‘Sadness, disgust, anger’: fear for the Great Barrier Reef made climate change feel urgent



Tourists are experiencing ‘Reef grief’.
Matt Curnock, Author provided

Matt Curnock, CSIRO and Scott Heron, James Cook University

Media coverage of mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef may have been a major tipping point for public concerns around climate change, according to research published today.

Severe and extensive bleaching during the summers of 2016 and 2017 has been directly attributed to human-caused climate change. Much of the ensuing media coverage used emotional language, with many reports of the Reef dying.




Read more:
Back-to-back bleaching has now hit two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef


While the physical effects of the bleaching have been well documented, we wanted to understand the social and cultural impact.

Our research, including a study published today in Nature Climate Change, has compared survey responses from thousands of Australians and international visitors, before and after the bleaching event.

Reef grief

Our research team conducted face-to-face interviews with 4,681 visitors to the Great Barrier Reef region, in 14 coastal towns from Cooktown to Bundaberg, over June to August in both 2013 and 2017. We asked more than 50 questions about their perceptions and values of the Reef, as well as their attitudes towards climate change.

We found a large proportion of respondents, including Australians and overseas visitors, expressed forms of grief in response to loss and damage to the iconic ecosystem. Negative emotions associated with words given in short statements about “what the Great Barrier Reef means to you”, included sadness, disgust, anger and fear.




Read more:
Hope and mourning in the Anthropocene: Understanding ecological grief


Emotional appeals are widely used in media stories and in social media campaigns, and appealing to fear in particular can heighten a story’s impact and spread online.

However, a side-effect of this approach is the erosion of people’s perceived ability to take effective action. This is called a person’s “self-efficacy”.
This effect is now well documented in reactions to representations of climate change, and is actually a barrier to positive community engagement and action on the issue.

In short, the more afraid someone is for the Great Barrier Reef, the less they may feel their individual efforts will help to protect it.

While our results show a decline in respondents’ self-efficacy, there was a corresponding increase in how highly they valued the Reef’s biodiversity, its scientific heritage and its status as an international icon. They were also more willing to support action to protect the Reef. This shows widespread empathy for the imperilled icon, and suggests greater support for collective actions to mitigate threats to the Reef.

Researchers surveyed thousands of visitors to the Great Barrier Reef in 2013 and 2017.
Matt Curnock, Author provided

Changing attitudes

We observed a significant increase in the proportion of people who believe that climate change is “an immediate threat requiring action”. In 2013 some 50% of Australian visitors to the Great Barrier Reef region agreed climate change is an immediate threat; in 2017 that rose to 67%. Among international visitors, this proportion was even higher (64% in 2013, rising to 78% in 2017).

This represents a remarkable change in public attitudes towards climate change over a relatively short period. Previous surveys of Australian climate change attitudes over 2010 to 2014 showed that aggregate levels of opinion remained stable over that time.

Comparing our findings with other recent research describing the extent of coverage and style of reporting associated with the 2016-2017 mass coral bleaching event, we infer that this event, and the associated media representations, contributed significantly to the shift in public attitudes towards climate change.

Moving beyond fear

As a source of national pride and with World Heritage status, the Great Barrier Reef will continue to be a high profile icon representing the broader climate change threat.

Media reports and advocacy campaigns that emphasise fear, loss and destruction can get attention from large audiences who may take the message of climate change on board.

But this does not necessarily translate into positive action. A more purposeful approach to public communication and engagement is needed to encourage collective activity that will help to mitigate climate change and reduce other serious threats facing the Reef.

Examples of efforts that are underway to reduce pressures on the Reef include improvements to water quality, control of crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, and reducing poaching in protected zones. Tourism operators on the Reef are also playing an important role in restoring affected areas, and are educating visitors about threats, to improve Reef stewardship.

Clearly there remains an immediate need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to ensure the Reef’s World Heritage qualities are maintained for future generations.

However, maintaining hope, and offering accessible actions towards attainable goals is critical to engaging people in collective efforts, to help build a more sustainable future in which coral reefs can survive.


