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Summer Scholarships 2003-2004

Distribution and diversity of Australian fern species

Supervisor: Sophie Bickford


The physiological tolerances, geological and evolutionary history of species are reflected in their present day distribution patterns. It follows that analyses of distribution patterns can potentially provide insight into both the contemporary factors relating to diversity and the history of the flora. The ferns are a primitive vascular group of plants with extant survivors from diverse ancient stocks. Their long evolutionary history is well represented in the Australian fern flora. The Australian fern flora is composed of an ancient element, most of which it has been suggested, were on the continent prior to the fragmentation of Gondwana and a modern palaeo-tropic element which have immigrated into the continent rapidly from the north in recent geological time. While patterns of species richness, regional zonations (broad geographic patterns of shared distributions) of ferns in Australia have been qualitatively described no objective analysis of the spatial distribution patterns within this group has been undertaken. Recently the taxonomy of the group has been treated. Australia’s ferns are represented in 112 genera, and ca 460 species, 166 of these species being endemic. The distribution of these species may now be circumscribed with the newly available locational data from herbaria records from Australia’s Virtual Herbarium. The opportunity now stands to objectively examine large scale patterns of fern diversity in Australia.


This study will determine the patterns of diversity and distribution of Australian ferns and analyse them in relation to current environmental conditions and evolutionary history. The major goal will be to generate hypotheses explaining present distributions, contribute to our understanding of the distribution of biodiversity in Australia and provide insight into the phytogeographic history of the Australian flora.


The project will involve

  1. The development and validation of spatial distribution data sets of Australian fern species in a GIS, from location data associated with Herbarium records. The validation process will involve accessing expert knowledge from fern taxonomists.
  2. Analysis of the spatial distribution of various aspects of fern diversity (species richness, taxonomic difference and affiliation, and areas of endemism) using local and geographic statistical and classificatory analyses. The group will be considered as a whole and ancient and modern groups will be analysed separately.
  3. Investigation of the environmental correlations of any significant patterns of diversity revealed through the diversity pattern analysis.
  4. Formulating hypotheses explaining fern distribution patterns in Australia.

This project will provide an objective analysis of patterns of fern diversity in Australia which will contribute to our understanding of the distribution of biodiversity and the evolution of the Australian flora. It will provide the student insight into a unique plant group, the ferns, and experience with herbarium collections. The student will also gain an overview of the principles and methods of the analysis and interpretation of biodiversity pattern in the landscape, which currently has crucial significance to global and regional conservation planning.


Updated 1 August, 2003 by webmaster (cpbr-info@anbg.gov.au)