Friday essay: trees have many stories to tell. Is this our last chance to read them?


Unsplash/David Clode, CC BY

Gregory Moore, The University of MelbourneAs tree scientist, I am fascinated by the magnificent biology of trees. I also find it enthralling and encouraging that trees are being appreciated by writers around the world right now.

Three fresh books (chosen from a wider field of titles on the topic) exemplify how trees can be written about as more than just background or an incidental part of a landscape, but as integral to meaning.

My Forests: Travel with Trees by Janine Burke, The Heartbeat of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and Tree Story, a collection curated by Charlotte Day and Brian Martin — are mixed in style and content. But all make clear the close relationships between people and trees and the vital importance of those connections.

It is not surprising that at a time of significant climate change, where natural ecosystems around the world are being devastated and after 18 months of a global pandemic, books on trees are proving popular.

There is an air of desperation in these three titles. Things are changing fast, trees and forests grow slowly, we are wasting time.

Hardy annuals

book cover trees

Abe Books

Books about trees are published every year. Some are beautifully illustrated with photos or hand-drawn images of special trees in large coffee table formats. Some, like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, have trees and forests as characters. Tolkien told a fan that his magnificent Ents were “either souls sent to inhabit trees, or else were folk who slowly took the likeness of trees owing to their inborn love of trees”.

Tolkien’s writing, including a story collection called Tree and Leaf, reminds us of the differences between tree time and human time — we humans are hasty folk. This is something I dwell upon often.

The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton was one of the first books I can recall reading where a tree played a major role and it helped set me on a path of lifelong reading and interest in botany.

That childhood favourite connects to Richard Powers’ The Overstory, which draws together a disparate fictional band of tree protectors. After his book became a hit, Powers recommended 26 other titles for tree-loving readers.

This library of tree books has served a wide and varied readership well and sustained those of us who despair at the wholesale clearing of forests and trees in our cities and suburbs.




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Legacies lost

In most Australian cities we are losing trees and canopy cover at a rate of about 1-1.5% per year. I’m still saddened by the loss of a lemon scented gum (Corymbia citriodora) that grew at the city end of the Tullamarine Freeway in Melbourne. I miss its shade in summer but also the delicious scent that wafted through the car window at certain times of the year.

In October last year, protesters mourned a sacred 350-year-old Djab Wurrung Directions Tree, cut down along Victoria’s Western Highway.




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There has been a growing disconnect between people and trees and vegetated spaces, particularly for those living in cities. Many people have become so focused on urban survival they have become distanced from the essential and intimate dependence that human beings have on plant life.

Earth as we know it, and the lifeforms it sustains, depend upon and have been shaped by plants and their evolution. Human beings can only survive on our planet because of the ecosystems made possible by plants and trees. If these systems are put in jeopardy because people fail to appreciate the importance of plants, then entire ecosystems are put in peril with profound consequences for humankind.

Climate change is giving us a glimpse of how these important relationships are affected by bushfires, stronger winds from unusual directions and more frequent storms with heavy rainfall that can lead of the loss of grand old trees that have stood as silent sentinels for decades and centuries.

All plants in an ecosystem are important to its function, but the large size and long lives of trees explain why they are often focused upon as representatives of their communities. Their size makes them obvious and contributes to the ambience of any landscape, but can also inspire a sense of awe and in some urban-dwellers, fear.

Their long life spans provide a sense of certainly and continuity in uncertain times of rapid change — their presence can link several human generations, when other connections have been lost. They also provide a tangible prospect, if they are left alone or are properly managed, for links to future generations. All of this can be very reassuring for people who feel vulnerable and oppressed by rapid change.




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An act of God, or just bad management? Why trees fall and how to prevent it


A fresh crop

All three of the new books selected tend to anthropomorphise trees and aspects of their biology, attributing to them distinctly human qualities. Sometimes they are described by a mood, such as an upbeat growth in spring or by a willingness to share resources with other species. While this may be annoying to some scientists, it allows many people to relate or even identify more closely with trees, especially when there is complex biology and ecology involved.

book cover. trees

Black Inc.

Peter Wohlleben’s bestselling 2016 book The Hidden life of Trees, took readers on a voyage of discovery with a blend of science, philosophy and spiritualism.

Like that first book, his latest — The Heartbeat of Trees — can be enthralling and annoying almost in equal measure. But the author clearly relates the importance of using our senses when we are in forests to explore the complexity of tree biology. By doing so not only will we achieve a better understanding of trees, but also of ourselves and the importance of trees and vegetated places for human development, our physical and mental health and the sustainability of our societies. It will surely resonate strongly with readers after the pandemic lockdowns of the past year, which saw people flocking to parks, gardens and forests.

book cover trees

MUP

A personal and professional travelogue woven together by trees is the framework of My Forests: Travel with Trees, by Janine Burke. As an art historian Burke weaves her own experiences with trees with those depicted in paintings, ancient mythology and historic and literary texts.

It is a set of idiosyncratic connections that may not resonate with all readers, but the strong cultural links between trees and ancient human history are undeniable. The reader can learn a great deal about people but relatively little about trees themselves — they remain illusory, almost furtive.

book cover trees

Monash University Press

Tree Story, curated by Charlotte Day and Brian Martin catalogues a recent exhibition at Monash University Museum of Art. It is an eclectic mix of style, content, form and media. Some of the images and text do not do justice to the works, but the book does provide a permanent and curated record of what was offered.

The book makes it clear that people see and connect with trees in different, varied and curious ways. While the works may look at the past, there are clear implications, messages and lessons for the present and importantly for the future. Indigenous voices and perspectives speak loudly, longingly and desperately. The works plead that we cannot go on treating trees in this way: for our own health and sustainable futures we must recognise that ultimately all earthly life is essentially one.

Strengthening the bond

The three books, in their own and different ways, challenge how we think about and interact with trees. They broaden the relationship that exists between trees and people and encourage an active and positive interaction. There is a unifying theme that healthy relationships will benefit both people and trees.

