The 50 beautiful Australian plants at greatest risk of extinction — and how to save them

Caley’s grevillea (Grevillea caleyi) occurs in Sydney. It needs fire to germinate but burns are hard to carry out near urban areas.
Tony Auld, Author provided

Jennifer Silcock, The University of Queensland; Jaana Dielenberg, Charles Darwin University; Roderick John Fensham, The University of Queensland, and Teghan Collingwood, The University of QueenslandAs far as odds go, things don’t look promising for the slender-nerved acacia (Acacia leptoneura), a spiky plant with classic yellow-ball wattle flowers. With most of its habitat in Western Australia’s wheat belt cleared for agriculture, it was considered extinct for more than 160 years.

Now, just two plants are known in the world, and they’re not even in the same place. This species is among many Australian plants that have come perilously close to extinction.

To help prevent the loss of any native plant species, we’ve assembled a massive evidence base for more than 750 plants listed as critically endangered or endangered. Of these, we’ve identified the 50 at greatest risk of extinction.

The good news is for most of these imperilled plants, we already have the knowledge and techniques needed to conserve them. We’ve devised an action plan that’s relatively easy to implement, but requires long-term funding and commitment.

What’s driving the loss?

There are 1,384 plant species and subspecies listed as threatened at a national level. Twelve Australian plant species are considered probably extinct and a further 21 species possibly extinct, while 206 are officially listed as critically endangered.

Yellow wattle
Two known plants of slender nerved acacia (Acacia leptoneura) remain, about 1 kilometre apart. Propagation attempts have been unsuccessful and the genetic diversity is probably very low.
Joel Collins, Author provided

Australian plants were used, managed and celebrated by Australia’s First Nations people for at least 60,000 years, but since European colonisation, they’ve been beset by a range of threats.

Land clearing, the introduction of alien plants, animals, diseases, and interruptions to ecological processes such as fire patterns and flooding have taken a heavy toll on many species. This is particularly the case in the more densely populated eastern and southern parts of the continent.

Close-up of yellow flower
Ironstone pixie mop (Petrophile latericola) occurs on a soil type that’s been heavily cleared for agriculture, and is suspected to be susceptible to an introduced root-rot fungus. In 2020 fewer than 200 plants remained, in poor condition.
Andrew Crawford, Author provided

Things aren’t improving. Scientists recently compiled long-term monitoring of more than 100 threatened plant species at 600 sites nationally. And they found populations had declined on average by 72% between 1995 and 2017.

This is a very steep rate of decline, much greater than for threatened mammal or bird populations.

Read more:
Australia-first research reveals staggering loss of threatened plants over 20 years

On the brink

Many species listed as threatened aren’t receiving targeted conservation action or even baseline monitoring, so an important first step in preventing extinctions was identifying the species at greatest risk.

To find the top 50, we looked at the evidence: all available published and unpublished information and expert surveys of over 120 botanists and land managers.
They’re targeted by our Action Plan for Australia’s Imperilled Plants.

Action Plan for Australia’s Imperilled Plants.

Thirty of the species in the plan have fewer than 50 mature individual plants remaining.

And 33 are known only from a single location, such as the Grampians pincushion-lily (Borya mirabilis), which occurs on one rocky outcrop in Victoria. This means the entire population could be destroyed by a single event, such as a major bushfire.

A dead-looking gum tree on agricultural land
About 2,000 Morrisby’s gums were growing in the early 1990s, but by 2016 fewer than 50 remained. Climate change and damage from insects and animals threaten those left. Protecting trees with fencing has led to new seedlings.
Magali Wright, Author provided
Fewer than 10 lax leek-orchids (Prasophyllum laxum) remain. Declines are ongoing due to drought and wildfire, and the South Australian species only occurs on private property not managed for conservation. Proposed recovery actions include habitat protection and establishing the orchid and its mycorrhizal fungi in conservation reserves.
Shane Graves, Author provided
Fewer than 15 woods well spyridium (Spyridium fontis-woodii) shrubs remain on a single roadside in South Australia. Research into threats and germination requirements is urgently needed, plus translocation to conservation reserves.
Daniel Duval/South Australian Seed Conservation Centre, Author provided

So how can we protect them?