The authors would like to acknowledge Nadine Marshall, who co-wrote this article while employed by CSIRO. We thank our other co-authors of the Nature Climate Change paper, including Lauric Thiault (National Center for Scientific Research, PSL Université Paris), Jessica Hoey and Genevieve Williams (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority), Bruce Taylor and Petina Pert (CSIRO Land and Water) and Jeremy Goldberg (CSIRO & James Cook University). The scientific results and conclusions, as well as any views or opinions expressed herein, are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Government or the Minister for the Environment, or the Queensland Government, or indicate commitment to any particular course of action.The Conversation

Matt Curnock, Social Scientist, CSIRO and Scott Heron, Senior Lecturer, James Cook University

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

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Adani’s finch plan is approved, just weeks after being sent back to the drawing board


Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University; Brendan Wintle, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Australian National University; Don Franklin, Charles Darwin University, and John Woinarski, Charles Darwin University

The Queensland government has ticked off a crucial environmental approval for Adani’s Carmichael coalmine, bringing the contentious project a step closer to becoming reality.

It has approved Adani’s proposed management plan for the endangered black-throated finch, less than a month after the state’s environment department announced a delay in approval because the plan was judged to be inadequate.




Read more:
Why Adani’s finch plan was rejected, and what comes next


Four days after the May 18 federal election, in which the mine’s future was a prominent issue, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk called for an end to the delays and uncertainty.

In a statement issued today, the government said it has now approved a “strengthened” version of the plan, submitted by Adani earlier this week.

Under the revised plan, Adani has now committed to:

  • “establish enhanced understanding” of the finch, with the help of “appropriate population studies”

  • implement “appropriate monitoring protocols” to track the finch’s population over time

  • restrict grazing in nearby areas.

The only remaining state environmental approval for the project now is Adani’s groundwater management plan, on which a decision is due by June 13.

Bad plan caused the delays

As members of the scientific panel that reviewed the finch management plan, we can understand the Premier’s frustration. There is no excuse for such a poor plan to have been put forward for approval when the company has been aware for almost a decade that the land it wants to mine is home to the largest known remaining population of the black-throated finch.

There has already been ample time to undertake the studies Adani has pledged to carry out in the future. Had it done so before now, it could have put its claims to be able to manage the finch’s extinction risk on a much more solid footing.

As it is, the plan we reviewed made biologically improbable assumptions about the finch, while ignoring what is known about the finch’s precipitous decline so far. Under the plan, people with the curious title of “fauna spotter-catchers” were to find finches and move them “to suitable habitat adjacent to the disturbance, if practical” before the habitat is destroyed.

It sounds impractical, and will in all likelihood prove to be so. If the adjacent habitat already has finches, it is likely to be “full” and so won’t be able to support mining refugees. If it lacks finches, there is probably a very good reason.

The finch has been observed only a handful of times in just a tiny proportion of the area purchased for conservation purposes near the mine site. The finch has had more than 10,000 years to occupy and breed in the proposed conservation area that is supposed to offset the impact of the mine. It hasn’t, and it probably won’t.

As far as can be determined by overlaying the available maps, the proposed conservation area has a different geology and soil type. Adani has categorically failed to provide robust scientific evidence to demonstrate that the conservation reserve will adequately offset the loss of the finches and the habitat in the mined area. It has had more than 10 years to conduct the science to provide the evidence.



Meanwhile, before the existing habitat is mined, the plan had talked about grazing being used to control bushfire fuel loads and reduce the abundance of a weed called buffel grass. Yet grazing is thought to be the main reason the finches have disappeared from most of their once vast range – they once occurred from the Atherton tablelands to northern New South Wales.

The new plan is said to “restrict grazing” but no details are yet available. Under the original plan, the cattle would have got fat on the buffel grass pastures just as they did in all the places where the finch once lived.

Rigorous research

What must really frustrate the Queensland Premier is the contrast between Adani’s efforts with the black-throated finch and the much more rigorous work done by mining companies who find themselves in similar situations. Rio Tinto, for example, is currently funding high-quality research on two other birds, the palm cockatoo and red goshawk, ahead of its planned expansion of bauxite operations on Cape York Peninsula.

Vista Gold, meanwhile, funded research on stress levels in Gouldian finches long before mining was planned to begin at its Mt Todd goldmine in the Northern Territory.

In criticising Adani’s plan, we are not criticising mining. Like all Australians, we use the products of mining every day. We enjoy a high standard of living that is delivered partly by royalties from mining. We also understand that miners (and politicians) in Queensland want to see jobs created.

Most mining companies, however, provide jobs while willingly abiding by national and state legislation. They compromise where necessary to minimise environmental harm. And crucially, they commission research to demonstrate how they can mitigate damage well before that damage occurs, rather than when their operations are already underway.




Read more:
Does ‘offsetting’ work to make up for habitat lost to mining?


In contrast, the so-called research and monitoring that went into Adani’s finch plan seems only to conclude that more research is needed. After nine years, Adani did not even know the population size of the finch, how it moves around the landscape, or even what it eats.

Given the time available, this bird could (and should) have been among the best-studied in Australia. The management plan could then have been based on robust evidence that would show how best to safeguard the finch population.

Now the research and monitoring is a hurried add-on with no proof that the threat posed to the finch can actually be solved and an extinction averted. Given the high stakes involved, Australians might reasonably have expected something altogether more rigorous.The Conversation

Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University; Brendan Wintle, Professor Conservation Ecology, University of Melbourne; David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; Don Franklin, Adjunct Research Fellow, Research Institute for Environment and Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University, and John Woinarski, Professor (conservation biology), Charles Darwin University

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

After decades away, dengue returns to central Queensland



Australia’s dengue cases are usually limited to far north Queensland.
Shutterstock

Cameron Webb, University of Sydney

The Queensland city of Rockhampton was free of dengue for decades. Now, a case of one of the most serious mosquito-borne diseases has authorities scratching their heads.

Over the past decade, dengue infections have tended to be isolated events in which international travellers have returned home with the disease. But the recent case seems to have been locally acquired, raising concerns that there could be more infected mosquitoes in the central Queensland town, or that other people may have been exposed to the bites of an infected mosquito.

What is dengue fever?

The illness known as dengue fever typically includes symptoms such as rash, fever, headache, joint pain, vomiting, diarrhoea, and abdominal pain. Symptoms can last for around a week or so. Four types of dengue virus cause the illness and they are spread by mosquito bites.

Once infected, people become immune to that specific dengue virus. However, they can still get sick from the other dengue viruses. Being infected by multiple dengue viruses can increase the risk of more severe symptoms, and even death.

Hundreds of millions of people are infected each year. It is estimated that 40% of the world’s population is at risk given the regions where the virus, and the mosquitoes that spread it, are active. This includes parts of Australia.




Read more:
Explainer: what are antibodies and why are viruses like dengue worse the second time?


The last significant outbreak in Australia occurred in far north Queensland in 2009, when more than 900 people were infected by local mosquitoes.

Only a handful of locally acquired cases have been reported around Cairns and Townsville in the past decade. All these cases have two things in common: the arrival of infected travellers and the presence of the “right” mosquitoes.

The dengue virus isn’t spread from person to person. A mosquito needs to bite an infected person, become infected, and then it may transmit the virus to a second person as they bite. If more people are infected, more mosquitoes can pick up the virus as they bite and, subsequently, the outbreak can spread further.

Why are mosquitoes important?

Australia has hundreds of different types of mosquitoes. Dozens can spread local pathogens, such as Ross River virus, but just one is capable of spreading exotic viruses such as dengue and Zika: Aedes aegypti.

Aedes aegypti breeds in water-holding containers around the home. It is one of the most invasive mosquitoes globally and is easily moved about by people through international travel. While these days the mosquito stows away in planes, historically it was just as readily moved about in water-filled barrels on sailing ships.

Aedes aegypti is the mosquito primarily responsible for the spread of dengue viruses.
By James Gathany – PHIL, CDC, Public Domain

The spread of Aedes aegypti through Australia is the driving force in determining the nation’s future outbreak risk.

The mosquito was once widespread in coastal Australia but since the 1950s, it become limited to central and far north Queensland. We don’t really know why – there are many possible reasons for the retreat, but the important thing now is they don’t return to temperate regions of the country.

Authorities must be vigilant to monitor their spread and, where they’re currently found, building capacity to respond should cases of dengue be identified.




Read more:
Is climate change to blame for outbreaks of mosquito-borne disease?


What happened in Rockhampton?

Last week, for the first time in decades, a locally acquired case of dengue was detected in Rockhampton, in central Queensland. The disease was found in someone who hasn’t travelled outside the region, which suggests they’ve been bitten locally by an infected mosquito.

This has prompted a full outbreak response to protect the community from any additional infected mosquitoes.

While the risk of dengue around central Queensland is considered lower than around Cairns or Townsville, authorities are well prepared to respond, with a variety of techniques including house-to-house mosquito surveillance and mosquito control to minimise the spread.

These approaches have been successful around Cairns and Townsville for many years and have helped avoid substantial outbreaks.

