Scientists race to record rare species from QLD rainforests as impacts of climate change set in

By Angela Heathcote 11 April 2019
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The rare plant species of Queensland’s high altitude rainforests are under threat from climate change, prompting scientists to record what they can, while they can.

AUSTRALIAN SCIENTISTS are rushing to record and collect unique plant species from the Queensland’s Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, specifically those of high altitude rainforests, as the threats of climate change become urgent.

The plants, as well as the fauna living in this area are suited to the cool climates of mountaintops more than 1000 metres above sea level and are extremely sensitive to any change in temperature.

“Until now, the remote and rugged nature of these sites has helped shelter them from the usual human impacts,” Professor Darren Crayn, Director of the Australian Tropical Herbarium at James Cook University in Cairns.

“Climate modelling now predicts drastic habitat loss from the highlands within as little as 15 years, with droughts being longer, hotter, drier and more frequent.”

Professor Crayn and his colleagues at JCU have launched what they call a ‘mountaintop rescue mission’ of species said to be found nowhere else on Earth. It’s a five year project funded by the Ian Potter Foundation and the Wet Tropics Management Authority (WTMA).

“These mountaintop ecosystems are unique, not just nationally but globally,” says WTMA Principal Scientist Dr Sandra Abell.

“The best conservation outcome is to protect species in their original habitat,” Dr Abell said. “But the modelling tells us we’re unlikely to have that option, so this is Plan B: act now to secure the most diverse ‘captive’ collection we can.”

The team will collect plant material for propagation at the Australian National Botanic Gardens and the Royal Botanic Gardens Cranbourne, where scientists will create micro-climates similar to their original habitat.

The project will engage traditional owners, the Western Yalanji Elders and rangers to exchange knowledge about the plants atop Mount Lewis, which is one of the strongholds for rare species of orchids, rhododendron and trees.

“These plants and these landscapes are part of Western Yalanji country,” says Western Yalanji Traditional Owner Johnny Murison.

“We’re glad to be working with scientists to help preserve them. To know country from a western science point of view adds a fascinating depth to our traditional knowledge.”

This new mountaintop rescue mission will draw on previous surveys conducted by the Australian Rhododendron Society of the high altitude rainforests of Queensland’s Wet Tropics.

“The surveys gave us much better data to feed into the models, but the predicted outcome remains pretty awful,” Professor Crayn says.

“The revised models predict severe to catastrophic impacts on almost all of the approximately 70 plant species that are restricted to mountaintop habitat in Australia’s Wet Tropics.”

These high altitude rainforests are also home to rare mammals, including the white lemuroid possum, spotted for the first time in years on an Australian Geographic expedition to Mount Lewis. The lemuroid possum is said to be Australia’s first mammal severely impacted by climate change.

The white lemuroid possum spotted by the AG expedition. (Image credit: Mark Ziembicki)