Some of the common management actions we’ve proposed include:

  • preventing further loss of species’ habitat. This is the most important action required at a national scale
  • regularly monitoring populations to better understand how species respond to threats and management actions
  • safely trialling appropriate fire management regimes, such as burning in areas where fires have been suppressed
  • investing in disease research and management, to combat the threat of phytophthora (root-rot fungus) and myrtle rust, which damages leaves
  • propagating and moving species to establish plants at new sites, to boost the size of wild populations, or to increase genetic diversity
  • protecting plants from grazing and browsing animals, such as feral goats and rabbits, and sometimes from native animals such as kangaroos.
Once common, the dwarf spider-orchid (Caladenia pumila) wasn’t seen for over 80 years until two individual plants were found. Despite intensive management, no natural recruitment has occurred. Propagation attempts have successfully produced 100 seedlings and 11 mature plants from seed. This photo shows botanist Marc Freestone hand-pollinating dwarf spider-orchids.
Marc Freestone, Author provided
Only 21 mature plants of Gillingarra grevillea (Grevillea sp. Gillingarra) remain on a disturbed, weedy rail reserve in southwestern WA. Half the population was destroyed in 2011 due to railway maintenance and flooding. Habitat protection and restoration, and translocations to conservation reserves are needed to ensure its survival.
Andrew Crawford, Author provided

Another common issue is lack of recruitment, meaning there’s no young plants coming up to replace the old ones when they die. Sometimes this is because the processes that triggered these plants to flower, release seed or germinate are no longer occurring. This can include things like fire of a particular intensity or the right season.

Unfortunately, for some plants we don’t yet know what triggers are required, and further research is essential to establish this.

Now we need the political will

Our plan is for anyone involved in threatened flora management, including federal, state, territory and local government groups, First Nations, environment and community conservation groups, and anyone with one of these plants on their land.

The Border Ranges lined fern (Antrophyum austroqueenslandicum) and its habitat are exceedingly rare. It’s threatened by drought and climate change, and fewer than 50 plants remain in NSW. If the threat of illegal collection can be controlled, the species would benefit from re-introduction to Queensland’s Lamington National Park.
Lui Weber, Author provided

Plants make Australian landscapes unique — over 90% of our plant species are found nowhere else in the world. They’re also the backbone of our ecosystems, creating the rich and varied habitats for our iconic fauna to live in. Plants underpin and enrich our lives every day.

Now we have an effective plan to conserve the Australian plants at the greatest risk of extinction. What’s needed is the political will and resourcing to act in time.

Read more:
Undocumented plant extinctions are a big problem in Australia – here’s why they go unnoticed

The Conversation

Jennifer Silcock, Post-doctoral research fellow, The University of Queensland; Jaana Dielenberg, University Fellow, Charles Darwin University; Roderick John Fensham, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland, and Teghan Collingwood, Research Technician, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Pay dirt: $200 million plan for Australia’s degraded soil is a crucial turning point


Vanessa Wong, Monash University and Luke MosleyThe food we eat, the clothes we wear, the air we breathe, the water we drink – it’s all underpinned by healthy and productive soils. Since Europeans arrived in Australia, the continent’s soil has steadily been degraded. Yet, until now, we’ve lacked an integrated national approach to managing this valuable and finite resource.

That changed in last night’s federal budget, when Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced almost A$200 million for a National Soils Strategy. The 20-year plan recognises the vital role of soils for environmental and human health, the economy, food security, biodiversity and climate resilience.

Our soils face a range of threats, including the loss of prime agricultural land, erosion, acidification, salt accumulation, contamination and carbon loss. Climate change also puts pressure on our soils through through droughts, storms, bushfires and floods.

We contributed expertise as the soil policy was being developed, and believe the final strategy represents a long-needed turning point for this crucial natural asset.

farm in dust storm
Australia’s soils have been degrading since European settlement.

Why soil matters

Soil contains organic matter, minerals, gases, water and living organisms. It is slow to form – the average rate of soil production globally is around 114 millimetres per 1,000 years – and is considered a non-renewable resource.