Authors and artists recount their personal stories of trees benefiting their own physical and mental well-being. Research shows that trees along streets and roadways have a traffic calming effect that results in slower speeds and more courteous driver behaviour. In a huge study of women’s health in the United States it was shown that green spaces (parks, gardens and trees) significantly correlated with many aspects of improved health.

Plants and trees are not passive participants in ecosystems. They actively contribute to the complexity, resilience and survival of these systems and while the environment affects and changes them, they also modify the environment. Shade from trees cools the understorey and soils, making it possible for a more diverse range of species to thrive. Shade on creeks and rivers helps native fish survive and breed.

Felled trees
Great Otways National Park.
Unsplash, CC BY



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These books highlight the complexity of the relationships that many of us have with trees – relationships that can bring change to both us and the trees.

Wohlleben asks that we use all our senses when we interact with trees and forests. There is more going on than meets the eye. Burke reminds us that culture and tradition influence our perception of trees and forests. The works exhibited in Tree Story help us to explore these influences and their meaning.

Tree in forest
The stories trees tell …
Unsplash, CC BY

We are far from knowing all there is to know about plants, trees, forests and ecosystems. The scientific approach is but one method of questing for truth. The open-minded approaches explored in these books could stimulate new discoveries.

The books remind us of the pace of change being wrought on trees and forests by climate change and that the stakes, if we don’t reverse this decline, are very high.

Scientists should never dismiss what they don’t understand. Neither should readers. As climates change, the presence of trees and green space will be recognised as a priority. Trees will be a part of our futures no matter where we live because we cannot have economically viable, environmentally sustainable or liveable places without them. The Conversation

woman reading under a tree
Books can remind us what we have, and what’s at stake.
Shutterstock

Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany, The University of Melbourne

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

A lone tree makes it easier for birds and bees to navigate farmland, like a stepping stone between habitats


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Carla Archibald, Deakin University; Eduardo van den Berg, Federal University of Lavras, and Jonathan Rhodes, The University of QueenslandVast, treeless paddocks and fields can be dangerous for wildlife, who encounter them as “roadblocks” between natural areas nearby. But our new research found even one lone tree in an otherwise empty paddock can make a huge difference to an animal’s movement.

We focused on the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, a biodiversity hotspot with 1,361 different known species of wildlife, such as jaguars, sloths, tamarins and toucans. Habitat loss from expanding and intensifying farmland, however, increasingly threatens the forest’s rich diversity of species and ecosystems.

We researched the value of paddock trees and hedges for birds and bees, and found small habitat features like these can double how easily they find their way through farmland.

This is important because enabling wildlife to journey across farmlands not only benefits the conservation of species, but also people. It means bees can improve crop pollination, and seed-dispersing birds can help restore ecosystems.

Connecting habitats

Lone trees in paddocks, hedges and tree-lined fences are common features of farmlands across the world, from Brazil to Australia.

They may be few and far between, but this scattered vegetation makes important areas of refuge for birds and bees, acting like roads or stepping stones to larger natural habitats nearby.

Scattered paddock trees, for instance, offer shelter, food, and places to land. They’ve also been found to create cooler areas within their canopy and right beneath it, providing some relief on scorching summer days.

Hedges and tree-lined fences are also important, as they provide a safe pathway by providing hiding places from predators.

White-browed meadowlark perched on a bush in a farm paddock within the Atlantic Forest
White-browed meadowlark perched on a bush in a farm paddock within the Atlantic Forest.
Milton Andrade Jr, CC BY

For our research, we used satellite images of the Atlantic Forest and randomly selected 20 landscapes containing different amounts of forest cover.

We then used mathematical models to calculate the habitat connectivity of these landscapes for three groups of species — bees, small birds such as the rufous-bellied thrush, and large birds such as toucans — based on how far they can travel.




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And we found in areas with low forest cover, wildlife is twice as likely to move from one natural habitat to another if paddock trees and hedges can be used as stepping stones.

We also found vegetation around creeks and waterways are the most prevalent and important type of on-farm habitat for wildlife movement. In Brazil, there are legal protections for these areas preventing them from being cleared, which means vegetation along waterways has become relatively common compared to lone trees and hedges, in places with lower forest cover.

Insights for Australia

While the contribution of lone trees, hedges and tree-lined fences towards conservation targets is relatively low, our research shows they’re still important. And we can apply this knowledge more widely.

Two koalas sitting on a branch
Koalas use roadside vegetation for feeding and resting.
Shutterstock

For example, in Australia, many koala populations depend on scattered trees for movement and habitat. In 2018, CSIRO researchers in Queensland tracked koalas using GPS, and found koalas used roadside vegetation and scattered trees for feeding and resting significantly more than they expected.

Likewise, lone trees, hedges and tree-lined fences can also facilitate the movement of Australian fruit-eating birds such as the olive-backed oriole and the rose-crowned fruit dove. Improving habitat connectivity can help these birds travel across landscapes, feeding and dispersing seeds as they go.

In fragmented landscapes, where larger patches of vegetation are hard to find, dispersing the seeds of native plants encourages natural regeneration of ecosystems. This is a key strategy to help achieve environmental restoration and conservation targets.

Policies overlook lone trees

In Brazil, there’s a strong initiative to restore natural areas, known as the Brazilian Pact for Restoration. This pact is a commitment from non-government organisations, government, companies and research centres to restore 15 million hectares of native vegetation by 2050.

However, the pact doesn’t recognise the value of lone trees, hedges and tree-lined fences.




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Likewise, the Brazilian Forest Code has historically provided strong legal protection for forests since it was introduced. While this policy does value vegetation along waterways, it overlooks the value of lone trees, hedges or tree-lined fences.

These oversights could result in poor connectivity between natural areas, seriously hampering conservation efforts.

Australia doesn’t fare much better. For example, in Queensland, the native vegetation management laws protect only intact native vegetation or vegetation of a certain age. This means scattered, but vital, vegetation isn’t protected from land clearing.

Small habitat features scattered across a farm paddock in the Atlantic Forest.
Flávia Freire Siqueira, CC BY., Author provided

Helping your local wildlife

But farmers and other landowners in Australia can make a big difference through land stewardship grant schemes (such as from Landcare) and private land conservation programs (such as Land for Wildlife or conservation covenants).

These schemes and programs can help landowners finance revegetation and protect native vegetation. Grants and programs vary by state and territory, and local council.




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Restoring natural areas is a key goal on the global conservation agenda for the next decade, and it’s clear that lone trees, hedges and tree-lined fences on farms may play a larger role than once thought.

So think twice before you remove a tree or a hedge. It might be a crucial stepping stone for your local birds and bees.


The authors gratefully acknowledge the contributions of Dr Flávia Freire Siqueira who led this research collaboration, and co-authours Dr Dulcineia de Carvalho and Dr Vanessa Leite Rezende from the Federal University of Lavras.The Conversation

Carla Archibald, Research Fellow, Conservation Science, Deakin University; Eduardo van den Berg, , Federal University of Lavras, and Jonathan Rhodes, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland

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

An act of God, or just bad management? Why trees fall and how to prevent it


AP

Gregory Moore, The University of MelbourneThe savage storms that swept Victoria last week sent trees crashing down, destroying homes and blocking roads. Under climate change, stronger winds and extreme storms will be more frequent. This will cause more trees to fall and, sadly, people may die.

These incidents are sometimes described as an act of God or Mother Nature’s fury. Such descriptions obscure the role of good management in minimising the chance a tree will fall. The fact is, much can be done to prevent these events.

Trees must be better managed for several reasons. The first, of course, is to prevent damage to life and property. The second is to avoid unnecessary tree removals. Following storms, councils typically see a spike in requests for tree removals – sometimes for perfectly healthy trees.

A better understanding of the science behind falling trees – followed by informed action – will help keep us safe and ensure trees continue to provide their many benefits.

tree lying on home
We must try to stop trees falling over to prevent damage to life and property.
James Ross/AAP

Why trees fall over

First, it’s important to note that fallen trees are the exception at any time, including storms. Most trees won’t topple over or shed major limbs. I estimate fewer than three trees in 100,000 fall during a storm.

Often, fallen trees near homes, suburbs and towns were mistreated or poorly managed in preceding years. In the rare event a tree does fall over, it’s usually due to one or more of these factors:

1. Soggy soil

In strong winds, tree roots are more likely to break free from wet soil than drier soil. In arboriculture, such events are called windthrow.

A root system may become waterlogged when landscaping alters drainage around trees, or when house foundations disrupt underground water movement. This can be overcome by improving soil drainage with pipes or surface contouring that redirects water away from trees.

You can also encourage a tree’s root growth by mulching around the tree under the “dripline” – the outer edge of the canopy from which water drips to the ground. Applying a mixed-particle-size organic mulch to a depth of 75-100 millimetres will help keep the soil friable, aerated and moist. But bear in mind, mulch can be a fire risk in some conditions.

Root systems can also become waterlogged after heavy rain. So when both heavy rain and strong winds are predicted, be alert to the possibility of falling trees.




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People inspect trees fallen on cars
A combination of heavy rain and strong winds can cause trees to fall.
Shutterstock

2. Direct root damage

Human-caused damage to root systems is a common cause of tree failure. Such damage can include roots being:

  • cut when utility services are installed
  • restricted by a new road, footpath or driveway
  • compacted over time, such as when they extend under driveways.

Trees can take a long time to respond to disturbances. When a tree falls in a storm, it may be the result of damage inflicted 10-15 years ago.

tree uprroted
This elm, growing very close to a footpath, fell in Melbourne during a 2005 storm.
Author provided

3. Wind direction

Trees anchor themselves against prevailing winds by growing roots in a particular pattern. Most of the supporting root structure of large trees grows on the windward side of the trunk.

If winds come from an uncommon direction, and with a greater-than-usual speed, trees may be vulnerable to falling. Even if the winds come from the usual direction, if the roots on the windward side are damaged, the tree may topple over.

The risk of this happening is likely to worsen under climate change, when winds are more likely to come from new directions.

4. Dead limbs

Dead or dying tree limbs with little foliage are most at risk of falling during storms. The risk can be reduced by removing dead wood in the canopy.

Trees can also fall during strong winds when they have so-called “co-dominant” stems. These V-shaped stems are about the same diameter and emerge from the same place on the trunk.

If you think you might have such trees on your property, it’s well worth having them inspected. Arborists are trained to recognise these trees and assess their danger.




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car bumper stopped at fallen tree trunk
Storms can trigger falling trees which block roads.
Shutterstock

Trees are worth the trouble

Even with the best tree management regime, there is no guarantee every tree will stay upright during a storm. Even a healthy, well managed tree can fall over in extremely high winds.

While falling trees are rare, there are steps we can take to minimise the damage they cause. For example, in densely populated areas, we should consider moving power and communications infrastructure underground.

By now, you may be thinking large trees are just too unsafe to grow in urban areas, and should be removed. But we need trees to help us cope with storms and other extreme weather.

Removing all trees around a building can cause wind speeds to double, which puts roofs, buildings and lives at greater risk. Removing trees from steep slopes can cause the land to become unstable and more prone to landslides. And of course, trees keep us cooler during summer heatwaves.

Victoria’s spate of fallen trees is a concern, but removing them is not the answer. Instead, we must learn how to better manage and live with them.




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The Conversation


Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany, The University of Melbourne

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

About 500,000 Australian species are undiscovered – and scientists are on a 25-year mission to finish the job


Wikimedia

Kevin Thiele, The University of Western Australia and Jane Melville, Museums VictoriaHere are two quiz questions for you. How many species of animals, plants, fungi, fish, insects and other organisms live in Australia? And how many of these have been discovered and named?

To the first, the answer is we don’t really know. But the best guess of taxonomists – the scientists who discover, name, classify and document species – is that Australia’s lands, rivers, coasts and oceans probably house more than 700,000 distinct species.

On the second, taxonomists estimate almost 200,000 species have been scientifically named since Europeans first began exploring, collecting and classifying Australia’s remarkable fauna and flora.

Together, these estimates are disturbing. After more than 300 years of effort, scientists have documented fewer than one-third of Australia’s species. The remaining 70% are unknown, and essentially invisible, to science.

Taxonomists in Australia name an average 1,000 new species each year. At that rate, it will take at least 400 years to complete even a first-pass stocktake of Australia’s biodiversity.

This poor knowledge is a serious threat to Australia’s environment. And a first-of-its kind report released today shows it’s also a huge missed economic opportunity. That’s why today, Australia’s taxonomists are calling on governments, industry and the community to support an important mission: discovering and documenting all Australian species within 25 years.

Australia: a biodiversity hotspot

Biologically, Australia is one of the richest and most diverse nations on Earth – between 7% and 10% of all species on Earth occur here. It also has among the world’s highest rates of species discovery. But our understanding of biodiversity is still very, very incomplete.

Of course, First Nations peoples discovered, named and classified many species within their knowledge systems long before Europeans arrived. But we have no ready way yet to compare their knowledge with Western taxonomy.

Finding new species in Australia is not hard – there are almost certainly unnamed species of insects, spiders, mites and fungi in your backyard. Any time you take a bush holiday you’ll drive past hundreds of undiscovered species. The problem is recognising the species as new and finding the time and resources to deal with them all.

Taxonomists describe and name new species only after very careful due diligence. Every specimen must be compared with all known named species and with close relatives to ensure it is truly a new species. This often involves detailed microscopic studies and gene sequencing.

More fieldwork is often needed to collect specimens and study other species. Specimens in museums and herbaria all over the world sometimes need to be checked. After a great deal of work, new species are described in scientific papers for others to assess and review.

So why do so many species remain undiscovered? One reason is a shortage of taxonomists trained to the level needed. Another is that technologies to substantially speed up the task have only been developed in the past decade or so. And both these, of course, need appropriate levels of funding.

Of course, some groups of organisms are better known than others. In general, noticeable species – mammals, birds, plants, butterflies and the like – are fairly well documented. Most less noticeable groups – many insects, fungi, mites, spiders and marine invertebrates – remain poorly known. But even inconspicuous species are important.

Fungi, for example, are essential for maintaining our natural ecosystems and agriculture. They fertilise soils, control pests, break down litter and recycle nutrients. Without fungi, the world would literally grind to a halt. Yet, more than 90% of Australian fungi are believed to be unknown.




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fungi on log
Fungi plays an essential ecosystem role.
Shutterstock

Mind the knowledge gap

So why does all this matter?

First, Australia’s biodiversity is under severe and increasing threat. To manage and conserve our living organisms, we must first discover and name them.

At present, it’s likely many undocumented species are becoming extinct, invisibly, before we know they exist. Or, perhaps worse, they will be discovered and named from dead specimens in our museums long after they have gone extinct in nature.

Second, many undiscovered species are crucial in maintaining a sustainable environment for us all. Others may emerge as pests and threats in future; most species are rarely noticed until something goes wrong. Knowing so little about them is a huge risk.

Third, enormous benefits are to be gained from these invisible species, once they are known and documented. A report released today
by Deloitte Access Economics, commissioned by Taxonomy Australia, estimates a benefit to the national economy of between A$3.7 billion and A$28.9 billion if all remaining Australian species are documented.

Benefits will be greatest in biosecurity, medicine, conservation and agriculture. The report found every $1 invested in discovering all remaining Australian species will bring up to $35 of economic benefits. Such a cost-benefit analysis has never before been conducted in Australia.

The investment would cover, among other things, research infrastructure, an expanded grants program, a national effort to collect specimens of all species and new facilities for gene sequencing.




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Two scientists walk through wetlands holding boxes
Discovering new species often involves lots of field work.
Shutterstock

Mission possible

Australian taxonomists – in museums, herbaria, universities, at the CSIRO and in
government departments – have spent the last few years planning an ambitious mission to discover and document all remaining Australian species within a generation.

So, is this ambitious goal achievable, or even imaginable? Fortunately, yes.

It will involve deploying new and emerging technologies, including high-throughput robotic DNA sequencing, artificial intelligence and supercomputing. This will vastly speed up the process from collecting specimens to naming new species, while ensuring rigour and care in the science.

A national meeting of Australian taxonomists, including the young early career researchers needed to carry the mission through, was held last year. The meeting confirmed that with the right technologies and more keen and bright minds trained for the task, the rate of species discovery in Australia could be sped up by the necessary 16-fold – reducing 400 years of effort to 25 years.

With the right people, technologies and investment, we could discover all Australian species. By 2050 Australia could be the world’s first biologically mega-rich nation to have documented all our species, for the direct benefit of this and future generations.




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The Conversation


Kevin Thiele, Adjunct Assoc. Professor, The University of Western Australia and Jane Melville, Senior Curator, Terrestrial Vertebrates, Museums Victoria

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

We found a secret history of megadroughts written in tree rings. The wheatbelt’s future may be drier than we thought


An almost-dry dam, surrounded by wheat fields, in WA’s wheatbelt region.
Shutterstock

Alison O’Donnell, The University of Western Australia; Edward Cook, Columbia University, and Pauline Grierson, The University of Western AustraliaDrought over the last two decades has dealt a heavy blow to the wheatbelt of Western Australia, the country’s most productive grain-growing region. Since 2000, winter rainfall has plummeted by almost 20% and shifted grain-growing areas towards the coast.

Our recent research, however, found these dry conditions are nothing out of the ordinary for the region.

In fact, after analysing rings in centuries-old tree trunks, we found the region has seen far worse “megadroughts” over the last 700 years. Australia’s instrumental climate records only cover the last 120 or so years (at best), which means these historic droughts may not have previously been known to science.

Our research also found the 20th century was the wettest of the last seven centuries in the wheatbelt. This is important, because it means scientists have likely been underestimating the actual risk of drought – and this will be exacerbated by climate change.

What we can learn from ancient trees

We estimate the risk of extreme climate events, such as droughts, cyclones and floods, based on what we know from instrumental climate records from weather stations. Extending climate records by hundreds or even thousands of years means scientists would be able to get a much better understanding of climate variability and the risk of extreme events.

_Callitris_ trees overlooking a salt lake
Callitris trees overlooking a salt lake. We pulled a column of wood from these tree trunks to investigate past climate changes in the region.
Alison O’Donnell, Author provided

Thankfully we can do just that in many parts of the world using proxy records — things like tree rings, corals, stalagmites and ice cores in Antarctica. These record evidence of past climate conditions as they grow.

For example, trees typically create a new layer of growth (“growth ring”) around their trunks, just beneath the bark, each year. The amount of growth generally depends on how much rain falls in the year. The more it rains, the more growth and the wider the ring.

Tree rings of Callitris columellaris.
Alison O’Donnell, Author provided

We used growth rings of native cypress trees (Callitris columellaris) near a large salt lake at the eastern edge the wheatbelt region. These trees can live for up to 1,000 years, perhaps even longer.

We can examine the growth rings of living trees without cutting them down by carefully drilling a small hole into the trunk and extracting a column (“core”) of wood about the size of a drinking straw. By measuring the ring widths, we developed a timeline of tree growth and used this to work out how much rain fell in each year of a tree’s life.

This method allowed us to reconstruct the last 668 years of autumn-winter rainfall in the wheatbelt.

A tree trunk with a blue scientific instrument attached
A tree borer – a hollow drill used to extract ‘cores’ of wood from tree trunks.
Alison O’Donnell, Author provided

A history of megadroughts

One of the most pressing questions for the wheatbelt is whether the decline in autumn-winter rainfall observed in recent decades is unusual or extreme. Our extended record of rainfall lets us answer this question.

Yes, rainfall since 2000 was below the 668-year average — but it was not extremely low.

The last two decades may seem particularly bad because our expectations of rainfall in the wheatbelt are likely based on memories of higher rainfall. But this frequent wet weather has actually been the anomaly. Our tree rings revealed the 20th century was wetter than any other in the last 700 years, with 12% more rain in the autumn-winter seasons on average than the 19th century.




Read more:
500 years of drought and flood: trees and corals reveal Australia’s climate history


Before the 20th century, the wheatbelt saw five droughts that were longer and more severe than any we’ve experienced in living memory, or have recorded in instrumental records. This includes two dry periods in the late 18th and 19th centuries that persisted for more than 30 years, making them “megadroughts”.

While the most recent dry period has persisted for almost two decades so far, rainfall during this period is at least 10% higher than it was in the two historical megadroughts.

This suggests prolonged droughts are a natural and relatively common feature of the wheatbelt’s climate.

An aerial view of the tree-ring site, home to trees that can live up to 1,000 years.
Hannah Etchells, Author provided

So how does human-caused climate change play into this?

It’s likely both natural climate variability and human-caused climate change contributed to the wheatbelt’s recent decline in rainfall. Unfortunately, it’s also likely their combined influence will lead to even less rainfall in the near future.

What happens now?

Our findings have important implications for assessing the risk of drought. It’s now clear we need to look beyond these instrumental records to more accurately estimate the risk of droughts for the wheatbelt.

But currently, proxy climate records like tree rings aren’t generally used in drought risk models, as there aren’t many of them in the regions scientists want to research.

Improving risk estimates leads to better informed decisions around preparing for and managing the effects of droughts and future natural disasters.




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To help drought-affected farmers, we need to support them in good times as well as bad


Our findings are a confronting prospect for the future of farming in the wheatbelt.

Australian farmers have shown tremendous innovation in their ability to adapt in the face of drought, with many shifting from livestock to crops. This resilience will be critical as farmers face a drier, more difficult future.The Conversation

Alison O’Donnell, Research Fellow in Dendroclimatology, The University of Western Australia; Edward Cook, Ewing Lamont Research Professor, Director Of Tree-Ring Lab, Columbia University, and Pauline Grierson, Director, West Australian Biogeochemistry Centre, The University of Western Australia

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

Social plants: in the wild, staghorn ferns grow in colonies to improve water storage for all members


Shutterstock/Florist_Yana

Kevin Burns, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of WellingtonSocial colonies are nothing new in the animal kingdom. We know bees, ants and termites live in large colonies, divide labour and co-operate to take care of offspring produced by a single queen.

This behaviour, known as eusociality, has evolved independently in insects, crustaceans (certain species of shrimp) and even some mammals (naked mole rats), but it has never been observed in plants. This suggested plants were somehow less complex than animals.

Our study, published this week, turns our understanding of the evolution of biological complexity on its head. It documents the life history of a remarkable species of fern that grows in the tops of rainforest trees on Lord Howe Island, a small volcanic island in the north Tasman Sea.

Rather than growing as individual ferns in the treetops, the staghorn fern (Platycerium bifurcatum) lives in colonies, in an adaptation to its harsh habitat high above the water and nutrients stored in the soil below.

Individuals differ markedly in size, shape and texture. But they always grow side-by-side within colonies, fitting together like puzzle pieces to form a bucket-like store of water and nutrients available to all colony members.

Many individuals forgo reproduction and instead focus on capturing or storing water to the benefit of other colony members.




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Life in the tree tops

Staghorn ferns belong to a group of tree-dwelling plants known as epiphytes. Tree canopies are a challenging environment for plants to grow. Without access to soil, epiphytes are regularly exposed to severe water and nutrient stress.

Epiphytes have evolved several ways to mediate the lack of access to water and nutrients. Bromeliads grow cup-shaped leaves, while orchids have specialised root tissues. But staghorn ferns have developed a colony lifestyle to overcome the problem.

