Botanist brothers uncover new Kimberley species

By Victoria Laurie 17 May 2012
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Intrepid botanist brothers Matt and Russell Barrett fly into our most remote regions to find new plant species.

A HELICOPTER HOVERS over the edge of a steep sandstone cliff deep in the wilderness of Western Australia’s Kimberley region. Brothers and botanists Matt and Russell Barrett peer down at a rocky plateau. Before they even land, an unfamiliar shrub is spotted, and when they are finished, hours later, the helicopter is packed with many plant specimens carefully pressed between sheets of cardboard.

On one trip alone, they collected 10 new species over just six days, including undescribed types of Acacia, Melaleuca, Hibbertia, Eucalyptus, Boronia and Solanum, or bush tomato. “There are not many places in the world where finding this many new species is possible,” Matt says.

All specimens are carefully studied, labelled, named and preserved at the WA Herbarium or propagated at Kings Park’s Biodiversity Conservation Centre, the Perth-based institutions where the brothers work.

These botanists have endured tropical storms and swollen rivers in their quest to find new species in this vast and remote region, almost twice the size of Victoria. Luckily, they are hardy and can endure 18-hour work days, even in the sauna-hot humidity of the Wet. Growing up on Beverley Springs station, near the rugged King Leopold Ranges, the boys found their first new plant species – a triggerplant – growing beside a creek.

“Remarkable” contribution to Kimberley plant knowledge

Today, with several university degrees between them, Matt, 36, and Russell, 33, have added more to the knowledge of flora in the region than any other botanists in recent history. “Their contribution is remarkable and they are showing that the Kimberley is the last great botanical frontier in Australia,” says Kingsley Dixon, science director of Kings Park and Botanic Garden.

Matt and Russell have carved out a reputation for skilled observation and dogged persistence – they have clambered down cliffs near Kununurra, in the east Kimberley, in pursuit of a new species of Triodia, a spinifex that grows on rock faces. They’ve found themselves wading across croc-infested creeks, plant-specimen bags held high above their heads.
“We often go out in a helicopter and land on a spot where you can be almost 100 per cent certain that no white person has set foot before,” Matt says. “You’re seeing the place from a European perspective for the first time.”

Discovery can be a haphazard affair; on one occasion, while the brothers picked their way over stony ground, a giant yellow hibiscus loomed up in the landscape. From a distance, Matt thought it must be a weed. It turned out to be an unknown species, one of four Kimberley hibiscuses thriving in that rocky terrain that, so far, have been found nowhere else.

They have even rediscovered species that were suspected to be extinct.  “One of them, Auranticarpa – similar to Pittosporum – was collected by Allan Cunningham on the [Phillip Parker] King expedition in 1821, then not seen for 180 years until we refound it in 2001,” says Matt. But it took the Barretts another 10 years to find an Auranticarpa in flower, the first such flower ever collected.

Plant-lovers from way back

The Barrett family moved to the Kimberley in 1981. Their father farmed; their mother supervised the kids’ School of the Air lessons. On holiday trips to Perth, they would bring plastic bags full of mouldering plants for identification – until a botanist took them under his wing and taught them how to press and preserve specimens properly.

There’s no sibling rivalry, Russell says. “I’d say it’s friendly competition – we each have groups of plants that we focus on, and we balance each other out quite well.”

“We play devil’s advocate,” adds Matt. “If one of us thinks we’ve found a new species, the other will challenge it. Russell is much more observant about spotting new plants. He’s intuitive; I’m more analytical.”

Russell says he is surprised that even fellow botanists fail to appreciate the diversity of Kimberley flora. “I’ve spoken to biologists who think of the Kimberley as a desert. If you drive along the Gibb River Road in the middle of the Dry, perhaps you would think that. All you’d see is rocks and dry grasses and trees…But if you live there through the Wet, within a couple of weeks after breaking rains everything turns from orange and brown to green. Within a month you’ve got knee-high grass and water is pouring off the gorges.”

The region’s plants may harbour secrets that could shed light on Australia’s floral history. “One toothbrush grevillea was discovered 10 years ago in the Prince Regent River area that has its closest relative in south-eastern Australia,” Matt says. “As far as we can tell, it’s a species left over after these plants went extinct over the rest of Australia. And it’s hanging on now in the Kimberley. To me that’s fascinating.”

Source: Australian Geographic, Issue 102 (Apr-Jun, 2011)