The coordinated response of local authorities, combined with the onset of cooler weather that will slow down mosquitoes, greatly reduces any risk of more cases occurring.

What can we do about dengue in the future?

Outbreaks of dengue remain a risk in areas with Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. There are also other mosquitoes, such as Aedes albopictus (the Asian tiger mosquito), that aren’t currently found on mainland Australia but may further increase risks should they arrive. Authorities need to be prepared to respond to the introductions of these mosquitoes.




Read more:
How we kept disease-spreading Asian Tiger mozzies away from the Australian mainland


While a changing climate may play a role in increasing the risk, increasing international travel, which represents pathways of introduction of “dengue mosquitoes” into new regions of Australia, may be of greater concern.

There is more that can be done, both locally and internationally. Researchers are working to develop a vaccine that protects against all four strains of dengue virus.

Others are tackling the mosquitoes themselves. Australian scientists have played a crucial role in using the Wolbachia bacteria, which spreads among Aedes aegypti and blocks transmission of dengue, to control the disease.

The objective is to raise the prevalence of the Wolbachia infections among local mosquitoes to a level that greatly reduces the likelihood of local dengue transmission.

Field studies have been successful in far north Queensland and may explain why so few local cases of dengue have been reported in recent years.

While future strategies may rely on emerging technologies and vaccines, simple measures such as minimising water-filled containers around our homes will reduce the number of mosquitoes and their potential to transmit disease.The Conversation

Cameron Webb, Clinical Lecturer and Principal Hospital Scientist, University of Sydney

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

How I discovered the Dalveen Blue Box, a rare eucalypt species with a sweet, fruity smell



Tim Collins classifying a new species of eucalyptus tree, Eucalytus dalveenica, March 2019.
University of New England, Author provided (No reuse)

Tim Collins, University of New England

Sign up to the Beating Around the Bush newsletter here, and suggest a plant we should cover at batb@theconversation.edu.au.


In 2002, I went on a bushwalk with plant taxonomist David Albrecht, and had a big surprise. He pointed to a plant I thought I knew, and said: “that’s probably a new species.”

A new species? How could it be that this plant had not already been scientifically described and named?

I was in for another surprise when I learnt there are estimated to be thousands of undescribed plant species in Australia. But just because one botanist says a plant is a new species, it doesn’t mean that everyone else automatically agrees.

As a researcher, I had the opportunity to study one of Australia’s most iconic plant groups – the eucalypts.

Herbarium records of an endagered eucalyptus species, the Northern Blue Box (Eucalyptus magnificata), showed populations from the Northern Tablelands in New South Wales scattered up to the Granite Belt in southern Queensland.



The Conversation

But on closer inspection, I discovered there were different ecosystems between populations. E. magnificata, for instance, is found on rims of gorges in Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, whereas E. baueriana is typically found on riverbanks and flood plains.

The question I wanted answered was: are all these populations really E. magnificata or have some been misidentified and represent other common species? Or, alternatively, are they new, undescribed rarer species?

So when my supervisors, Professor Jeremy Bruhl and Dr Rose Andrew, and I visited the mystery trees near Dalveen in southern Queensland, we knew immediately they were something exciting. They just looked different to everything else we’d seen.

Eucalyptus that smells sweet and fruity

To find out, I’d been sampling eucalyptus (collecting, pressing and drying specimens) and had spent the past two days with my supervisors. With our heads craned back, we stared through binoculars to search the tree canopy at dozens of sites on the Northern Tablelands looking for the buds and fruits that enable eucalypt identification.

Not only did these trees at Dalveen look unlike anything else we’d seen on the trip, they also had a different smell. When we crushed a leaf, the aroma was sweet, mild and fruity, quite unlike the familiar eucalyptus oil.

Back at the university, I could compare the different collections. I examined and recorded differences in the size and shapes of the leaves, buds and fruits. I grew seedlings of my field collections and saw that seedling leaves were also consistently different.

And I extracted the mixture of aromatic chemicals in the leaf oils collected during fieldwork. Then, I used a chemistry laboratory technique, called Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry, to compare their concentrations with closely related species, such as E. baueriana and E. polyanthemos.

The results clearly explained why the leaves had a unique scent. That sweet and fruity aroma was due to larger molecules, called sesquiterpenes, which dominated the leaf-oil. There were only traces of the familiar-smelling cineole molecule common to most eucalypts.