Panorama taken on Lord Howe Island
On Lord Howe Island, staghorn ferns grow in colonies.
Author provided

Staghorn ferns can be bought at many garden stores and will grow like any other pot plant. But in the wild on Lord Howe Island, we discovered individual plants collaborate, specialising in different tasks in the construction of the communal water and nutrient store, often at the cost of their own reproduction — just like social insects.

This radically changes our understanding of biological complexity. It suggests major evolutionary transitions towards eusociality can occur in both plants and animals. Plants and beehives aren’t as different as they might seem.

For decades, scientists interested in eusociality argued for a strict definition — many felt the term should be reserved for only a select group of highly co-operative insects.

This perspective led to widespread scepticism about its occurrence in the natural world. Perhaps this is why it was overlooked for so long in one of horticulture’s most popular pot plants.

Evolution of biological complexity

Four billion years ago, life began as simple, self-replicating molecules. Today’s diversity arose from these simple origins towards increasingly complex organisms.

Evolutionary biologists think that biological complexity developed in abrupt, major evolutionary transitions, rather than slow and continuous changes. Such transitions occur when independent entities begin to collaborate, forming new, more complex life forms — such as, for example, when single-celled organisms evolved into multi-cellular organisms.

A microcopic image of one of the first complex multi-cellular plants, algae known as Volvox
Early in the evolution of plants, single-celled algae joined to form more complex structures.
Shutterstock/Lebendkulturen.de

Another example is the transition from unspecialised bacterial (prokaryotic) cells to cells with an enclosed nucleus and specialised organelles that perform particular functions, known as eukaryotic cells.

Co-operation underpins the evolutionary origins of organelles — they likely evolved from free-living ancestors that gave up their independence to live safely within the walls of another cell.




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There are eight commonly recognised major evolutionary transitions — and eusociality is the most recent. Eusocial animals differ from others in three fundamental ways:

  • they live in colonies comprised of different generations of adults
  • they subdivide labour into reproductive and non-reproductive groups
  • they care for offspring co-operatively.

Our observations over the past two years on Lord Howe Island found staghorn ferns meet these criteria.

In highly eusocial species, caste membership is permanent and unchanging. But in primitively eusocial species, individuals can alter their behaviour to suit many roles required by the colony. Staghorn ferns probably fit under the latter category.

Our ongoing research will determine the staghorn’s position along this continuum of eusociality. But, for now, we know plants and animals share a similar evolutionary pathway towards greater biological complexity.The Conversation

Kevin Burns, Professor, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

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

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.




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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.




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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.

Scientists are more likely to study bold and beautiful blooms, but ugly flowers matter too


Myricaria germanica is a rare and endangered species hit hard by climate change, but little research is undertaken to help save it.
Martino Adamo, Author provided

Kingsley Dixon, Curtin UniversityWe all love gardens with beautiful flowers and leafy plants, choosing colourful species to plant in and around our homes. Plant scientists, however, may have fallen for the same trick in what they choose to research.

Our research, published today in Nature Plants, found there’s a clear bias among scientists toward visually striking plants. This means they’re more likely chosen for scientific study and conservation efforts, regardless of their ecological or evolutionary significance.

To our surprise, colour played a major role skewing researcher bias. White, red and pink flowers were more likely to feature in research literature than those with dull, or green and brown flowers. Blue plants — the rarest colour in nature — received most research attention.

But does this bias matter? Plants worldwide are facing mass extinction due to environmental threats such as climate change. Now, more than ever, the human-induced tide of extinction means scientists need to be more fair-handed in ensuring all species have a fighting chance at survival.

Hidden plants in carpets of wildflowers

I was part of an international team that sifted through 280 research papers from 1975 to 2020, and analysed 113 plant species found in the southwestern Alps in Europe.

The Alps is a global biodiversity hotspot and the subject of almost 200 years of intensive plant science. But climate change is now creating hotter conditions, threatening many of its rarest species.

White flower with mountains in background
Edelweiss is a charismatic plant of the Alps that heralds spring.
Shutterstock

Carpeted in snow for much of the year, the brief yet explosive flowering of Europe’s alpine flora following the thaw is a joy to behold. Who was not bewitched when Julie Andrews danced in an alpine meadow in its full spring wildflower livery in The Sound of Music? Or when she sung “edelweiss”, one of the charismatic plants of the Alps that heralds spring?




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Hidden in these carpets of bright blue gentians and Delphiniums, vibrant daisies and orchids, are tiny or dull plants. This includes small sedges (Carex species), lady’s mantle (Alchemilla species) or the snake lily (Fritillaria) with its sanguine drooping flowers on thin stems.

Many of these “uncharismatic plants” are also rare or important ecological species, yet garner little attention from scientists and the public.

Close-up of a blue flower
Bellflowers (Campanula) are conspicuous and prominent in the Alps.
Martino Adamo, Author provided

The plants scientists prefer

The study asked if scientists were impartial to good-looking plants. We tested whether there was a relationship between research focus on plant species and characteristics, such as the colour, shape and prominence of species.

Along with a bias towards colourful flowers, we found accessible and conspicuous flowers were among those most studied (outside of plants required for human food or medicine).

Blue flowers
Bold and beautiful flowers in alpine meadows win scientific attention.
Martino Adamo, Author provided

This includes tall, prominent Delphinium and larkspurs, both well-known garden delights with well-displayed, vibrant flowers that often verge on fluorescent. Stem height also contributed to how readily a plant was researched, as it determines a plant’s ability to stand out among others. This includes tall bellflowers (Campanula species) and orchids.

But interestingly, a plant’s rarity didn’t significantly influence research attention. Charismatic orchids, for example, figured prominently despite rarer, less obvious species growing nearby, such as tiny sedges (Cypreaceae) and grass species.

The consequences of plant favouritism

This bias may steer conservation efforts away from plants that, while less visually pleasing, are more important to the health of the overall ecosystem or in need of urgent conservation.

In this time of urgent conservation, controlling our bias in plant science is critical. While the world list of threatened species (the IUCN RED List) should be the basis for guiding global plant conservation, the practice is often far from science based.

