• Science

Mountaintop Mission to Save Plants in Peril

The moist mountains of Queensland’s Wet Tropics World Heritage Area are a temperate refuge for a number of tropical plant species found nowhere else on earth and most at threat from climate change.

Sheltered from human impact at more than 1000 metres above sea level, the unique mountaintop cloud-forest ecosystems have long been home to a rich variety of native flora, from minute orchids to towering trees, and Australia’s only native Rhododendron species, Rhododendron lochiae, described and named by the first director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria and founder of the National Herbarium of Victoria, Ferdinand von Mueller, in 1887.

In recent years these plant species, most of which are found nowhere else in the world, have become increasingly rare and threatened due to climate-change induced habitat loss. Professor Darren Crayn, Director of the Australian Tropical Herbarium at James Cook University in Cairns, has predicted drastic habitat loss in as little as fifteen years as temperatures continue to rise.

To save these at-risk species from disappearing, the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria is participating in a five-year collaborative project led by the Australian Tropical Herbarium and funded by a $500,000 grant from the Ian Potter Foundation and $50,000 from the Wet Tropics Management Authority (WTMA) alongside funding from the Gardens and the Maud Gibson Trust. The team has recently undertaken an expedition to collect and record these rare species, and ultimately strive to propagate and cultivate them outside their habitat to develop a ‘backup’ population, in case they become extinct in the wild.

The team of scientists and horticulturists who braved the rugged peaks to collect seeds and cuttings first met with Western Yalanji Traditional Owners to seek permission to gather materials and exchange knowledge on contemporary and traditional science and climate change. The tribal elders then launched the project with a cleansing and welcome to country ceremony. 

Now that collection has taken place, the team will begin the process of cleaning, counting, researching and testing the physical limitations of the seeds, preparing them for germination and eventual propagation. Cuttings collected are being raised by the Australian National Botanic Gardens and Cranbourne Gardens. Artist Donna Davis will creatively document the rescue mission, visiting the mountaintops as well as the propagation facilities and the botanic gardens where the plants will be grown to maturity in conservation collections.

Rather than the usual species-by-species approach to conservation, this joint effort aims to conserve many species from a unique biome - “The aim is to secure the most severely threatened tropical mountaintop species in well managed, living collections with micro-climates as close as possible to their original habitat,” Professor Crayn said. A number of plant species from these peaks have already proven to be adaptable to the Melbourne climate.

Alongside the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, the project team is comprised of the Australian Tropical Herbarium (ATH), the National Seed Bank, the Australian National Botanic Gardens, the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, Brisbane Botanic Gardens, Cairns Botanic Gardens, Mossman Botanic Gardens and the Australian Rhododendron Society, Victoria Branch.

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