Australia’s floral extinction crisis

26 July 2019

In May 2019, a United Nations report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reported one-eighth of the world’s species more than a million are threatened with extinction.

Five direct causes were listed as the driving forces:

  • changes in land and sea use
  • direct exploitation of organisms
  • climate change
  • pollution
  • invasion of alien species.

Australia and Queensland are not protected from this looming crisis – land clearing, deforestation, emissions, drought and warming oceans are all worsening the attack on Australia’s threatened species.

While our iconic fauna features prominently in discussions about Australia’s extinction crisis, it’s fair to state that threatened plant species have not received the same focus in many of these discussions. Even the recent Senate Committee Inquiry was focussed on fauna (see previous news story).


Queensland’s flora

Australia has over 30,000 plant species. So, what is the situation with the flora of Queensland?

Queensland has over 14,000 known species comprising:

  • over 8000 flowering plants
  • about 1400 non-flowering plants
  • over 5000 fungi, algae, lichens and mosses.

On average in recent times about 20 new species were added to Queensland’s flora annually. The new species may be actual newly recorded plants for Queensland or the result of taxonomic studies determining the correct scientific name being applied. It is interesting to note that back in 1913 the census of known plant species totalled 7781.

Under the Nature Conservation Act 1992 a plant may be listed as extinct by amending the Nature Conservation (Wildlife) Regulation 2006. The criteria for declaring a species extinct in the wild are:

  • there have been thorough searches conducted for the wildlife; and
  • the wildlife has not been seen in the wild over a period that is appropriate for the life cycle or form of the wildlife.

Assessing Queensland’s native species

The Queensland Species Technical Committee (STC) assesses native species that occur in Queensland to determine their listing status under the Nature Conservation Act 1992 (NC Act).

The STC is an advisory body appointed by the Minister for Environment and the Great Barrier Reef, Minister for Science and Minister for the Arts. It is comprised of content experts from Queensland Government departments and external content experts.

To assess the conservation class of a species, the STC must receive a nomination that is compliant with the Common Assessment Method for the Assessment and Listing of Threatened Species (CAM) and incorporates up-to-date scientific information. The STC may decide to:

  • defer an assessment while requesting more information
  • list the species as nominated
  • list the species at a more valid conservation class
  • de-list the species entirely.

If the Minister accepts the listing recommendation made by the STC then changes to the Nature Conservation (Wildlife) Regulation 2006 are made.

The STC is responsible for assessing listing nominations for Queensland endemic species, that is, species with their only Australian distribution within Queensland. The Australian Government is responsible for assessing species naturally occurring in more than one Australian state or territory, otherwise referred to as multi-jurisdictional species.

List of extinct plants

According to Queensland legislation, the following plants are extinct in the wild wildlife:

  • Amphibromus whitei
  • Antrophyum austroqueenslandicum
  • Calotis glabrescens
  • Corchorus thozetii
  • Didymoglossum exiguum
  • Embelia flueckigieri
  • Goodenia arenicola
  • Huperzia serrata
  • Hymenophyllum lobbii
  • Hymenophyllum whitei
  • Lemmaphyllum accedens
  • Lindsaea pulchella var. blanda
  • Lycopodium volubile
  • Marsdenia araujacea
  • Monogramma dareicarpa
  • Musa fitzalanii
  • Oldenlandia tenelliflora var. papuana
  • Paspalum batianoffii
  • Persoonia prostrata
  • Ptilotus senarius
  • Tmesipteris lanceolata
  • Wendlandia psychotrioides

In the past, the list has been longer. Two plants thought to be extinct since the late 1800s were rediscovered in far-north Queensland:

  • Rhaphidospora cavernarum, a large herb that stands about one and a half metres high was rediscovered in the early 2000s. That plant had not been collected in Queensland since 1873.
  • Teucrium ajugaceum, a herb that has also been missing since 1891, was collected.

The loss of one species is one too many!

The loss of 22 species may not sound like many but for Wildlife Queensland the loss of one species is one too many.

What is frightening is the ever-increasing number of endangered and threatened species being listed. Granted the listing can occur both ways and fortunately in certain circumstances through threat abatement plans or recovery programs the level of threat may be reduced.

Significant progress can be made through research efforts at the Threatened Species Recovery Hub funded through the National Environment Science Programs. According to some reports, there are many plant species under threat.

  • Certain ground orchids are at risk with urbanisation a major cause.
  • Inappropriate fire regimes also play a role for certain species.
  • Introduced plant diseases such as phytophthora and myrtle rust can contribute to eroding the conservation status of a species.

Naturally, the clearing and fragmentation of our natural heritage is a major contributor to the demise of our plant species. A scientific review of the impacts of land clearing on threatened species in Queensland was undertaken by the Species Technical Committee and others[note]V.J. Neldner, M.J. Laidlaw, K.R. McDonald, M.T. Mathieson, R.I. Melzer, R. Seaton, W.J.F. McDonald, R. Hobson and C.J. Limpus (2017) Scientific review of the impacts of land clearing on threatened species in Queensland. Queensland Government, Brisbane.[/note]. As stated in that review:

“Queensland currently has 10 fauna species and 22 flora species listed as extinct in the wild. It is difficult to attribute causes to these extinctions but in many cases, habitat destruction has contributed to and exacerbated the factors that have led to the extinction of the species.”

Saving our threatened plant species

There are 225 species of plants in Queensland that are listed as endangered under the Nature Conservation Act 1992.

According to certain University of Queensland researchers, many of the species under threat can be saved. All that is required is the political commitment and appropriate funding being made available. Of course, the action taken needs to be informed by up-to-date science.

An initial first step in the right direction would be to require a floristic survey if clearing of vegetation more than 2 ha is scheduled unless a recent detailed floristic list for the area to be impacted already exists.

Action is required now by Governments to arrest the loss of plant species. Future generations should have the right to view and admire our vegetation and its component plant species in natural settings. If nothing is done all there will be are distant memories of what could have been or perhaps some pressed specimens housed in the herbarium.

Summary: extinct flora species images

Goodenia arenicola

  • Distribution: Known only from the type locality, Stradbroke Island.
  • Habitat: Sand dunes
  • Status: Known only from the Type, collected in the late 20th Century.

Persoonia prostrata

  • Distribution: Known to have occurred in Bool Creek area and the northern tip of Fraser Island, in south-east Queensland. As the northern end of Fraser Island is being eroded by the sea it is possible that P. prostrata existed as a small population that is now extinct.
  • Habitat: Habitat information not given by the collectors.
  • Status: Last collected in the late 19th – early 20th century by S. Lovell, from the northern tip of Fraser Island.

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