A new species, or just an uninhibited sex romp?

Sequencing the DNA of the tree added another piece to the puzzle.

We had collected samples from all of the closely related common species. We had strong evidence from the shape of the leaves, fruits and flower buds suggesting the Dalveen trees were different. But the possibility remained that they were just hybrids.

Eucalyptus trees can be wickedly promiscuous and hybrid trees with similar characteristics are common. In some parts of eastern Australia, for instance, eucalypts naturally form hybrid swarms, the botanical equivalent of a wildly uninhibited sex romp!

But the DNA told us the trees from Dalveen were genetically distinct, and with no suggestion of shared ancestry.

Now, with three very different data sets all supporting the same conclusion, it became imperative we publish our findings and describe the new species, which we named Eucalyptus dalveenica, or the Dalveen Blue Box.

New species have to be named using a universal and internationally accepted naming system. Names and descriptions must be published, and a pressed and dried specimen must be nominated to be the representative that other collections can be compared to.

Most importantly, convincing evidence must be presented that persuades the botanical community the newly named species should be accepted.

But naming a new species is only the first step in knowing what it is. Importantly, naming tells us what it isn’t. The trees at Dalveen are not Eucalyptus magnificata, nor do they belong to another more common species, E. baueriana or E. conica.

Eucalyptus dalveenica is a rare and endangered part of Australia’s natural heritage. Taxonomic description of new species (classifying, describing and naming) provides the framework for ongoing accurate identification, species conservation and further study.

We are fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the world, with diverse and unique wildlife. Describing biodiversity and communicating new discoveries develops connections between people and their local environment, leading to a broader understanding of our home.


Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.The Conversation

Tim Collins, PhD candidate , University of New England

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

With the LNP returned to power, is there anything left in Adani’s way?


Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

After months of “start” and “stop” Adani campaigning, the coalmine is poised to go ahead following the surprise success of the Coalition government at the federal election.

So is anything still stopping the coalmine from being built?

Australia has a federal system of government, but states own coal. This means the Queensland Labor government is responsible for issuing the Adani mining licence.

And there are suggestions pressure is mounting in the state Labor party for the final approvals to be passed.

Strategists have argued the state government must approve the Adani mine if they are to be re-elected next year. One of the reasons Labor lost votes in Queensland may have been because of perceived delays in the approval process by the Queensland Department of Environment and Science.




Read more:
View from The Hill: It’s the internal agitators who are bugging Scott Morrison on Adani


Now, Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has appointed her coordinator-general to oversee the remaining approvals. In a press conference, she said:

I think that the community is fed up with the processes, I know I’m fed up with the processes, I know my local members are fed up with the processes … We need some certainty and we need some timeframes — enough is enough.

But what has “delayed” the state government so far is its legal duty to make sure the coalmine has an effective plan to manage matters of environmental significance.

Before the election, the federal government already approved two controversial environmental plans – the groundwater management plan and the finch management plan. The only thing left now is for the Queensland Labor government to give its nod of approval.



Not ‘delay tactics’, but a legal duty

The federal government does not have jurisdiction over state resources unless the project impacts matters of national environmental significance.

And the Adani mine is one such project. The mine would remove the habitat of an endangered species and significantly impact vital underground water resources.

This means the project needed to be referred to the federal government.

The aim of this referral was to make sure the environmental assessment process would sufficiently prevent or reduce irreparable damage to the environment.




Read more:
Traditional owners still stand in Adani’s way


Generally, in a bilateral arrangement, the federal government authorises the state to conduct an environmental assessment. And this is the framework that has informed the Adani project from the outset.

This is our rule of law, and one that’s in the public interest.

So any suggestion the Queensland government engaged in “delay tactics” when they were carrying out these critical legal responsibilities is inaccurate and misconceives the fundamental legal responsibilities that underlie this process.

There are two more approvals left

There are two outstanding approvals required for the environmental conditions to be satisfied: the black-throated finch environmental management plan and the groundwater environmental management plan.

The habitat of the endangered black-throated finch must be protected.
Steve Dew, CC BY

Black-throated finch

The Queensland government rejected the black-throated finch management plan submitted by Adani last month. This was because the plan did not constitute a management plan at all.

If the finch’s habitat is destroyed by the coalmine, then it’s necessary to outline how this endangered species will be relocated, and how this relocation will be managed.