Mat rush with brown flowers
Mat rushes are home for rare native sun moths.
Shutterstock

We often don’t know how important a species is until it’s thoroughly researched, and losing an unnoticed species could mean the loss of a keystone plant.

In Australia, for example, milkweeds (Asclepiadaceae) are an important food source for butterflies and caterpillars, while grassy mat rushes (dull-flowered Lomandra species) are now known to be the home for rare native sun moths. From habitats to food, these plants provide foundational ecological services, yet many milkweed and mat rush species are rare, and largely neglected in conservation research.




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Likewise, we can count on one hand the number of scientists who work on creepy fungal-like organisms called “slime molds”, compared to the platoons of scientists who work on the most glamorous of plants: the orchids.

Yet, slime molds, with their extraordinary ability to live without cell walls and to float their nuclei in a pulsating jelly of cytoplasm, could hold keys to all sorts of remarkable scientific discoveries.

Yellow slime on tree trunk
Slime molds could hold the key to many scientific discoveries, but the organisms are understudied.
Shutterstock

We need to love our boring plants

Our study shows the need to take aesthetic biases more explicitly into consideration in science and in the choice of species studied, for the best conservation and ecological outcomes.

While our study didn’t venture into Australia, the principle holds true: we should be more vigilant in all parts of the conservation process, from the science to listing species for protection under the law. (Attractiveness bias may affect public interest here, too.)

So next time you go for a bushwalk, think about the plants you may have trodden on because they weren’t worth a second glance. They may be important to native insects, improve soil health or critical for a healthy bushland.




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The Conversation


Kingsley Dixon, John Curtin Distinguished Professor, Curtin University

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

Rainforest giants with rare autumn displays: there’s a lot more to Australia’s red cedar than timber


Peter Woodard/Wikimedia

Gregory Moore, The University of MelbourneNative deciduous trees are rare in Australia, which means many of the red, yellow and brown leaves we associate with autumn come from introduced species, such as maples, oaks and elms.

One native tree, however, stands out for its leaves with soft autumnal hues that drop in March and April: Australia’s red cedar. Don’t be fooled by its common name — red cedar is not a cedar at all, but naturally grows in rainforests throughout Southeast Asia and Australia.

You may be more familiar with its timber, which I’ve been acquainted with all of my life. My grandmothers had cedar chests of drawers they had inherited from their mothers or grandmothers, and I had assumed they were made from one of the Northern hemisphere cedar species. The wood still smelled of cedar after all this time in family homes – a scent I associate with grandparents and country homes.

By the time I was given one of these chests to restore, I knew much more about the tree and valued the chest of drawers all the more. So, with autumn putting a spotlight on Australian red cedars, let’s look at this species in more detail.

Majestic giants of the rainforest

I first encountered red cedar trees in the sub-tropical rainforests of Queensland and New South Wales in the 1980s. Then, its scientific name was called Cedrela toona and later Toona australis. Now, it’s recognised as Toona ciliata.

The various names reflect a taxonomic history in which the Australian species was once regarded as being separate from its Asian relatives, but all are now considered one.

Two red cedars in a rainforest
Native red cedar trees can grow up to 60m tall.
Shutterstock

The trees are awe-inspiring. Under the right conditions, it can grow to 60 metres tall (occasionally more) with a trunk diameter of up to 7m.

After losing its foliage in autumn, the new foliage in spring often has an attractive reddish tinge. In late spring it has small (5 milimetres) white or pale pink flowers, but they usually go unnoticed in the rainforest because of their height or the density of other tree canopies growing beneath.

Older red cedars have wonderful buttresses at the base of their trunk, a characteristic shared by many tall tropical trees. These buttresses have long been considered an advantage for species that can emerge above the canopy of a rainforest where winds are much stronger, with the buttresses and expanded root systems providing greater strength and resistance to the wind.

These buttresses also greatly increase the surface area of the base of the trees exposed to air, which facilitates the uptake of extra oxygen as the activity of micro-organisms in the soil can leave it oxygen-depleted.

White flowers against the leaves of red cedar
Tiny white flowers are hard to see from the ground in a rainforest.
Forest and Kim Starr/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Logged to near extinction

With a wide distribution throughout Asia and Australia, its uses in ancient times were many and varied. In traditional medicine, bark was used or digestive remedies as well as wound dressing and its resin was used for treating skin conditions.

Dyes, oils and tannins used for preparing leather could also be extracted by boiling various plant parts. Today the wood is used for culturing shiitake mushrooms, which are much in demand in restaurants.

But the recent history of red cedar is a typically sad colonial tale. The species belongs to the same family as mahogany (Meliaceae) and, not surprisingly, was exploited for its timber from the early days of colonisation.

Red cedar bannister
You can find red cedar timber in many public buildings across Australia.
denisbin/Flickr, CC BY-ND

The timber is durable, lightweight and suitable for naval use and so was very heavily logged, right along the east coast of Australia from the early 1800s until the early 20th century.

The rich deep red colour of its timber and the fact it was soft and easily worked meant it was used for furniture, ornate carvings in public buildings, town halls and parliaments, such as the State Library in Melbourne. It was also used for implements and handles, and for sailing and racing boats.




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You’ve probably had a close encounter with the lovely red banisters on some of these old buildings that were made of red cedar, often darkened under the patina of so many hands.

The once common and widespread species was logged almost to extinction along the east coast by the mid-1900s, and to the point of practical commercial extinction with little timber available to industry by the 1960s.

So valued was the timber that in the late 1970s, a plan was hatched to remove red cedar from Queensland National Park rainforests using helicopters. Luckily, the idea did not fly and so some great trees persist. The species has a conservation status of concern, but is not considered to be endangered at present.

Leaves of the Toona ciliata
The leaves of red cedar begin to fall in late March.
Peter Woodard/Wikimedia

A terrible pest

The fact they are deciduous makes them potentially very interesting and useful for horticultural use, but that potential remains largely unrealised. And given the value and quality of its timber, you may be wondering why it’s not being grown in plantations across the continent.