Soil underpins a myriad of economic activities. In Australia, it directly contributes about A$63 billion each year to the economy through agriculture production alone.

Healthy soil is necessary for:

  • food and fibre production
  • filtering water and retaining sediment to ensure healthy landscapes
  • maintaining air quality by preventing dust storms
  • carbon storage to help mitigate climate change
  • environmental functions such as plant growth
  • human nutrition (soil provides nutrients to plants and animals which are transferred to humans once consumed)
  • many drugs and vaccines upon which humans rely, such as penicillin
  • safe infrastructure (acid sulfate soils and salinity can damage structures such as housing, bridges and roads)
  • resilience to natural disasters such as storms, bushfires, floods and droughts.

However, land degradation, climate change and poor management practices threaten our soil resources.

Read more:
Even after the rains, Australia’s environment scores a 3 out of 10. These regions are struggling the most

An overly saline mustard field
Soil salinity can ruin crops.

What lies beneath?

Until now, Australia has lacked a nationally consistent approach to monitor soil health, nor a readily accessible means of storing that data. That means at a national level, our understanding of soil condition, and how it’s changed, has been limited.

Soil monitoring has largely been conducted through various regional, state and federal programs. These often operate in isolation and have differing aims and objectives. And overall investment has not been large or quick enough to create broad improvements in soil health.

In comparison, well-established standardised national systems exist to monitor terrestrial ecosystems, weather, climate and water. These allow an assessment of longer trends and changes to baseline conditions.

The need for a national soil assessment was recognised as far back as 2008. And there have long been calls for long-term monitoring, consistent information and baseline data collection.

hand holding dirt
The funding will help farmers monitor the health of their soil.

Change from the ground up

Importantly, the strategy takes a long term view of sustainable soil management. It also considers soil beyond its traditional role in agricultural production and explicitly identifies criteria to measure progress.

The strategy has three arms:

1. Prioritise soil health

This goal takes a “soils first” approach in that sustainable soil management is the primary consideration in policy development and management strategies. This recognises how environmental and agricultural problems can start with poor soil management and create further challenges. For example, soil acidification can lead to declines in terrestrial biodiversity, and soil constraints must be addressed first to arrest this.

2. Empower soil stewards and innovation

This approach gives incentives to farmers and other land managers, such as rebates for sampling to determine the soil carbon levels. Carbon is an important measure of soil condition. Gathering such information will help land managers arrest the decline in soil condition, enhancing productivity and soil health.

3. Secure soil science

This approach aims to increase soil knowledge through standardised data collection, management and storage. It will allow for more informed decisions using reliable, up-to-date, accessible information.

Part of this aim involves strengthening training and accreditation programs, and integrating soils into the national school curriculum. This will help create a new generation of soil experts to replace the current crop which is trending to retirement.

Read more:
We need more carbon in our soil to help Australian farmers through the drought

young woman conducting soil testing
The strategy aims to train a new generation of soil experts.

On solid ground

Overall, the National Soils Strategy aims to deliver coordinated on-ground action and improve research, education and monitoring. The strategy broadly aligns with the needs of those who had input into its development, including governments, industry, academia, Landcare groups and non-government organisations.

However, while the importance of Indigenous land management practices is clearly acknowledged, the integration and incorporation of these practices should be more clearly defined.

The monitoring program encourages farmers to test their soil and incorporate the de-identified results in to the national database. Care should be taken to ensure sampling is done appropriately for the data to be useful.

The time frame for the initial phase of the strategy is short – pilot programs need to be delivered between two and four years. This will be challenging to deliver.

Separate to the strategy, the budget allocated A$59.6 million to soil carbon initiatives. There is increasing recognition of how improved land use and management can help boost soil carbon stores, which is key to tackling climate change. But storing carbon permanently in soils comes with a number of challenges. This funding may be appropriate only if directed to address those areas where knowledge gaps exist.

But overall, the strategy fills a vital gap – providing a national vision and shared goals for managing precious soils across Australia.

Read more:
The Morrison government wants to suck CO₂ out of the atmosphere. Here are 7 ways to do it

The Conversation

Vanessa Wong, Associate professor, Monash University and Luke Mosley, Associate Professor

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.