But the Adani management plan does not do this. Rather than setting up a conservation area for the finch, the Adani plan proposed establishing a cow paddock, which would destroy the grass seeds vital for the survival of the finch.

Clearly this plan does not comply with the environmental condition attached to its licence.




Read more:
Why Adani’s finch plan was rejected, and what comes next


Groundwater management

The Queensland Department of Environment and Science is currently reviewing the groundwater management plan and have sought further advice from Geoscience Australia and CSIRO.

Adani must address how the mine will impact the threatened Doongmabulla Springs in the Great Artesian Basin. This involves creating a groundwater model capable of estimating how much groundwater levels will decrease when water is used to extract the coal.




Read more:
Unpacking the flaws in Adani’s water management plan


This is important because the basin is a water supply for cattle stations, irrigation, livestock and domestic usage. It also provides vital water supplies to around 200 towns, which are entitled to draw between 100 and 500 million litres of water each year.

Any impact on the underground aquifers that feed into the Great Artesian Basin would not only be devastating for the environment, but also for all the communities that rely on its water resources.

The original groundwater model submitted by Adani was not “suitable to ensure the outcomes sought by the EPBC Act conditions are met”.

It’s unclear whether Adani’s resubmitted groundwater model still under-predicted the impact because the further submissions made by Adani have not been subjected to extensive review at the federal level.

Great care needs to be taken to ensure the expert advice from CSIRO and Geoscience is properly heeded.

The mine may cause the Doongmabulla Springs to cease flowing.
Lock the Gate Alliance/Flickr, CC BY

The Adani mine is an outlier in the global coal community

The approval of the Adani coalmine comes at a time when the global community is rapidly moving away from coal.

Germany, a pioneer of the mass deployment of wind and solar power generation, announced the phaseout of its 84 coalfired plants.

Britain has just had its first week without coal-fired electricity, and this new energy mix has rapidly become the “new normal”.




Read more:
How to transition from coal: 4 lessons for Australia from around the world


But the international coal market is variable. India’s consumption is expected to rise by the end of 2023, but their aim is to reduce coal imports. And China’s coal consumption is projected to fall almost 3%, largely due to the country’s ambitious clean energy plans. What’s more, coal is in decline in the United States and across Europe generally.

The global economy is de-carbonising. As global warming accelerates and cleaner energy options gain more traction, coal will inevitably decline even further.

A hasty post-election approval of the outstanding environmental plans for Adani coalmine would not only conflict with our domestic legal framework, but also the broader imperatives of the international community.The Conversation

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

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

Vic Stockwell’s Puzzle is an unlikely survivor from a different epoch


Andrew Thornhill, University of Adelaide

Sign up to the Beating Around the Bush newsletter here, and suggest a plant we should cover at batb@theconversation.edu.au.


On the western side of Mount Bartle Frere, the tallest mountain in Queensland, grows a tree that shares an ancient link to Australia’s most dominant plant group.

To get there, you must find a track hidden by rainforest and then walk for around an hour up and down a dirt path, until you reach cathedral-like giant red barked trees. This is Stockwellia quadrifida, also known as “Vic Stockwell’s puzzle”: a close but anciently separated relative of the eucalypts.




Read more:
A detailed eucalypt family tree helps us see how they came to dominate Australia


This ancient tree is best suited for wetter and warmer environments, a throwback to when this continent was still connected to South America and Antarctica 40-50 million years ago, in the supercontinent Gondwana.

But this rare plant is now at risk by an introduced threat, myrtle rust, a plant disease that was accidentally introduced to Australia from South America.


Photos courtesy of Stuart Worboys and CSIRO.


Sister to the eucalypts

In my opinion, Stockwellia trees are in the same league as California Redwoods – they’re both old, with very few close living relatives. In fact, they are probably more special, as only around 400 Stockwellia trees remain.

Some of the trees I saw in Queensland have large buttressed roots and are hollowed out so you can walk inside the tree and stare upwards. Their bark is strikingly red, and their enormous size means you have to crane your neck to see the top.

Stockwellia takes its name from a Queensland forest ranger named Victor Stockwell who worked in the Boonjee area on Mount Bartle Frere where the trees grow. While the species wasn’t officially scientifically described until 2002, it had been known to botanists for many decades.

The trees were first identified using aerial photography. For Vic Stockwell, the tree was a “puzzle” because despite his vast experience in the forests of Far North Queensland, he was surprised to come across a species of tree he didn’t recognise.

Ancient rainforest groups

In the early 2000s, a DNA study found Stockwellia belonged to a group of rainforest trees called the “mesicalypts”, a name coined by my colleagues and I.

Mesicalypts are a sister group to Australian eucalypts, and are made up of four species of rainforest plants, including Stockwellia. Eucalypts, on the other hand, have more than 800 species growing all over Australia, in much drier conditions.

DNA results suggest there is also another evolutionary group in between mesicalypts and eucalypts which only grows in New Caledonia, a species called Arillastrum gummifera. We have informally named this single species group “newcalypt” – New Cal-(edonian) (eucal)-ypt – because we didn’t want to make it feel left out from getting a new informal name.


The Conversation/Andrew Thornhill

Puzzling history

Molecular dating of these groups revealed some even more enigmatic things about the divergence of the mesicalypts and the newcalypt from the eucalypts.

The sole New Caledonian species is estimated to have had a common ancestor with the eucalypts around 59 million years ago. This poses an interesting question. How did a plant that old end up on a land mass that we think is only 30 million years old?

We don’t really know yet, and botanists still debate about where it came from and how it got there.




Read more:
How Earth’s continents became twisted and contorted over millions of years


Mesicalypts are also around 60 million years old and we estimate Stockwellia diverged from its nearest living relative around 30-40 million years ago. This was in an epoch called the late Eocene when the world was much wetter and warmer, and when Australia was still connected to South America and Antarctica.

With no fossil record of any ancient mesicalypts, it’s unclear how diverse and widespread they were back then. If we assume more species of mesicalypts once existed, then the ones we see today are the last living survivors from a very different past.

Their history is also the tale of two different fortunes.

The mesicalypts are better suited to live in wetter and warmer environments, and their relatives – the eucalypts – are better suited to drier and hotter conditions.

When Gondwana finally split and Australia started drifting north, one group had to hang on as their suitable growing conditions began to shrink, while the other hit the jackpot and became the dominant vegetation of the continent.

An extinction threat

Once, the main threat to the small number of Stockwellia populations appeared to be only white cockatoos eating their seeds.

But now they are menaced by something more sinister than birds. More than a decade after the species was officially named, I was taken to see the Stockwellia by Stuart Worboys from the Australian Tropical Herbarium.




Read more:
Invasive species are Australia’s number-one extinction threat


On this trip Stu found leaves of Stockwellia with myrtle rust on them – the first such recording for the tree.

Myrtle rust is a disease of the Myrtaceae family, and was accidentally introduced from South America in the late 2000s. It attacks plant leaves, fruit and, in some cases, kills the plant outright.

The Australian Myrtaceae have had no time to adapt to myrtle rust. What is happening now could cause the extinction of some extremely unique Australian plants – including Stockwellia.

It is sad to think a plant group that has hung on for so long, in a secluded part of Australia, minding its own business, now faces an introduced threat.

The hunch is that the myrtle rust was introduced to Stockwellia from the shoes of one of its human visitors. Unfortunately, we may have loved the tree to death.

Let’s hope it’s tough enough to withstand the rust and live for many more millions of years. If it is lost, it would take with it 40 million years worth of evolutionary history in Myrtaceae. And after surviving so much tumultuous history of changing continental climates, cyclones, and everything else that a tropical environment could throw at it, that would be a very sad thing.


Sign up to Beating Around the Bush, a series that profiles native plants: part gardening column, part dispatches from country, entirely Australian.The Conversation

Andrew Thornhill, Research botanist at the Botanic Gardens and State Herbarium of South Australia/Environment Institute, University of Adelaide

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

Why Adani’s finch plan was rejected, and what comes next



The black-throated finch is on the verge of extinction.
Brian McCauley/flickr, CC BY-NC

Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University and April Reside, The University of Queensland

Adani’s plan to manage an endangered finch was rejected last week by the Queensland government, stalling progress on the Carmichael mine.

The mine would cover much of the best remaining habitat for the endangered black-throated finch. The Queensland government required Adani to commit to gathering more accurate finch population data, limit the cattle grazing in the finch conservation area and determine food availability throughout the year, before they could approve the plan.

The rejection is one of two outstanding environmental approvals required before Adani can commence work on the mine. The second is the plan to manage groundwater-dependent ecosystems, which the Queensland government has yet to come to a decision on.




