Unique ecosystems thrive in “acid rain”

By AAP with AG Staff 24 December 2010
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Queensland scientists have discovered a unique ecosystem, in which flora and fauna thrive in highly acidic water.

SCIENTISTS IN FAR North Queensland have discovered unique ecosystems thriving in water so acidic it would be classified as acid rain if it fell from the sky.
Fauna and flora have been found in abundance around highly acidic springs on a tributary of the Wenlock River, on the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve. The springs have pH levels approaching those of devastating acid rain that has killed off some fish species in industrialised areas of the northern hemisphere.

New type of rainforest

Researchers from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, headed by Professor Craig Franklin, say it is essentially a new type of rainforest.

“The springs sit at the base of a bauxite plateau and it is fascinating to us that they pump out water that has a very low pH, is highly acidic, yet they are teeming with life,” he says. “It is very clear that the flora and fauna are related to that acidity.”

Craig says the region was largely uncharted scientifically, and much research was needed to even begin to explain how lifeforms have adapted to survive in such acidic conditions. 

“Life thriving amid this level of acidity is a new discovery to mankind and will be the focus of much research over coming years,” he adds. A PhD student is soon to begin a three-year study of the aquatic animals living around the springs, and how the fish and amphibians in particular are able to cope with the conditions.
Bad news for crocs
An expert in conservation physiology, Craig said researchers had noticed that many of crocodiles in the Wenlock River had very “stained and weak-looking” teeth. It now seems likely that this is related to the acidic spring water.
The researchers hope that the discovery could one day help countries seeking ways to cope with acid rain. “In both America and Europe, acid rain has had negative effects on human health, damaged forests and soils, and killed insect and aquatic life forms,” Craig says. 

The team discovered the naturally occurring acidic springs, believed to be unique in the world, on the reserve about 80 km north of Weipa on Cape York.