14 Dec 2017
SEARCH AND RESCUE
Life in the plant kingdom can be cutthroat. Species need to employ every trick in the book to thrive.
Take trigger plants.
Their delicate, nectar-filled flowers are a delicious lure that disguises an ingenious trap. When unsuspecting insects trigger the trap, the plant catapults pollen all over them. It's a lightning fast means of cross-pollination. Pretty smart, huh?
But even clever manoeuvres like this are no guarantee of survival. In Southwest Australia a suite of plants, including an exquisite trigger plant (known as Stylidium sp. Banovich Road) are under threat.
For while the Southwest contains Australia's richest collection of flora, many of its rare and poorly known species are yet to be formally described or protected. Some grow along roadsides and railway tracks or on private properties, and are at risk from clearing and habitat fragmentation.
"The southwest is a global hotspot for plant diversity with almost half of its plants found nowhere else in the world," said WWF's species conservation project co-ordinator for the Southwest, Shenaye Hummerston.
"There is a big list of priority plant species - about 2000 in all - that we know exist, but only from one or two populations. We're not sure whether they are rare or more common than we think. The worry is that we could be losing species and we don't know it."
Which is where WWF comes in. For the past two years we've been working with about 90 amazing volunteers to painstakingly search sandplains, heath and wheatbelt areas across the Southwest for lesser known plants. Discovering several new populations of Stylidium sp. Banovich Road has been one of the highlights of the Rare Flora Search and Rescue Project.
Funded through State NRM’s Community Capability Grants Program, the project is a partnership between WWF, the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, the Wildflower Society of WA and the community. Armed with a fact sheet for a particular plant, teams target a specific site and form an emu parade to survey the vegetation. It can be a hot and fruitless search.
New plant species
"We can go out for days at a time and not find anything," said Shenaye. "But when you find something, it's super exciting, with lots of cheering and celebration. So far, we've found 32 new populations of different plant species, which is vital to protecting them for future generations."
Volunteers have been trained to use an app to record information on plant distribution, and this will become part of a critical botanical database. But time is not on our side, especially when looking for plants that only flower for a few short months of the year.
"One of the plants we have been looking for is a banksia that lives in heath," said Shenaye. "The only population we have found - just 100 plants - is in a gravel reserve with a track running through it, which is open to the public. They could be the only 100 plants of that species left in the world."