The reason is a native moth called the cedar tip moth (Hypsipyla robusta), which lays its eggs on the main growing shoot of the tree. When the eggs hatch the larvae bore down the shoot, which not only results in shoot dieback but also causes the trees to develop multiple stems and branches which reduce its timber value.




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Despite this, they are still planted as a quick-growing ornamental tree for their shade in other parts of the world, such Hawaii and Zimbabwe.

The moths are attracted to the scent of the tree, so they’re very difficult to control. The moth does not attack the tree in South America, for instance, because the moth has not established there, so there are large plantations of red cedar in Brazil.

It’s an interesting reminder: often it’s the little things in ecology that can affect success, or failure. When we humans meddle without knowledge, things don’t necessarily go to plan, usually to our cost.




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The Conversation


Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany, The University of Melbourne

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

An unexpected consequence of climate change: heatwaves kill plant pests and save our favourite giant trees



Shutterstock

Gregory Moore, University of Melbourne

Australia is sweltering through another heatwave, and there will be more in the near future as climate change brings hotter, drier weather. In some parts of Australia, the number of days above 40℃ will double by 2090, and with it the tragedy of more heat-related deaths.

In the complex world of plant ecology, however, heatwaves aren’t always a bad thing. Rolling days of scorching temperatures can kill off plant pests, such as elm beetles and mistletoe, and even keep their numbers down for years.

This is what we saw after the 2009 heatwave that reached a record 46.4℃ in Melbourne and culminated in the catastrophic Black Saturday bushfires. Years later, the trees under threat from the pest species were thriving. Here are a few of our observations.

Saving red gums from mistletoe

In the days following Black Saturday, botanists, horticulturists and arborists noticed a curious heatwave side-effect: the foliage of native Australian mistletoes (Amyema miquelii and A. pendula species) growing on river red gums lost their green colour and turned grey.

The two species of mistletoe are important in the ecology of plant communities and to native bird and insect species. But infestation on older trees can lead to their deaths, particularly in drought years.

Australian mistletoe is not related to the northern hemisphere mistletoes of Christmas kissing fame. They are water and nutrient parasites on their host tree and can kill host tissues through excessive water loss.

A eucalyptus tree trunk covered in leaves on a dried brown grass
The native mistletoe, Amyema miquelii, strangles this eucalyptus coolabah in the Burke River floodplain.
John Robert McPherson/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Often mistletoes go largely unnoticed, only becoming obvious when they flower. This is because many have evolved foliage with a superficial resemblance to the host species, a phenomenon known as host mimicry or “crypsis”.

During the Black Saturday heatwave, many mistletoes growing on river red gums died. The gums not only survived, but when record rains came in 2010, they thrived. A decade on, the mistletoe numbers are gradually increasing, but they’re still not high enough to threaten the survival of older, significant red gums.




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We want both mistletoes and red gums to persist. But often the old red gums are last survivors of larger populations that have been cleared — a seed source for future regeneration.

Under-appreciated elms

In many parts of Australia, the exotic English and Dutch elms are important parts of the landscapes of cities and regional towns. Elms provide great shade, are resilient and often low-maintenance. They also provide important environmental services, such as nesting sites for native mammals and birds.

Indeed, as Dutch elm disease decimates elm populations across North America and Europe, Australia can claim to have many of the largest elms and the grandest elm avenues and boulevards in the world, which we often under-appreciate.

A street lined by tall elms
Australia is home to some of the most beautiful elm avenues in the world.
denisbin/Flickr, CC BY-ND

But sadly, over the past 30 years the grazing of the elm leaf beetle, Xanthogaleruca luteola, has threatened the grandeur of our elms. These beetles can strip leaves to mere skeletons, and while the damage doesn’t usually kill the tree, it can make them look unsightly.

On Black Saturday, tens of thousands of elm leaf beetles fell from trees after prolonged exposure to high temperature. So many died, they formed what looked like a shadow under the tree canopies. Beetle numbers remained low for at least five years after that.




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Control programs, which often involve spraying chemical pesticides, were not required in that five year period. This was good for the environment as the chemicals can affect non-target sites and species. And we calculated that this saved well over A$2 million for Melbourne alone, money that could be better spent on parks and gardens (and of course, the elms looked splendid!).

Our iconic Moreton Bay figs

Then there are our magnificent, iconic Moreton Bay figs (Ficus macrophylla). Their large, glossy leaves, huge trunks, veils of aerial roots and massive canopies spread for more than 40 metres, and make them an Australian favourite.

Moreton Bay figs are prone to insect infestations of the psyllid, Mycopsylla fici, which can seriously defoliate trees under certain conditions. The fallen leaves can also stick to the shoes of pedestrians, causing a slipping hazard.

In Melbourne, psyllid numbers that were high before Black Saturday fell to undetectable levels in the following month.

Once again, a heatwave and hot windy weather had done an unexpected service. The incidence of psyllids has remained low for a decade or more now and, as with elm leaf beetles, control measures proved unnecessary and money was saved.

An enromous Moreton Bay fig trunk in a park
Moreton Bay figs are prone to insect infestations.
Shutterstock

Winners and losers

Many urban trees are renowned for their resilience to stress, both natural and human-caused. Climate change is proving a significant stress to be overcome, but we’ve observed how the stress can affect pests and disease species more than their hosts.

This gives the species growing in very tough urban conditions, where they lack space and are often deprived of water and good soils, a slight advantage, which may be the difference between living and dying under climate change.




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Climate change is bringing far more losses than gains. But, occasionally, there will be wins, and those managing pests in our urban forests must take advantage when they present.

If insect pest numbers fall we can direct resources to establishing more trees and ensuring our trees are healthier. The best way to avoid pests and diseases attacking trees is by providing the best possible growing conditions. That way we avoid problems before they arise rather than treating symptoms.

So as you swelter during this heatwave, remember it may not be all bad news for our urban and natural environments. Sometimes, positive outcomes arise when and where we least expect them.




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The Conversation


Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany, University of Melbourne

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