Read more:
Unpacking the flaws in Adani’s water management plan


The federal government has been reported as “already approving” the finch plan. But legally, the Queensland government must determine whether the plan complies with the conditions of the environmental authority and, under the bilateral framework, the federal government must give due regard to this assessment.

What’s wrong with Adani’s plan?

Last Friday Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science decided not to approve Adani’s black-throated finch management plan because it does not fulfil certain basic requirements.

The decision is based on a detailed report from an independent expert panel.

The black-throated finch is on the verge of extinction, one of 238 threatened Australian birds.

The black-throated finch is experiencing habitat loss and degradation.
Steve Dew/flickr, CC BY



Read more:
For the first time we’ve looked at every threatened bird in Australia side-by-side


The greatest threat to the black-throated finch is habitat loss: it has disappeared from over 80% of its original range. Strong protection, and careful management, of its remaining habitat is crucial.

The finch, once found across north-eastern Australia, is now largely found on Moray Downs and surrounding properties, north-west of Clermont in central Queensland. A core part of the habitat is within the 28,000 hectare (ha) footprint of the Carmichael mine, where there are far more black finches than elsewhere due to the intact woodlands and a history of minimal livestock grazing.

It is expected the mines will disturb 50,977 ha of black-throated finch habitat, and that 34,156 ha will be completely cleared.

A total of 87 square kilometres of habitat will be destroyed through the creation of open pits, and a further 61 square kilometres may be degraded beyond repair due to the influence of underground mining on groundwater.

After habitat loss, the second greatest threat to the finch is cattle grazing, which destroys the grass seeds they need to survive. Yet Adani’s management plan for the black-throated finch involved grazing cattle on areas that are supposed to be devoted to conservation of the finch.

Instead of establishing a finch conservation reserve, the Adani plan proposed what was in effect a paddock. Providing a species management plan that effectively conserves finch habitat is a core condition of Adani’s mining licence.

State vs federal priorities

The Queensland government’s rejection of the plan brings into stark focus some of the problems with the existing environmental assessment framework.

The Adani plan includes cattle grazing, despite the threat to finch habitats.
Shutterstock

The environmental authority for the mining licence was approved by the Federal government. The environmental management plan for the finch did not, however, address core impact concerns. And yet this is the very reason that the plan was required from the outset. The inadequacies of the plan only became apparent because of the oversight of the Queensland government.

The federal government has not been proactive despite’s its mandate under our National environment act – the Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation act. In fact, a recent analysis found the federal government has approved hundreds of projects to clear black-throated finch habitat over the last 18 years.




Read more:
Death by 775 cuts: how conservation law is failing the black-throated finch


There are clearly differences in priorities regarding the environment between a federal Liberal and a state Labor government. However, environmental assessment can only be effective if is not undermined by political agendas, and is grounded in scientific rigour and scrutiny.

A one-stop shop

At the federal level, any project likely to have a “significant impact” on a matter protected by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act must be referred to the federal environment minister.

If the minister decides the project impacts a matter of national environmental significance, he or she will then determine how to assess that project at the national level. Legislated options include: an environmental impact statement, a public environment report and public inquiry.

The federal government has entered into bilateral agreements with all state and territory governments. As a result, rather than the state and federal governments conducting separate assessment, the aim is to promote a single, focused environmental evaluation.

The Queensland government has entered into a bilateral assessment agreement with the Commonwealth government for Adani’s coal project, which effectively allows it to make an environmental assessment that the Commonwealth Minister will then take account of when deciding whether to grant approval.

This means that both the Queensland and the federal government are involved in the approval and assessment process environmental authorities and conditions, one of those being the management plan for the black-throated finch. In order to optimise outcomes they need to work together collaboratively.

Where to next?

The rejection means that Adani will now need to submit a new or revised plan that addresses the Queensland government’s concerns. In particular, Adani will need to limit cattle grazing in the conservation area, and gather more information regarding the availability of seed throughout the year.

This may take time but is critical, because in its current form, the plan does not meet the legal requirements for the Environmental Authority, which means that it cannot be approved at the state level.

Without state approval the Adani coal mine cannot proceed. The Queensland government has rigorously assessed Adani’s management plan by commissioning a report by an independent expert panel and then acting on the advice of this report.

This robust approach is crucial to the whole framework of environmental assessment. Genuine commitment to protecting endangered species and managing vital groundwater resources is vital if we want to reverse Australia’s dire trajectory of environmental decline.The Conversation

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University and April Reside, Researcher, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science, The University of Queensland

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