How I stumbled on a lost plant just north of Antarctica

Nick Fitzgerald, University of Tasmania

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Sunny interludes punctuate showers of rain, hail and sleet as furious winds sweep clouds across the sky. It’s a typical summer day on Macquarie Island, a sliver of ocean floor that rose more than 2.5 km from the depths of the Southern Ocean, halfway between Tasmania and Antarctica, around 12 million years ago.

On this February day in 2013, my colleague Jennie Whinam and I are visiting monitoring sites for the critically endangered Macquarie Island cushion plant, Azorella macquariensis, which has been suffering extensive dieback.

It is a short walk from our cosy field hut to Skua Lake on the opposite side of the island – a mere four kilometres of steep off-track walking, head-first into the icy wind.

We make a small detour to the shoreline of Skua Lake, the only known location for perhaps the rarest plant on the island, the subantarctic bedstraw (Galium antarcticum). This small herb had not been seen since it was first recorded on Macquarie Island in the early 1980s, despite several searches in the subsequent 30 years.

The Conversation

It seemed likely the humble bedstraw was extinct on Macquarie Island, and we weren’t confident we’d see one that day. It is a small herb, growing to a few centimetres in size, with reddish leaves clustered on sprawling stems and tiny inconspicuous white flowers. Not the easiest plant to spot amongst the lush growth of a subantarctic meadow.

But within five minutes of arriving at the shoreline of Skua Lake, we spotted a reddish-coloured herb unlike any other plant there, partly hidden among dense mosses and grasses.

Excitedly, we set about searching for others, finding hundreds of the tiny plants!

But our celebratory feeling was soon blown away by a flurry of horizontal snow carried across the lake. Skua Lake is perched on the top of an escarpment 130 metres above the ocean with no shelter from the winds that travel unimpeded around the globe at these latitudes.

We were so cold we had to start moving again. And turning our backs to the wind, we marched across grassy hills dusted with fresh snow.

Hidden for three decades

Our rediscovery of this critically endangered species raised a couple of questions. Where had it been hiding for 30 years? And, given the abundance of apparently suitable habitat on the island, why was it restricted to one location?

These questions remain unanswered. But four years later, in 2017, botanists Cath Dickson and Alex Fergus stumbled upon a second population of subantarctic bedstraw on the opposite side of Skua Lake, comprising an estimated 1,000 plants. But why it is not even more widespread remains a mystery.

Perhaps the bedstraw was preferentially grazed by invasive rabbits, which have had a dramatic impact on the vegetation of Macquarie Island. Or, the plant could be a recent immigrant to the island yet to expand its range.

Galium is a large and widespread genus of herbs (commonly called bedstraw) in the Rubiaceae family, with several native and introduced species in Australia including the familiar garden weed cleavers or sticky weed. Many species have distinctive bristly hairs, whereas G. antarcticum is hairless.

With a total known population of 1,500 plants confined to a few square metres of windswept tundra, Galium antarcticum remains critically endangered in Australia.

Travelled across vast seas

Macquarie Island is a young and very remote landmass with an unusual cold maritime climate. Its flora was born from long-distance dispersal and largely composed of subantarctic specialists.

Subantarctic bedstraw is one such specialist, and is also found in Patagonia, South Georgia, the Falklands, Crozet and Kerguelen islands. This wide distribution throughout most of the Subantarctic, including islands separated by thousands of kilometres of ocean, suggests this species has been dispersed by seabirds.

The future prospects for the species on Macquarie Island are uncertain. It may benefit from the recent eradication of rabbits, expanding its range, or it may struggle to compete with taller growing plants as the short grassland transitions to a more closed vegetation community in the absence of grazing pressure. Or it may continue to be a mystery.

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Nick Fitzgerald, PhD candidate, University of Tasmania

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


Disruption over Macquarie Island calls for some clever Antarctic thinking

Indi Hodgson-Johnston, University of Tasmania

The fate of the Australian Antarctic Division’s research base on Macquarie Island hangs in the balance, after last week’s surprise announcement that it would close in March 2017 was followed on Friday by a suggestion that the government could yet reprieve it.

Why all the fuss over a scattering of buildings on a windswept island (admittedly a UNESCO World Heritage-listed one) perched on a tectonic ridge halfway between Australia and Antarctica?

