980 and described in 1986 (Clarkson 1986). This multistemmed shrub belongs to the subtribe Linostomatinae of the family Thymelaeaceae. Its discovery in tropical grassy woodlands on Cape York Peninsula was intriguing. Three other genera, all rainforest climbers, make up the subtribe. One is a South American genus restricted to the Amazon drainage system. The other two are Asian. Jedda has unusual germination behaviour. Perhaps as an adaptation to fire, the plant's plumule is carried several centimetres beneath the soil surface by the fused petioles of the cotyledons. This was the first report of this germination behaviour, known as cryptogeal, for the Australian flora (Clarkson and Clifford 1987). Although locally abundant, until recently Jedda was known only from the type locality in an area totalling no more than 5km2. A second population of unknown extent was located about 50km northwest of the original locality in 1999. If land use remains unchanged, the plant should be secure, but we will try to negotiate a conservation agreement over one or both of the populations as part of property management planning.

The grass Eremochloa muricata was collected from a rocky headland just south of Cape Flattery in 1976, but searches on similar headlands along the east coast of Cape York Peninsula over the past 20 years have failed to find it. This remains the only collection of this plant from Australia, although the species also occurs in India and Sri Lanka. Recent taxonomic studies have confirmed the identity of the Australian collection (J. Veldkamp pers. comm.). Two other species of Eremochloa occur on Cape York Peninsula, including E. ciliaris which is also listed as rare. We plan further searches for this and E. muricata.

In 1972 John Wrigley collected a new species of Macarthuria. The plant is still undescribed and listed by Henderson (1997) as Macarthuria sp. (McIvor River J.R.Clarkson 5447). It was not relocated until 1984, and in 1985 a single plant was found in a dunefield north of Cooktown. A visit to the silica sand mine at Cape Flattery revealed that the plant is a pioneer species which appears in the dunes following heavy disturbance such as fire or, in this case, revegetation following sand mining. Armed with this information the plant has been successfully located in several dunefields as far north as the Jardine River and its long term outlook is secure.

The NHT project should refocus conservation efforts onto those plants that are genuinely rare or threatened. It is hoped the results will be used in bioregional planning for threatened species and communities on Cape York Peninsula and for planning at the property level.

References

Clarkson, J.R. 1986. Jedda, a new genus of Thymelaeaceae (subtribe Linostomatinae) from Australia. Austrobaileya 2(3), 203-210.

Clarkson, J.R. and Clifford, H.T. 1987. Germination of Jedda multicaulis J.R. Clarkson (Thymelaeaceae). An example of Cryptogeal germination in the Australian flora. Australian Journal of Botany 35, 715-720.

Henderson, R.J.F. (ed.) 1997. Queensland Plant Names and Distribution. Department of Environment: Brisbane.

Neldner, V.J. 1993. The distribution and habitats of three presumed rare species from Cape York Peninsula. Austrobaileya 3(1), 121-127.

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