Macquarie Island is the perfect natural laboratory for scientific research. Unique climate, geological, biological and astronomical measurements are collected year-round. The data is fed into many large-scale, international science programs and reports, including those published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

It is something of an anomaly in Australia’s national Antarctic program. Unlike Heard Island, Macquarie Island lies outside the areas covered by the Antarctic Treaty and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. The Tasmanian government manages the island.

The buildings at the island’s north end are home to research infrastructure and accommodation for various organisations. These include the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Meteorology, and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, which monitors the Southern Ocean for evidence of nuclear events. These buildings are increasingly exposed to ocean inundation.

Death by a thousand cuts

Collaborations of this nature are common in Antarctic science. Budgetary decisions made in one section of the community have a direct impact on the programs of others.

This sudden closure announcement followed the harrowing CSIRO job cuts announcement earlier this year. Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman, the Tasmanian and Antarctic science community and the Australian Greens understandably responded with dismay to last Tuesday’s announcement.

While funding to Australia’s Antarctic science program seemed assured with the long-awaited Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20-Year Action Plan this year, there is a reasonable correlation between previous successive cuts to the Antarctic program and the disrepair of Australian Antarctic infrastructure. Labor Senator Lisa Singh called this a “death of a thousand cuts”.

Competing interests

Given the huge scale of Australia’s interests in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, there will always be competing budget priorities.

Environmental contamination from long-term human habitation, for example, is an issue common to Australia’s research infrastructure throughout the Antarctic region.

Any research in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic must be done in a way that minimises the direct impact on the surrounding environment. Australian Antarctic Division director Nick Gales has cited the footprint of this research as one reason for withdrawal from Macquarie Island.

Environmentally sensitive replacements suited to such harsh and remote conditions are expensive. The ongoing remediation work on many old Antarctic and sub-Antarctic bases continues to cause further budgetary and logistical headaches.

Macquarie Island, Heard Island and Australia’s Antarctic Territory are notoriously difficult to access, particularly for long-term, logistically demanding tasks such as major remediation and refurbishment works. Access involves battling the increasingly unpredictable sea ice and ice airstrip conditions that already disrupt delicate resupply, search and rescue, and medical evacuation operations.

Given its position deep in the Southern Ocean, there remains a strong case for a small but permanent presence on Macquarie Island. For example, resident climate scientists have collected weekly ozone measurements for 20 years. There is a place for other Commonwealth departments, the Tasmanian government, private industry and research institutions to shoulder responsibility for maintaining this presence.

A silver lining for Tasmania?

Given successive budget cuts, precariously short-term funding of Antarctic research programs, the potential domino effect of budget cuts between collaborators and the doubt created within the community by the CSIRO climate job cuts saga, Tasmania needs to continue to build its capacity to ride out the vagaries of the federal political issues that have left it reeling over the past year.

Regardless of the current station’s fate, this could be seen as an opportunity for Tasmania’s Antarctic, climate and oceans science community to collaborate and innovate with various industries to ensure that crucial climate research and observations can continue.

By leveraging from existing programs such as the Antarctic Gateway Partnership, and with world-class scientific expertise, Tasmania is perfectly poised to innovate and invest in the areas of remote and autonomous scientific instruments, technology and data handling.

Private enterprise, including smaller non-icebreaking vessels that already operate as research and tourism platforms in the sub-Antarctic, also has a chance to fill the logistical gap.

The closure of the Macquarie Island station after almost 70 years would be sad and shocking for the generations of scientists who fondly visited “Macca”.

The continuation of a presence on the island, however, is largely a Tasmanian government responsibility. With innovation and collaboration, Tasmania can lead the way in a new, stable and less environmentally damaging era of science on Macquarie Island.

The Conversation

Indi Hodgson-Johnston, Antarctic Law and Policy Researcher, Polar Research and Policy Initiative, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia: Macquarie Island – Pest Free

The link below is to an article that reports on the pest free status of Macquarie Island, Tasmania.

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Introduced Species: Macquarie Island

The link below is to an article on Macquarie Island, which is located to the south of the Australian mainland (Macquarie Island – not the article). The article provides a good case study of problems associated with introduced species.

For more visit: