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Australasian Plant Conservation

Originally published in Australasian Plant Conservation 16(1), June - August 2007

From the Editor: taxonomy and plant conservation in this issue of APC

Tom May
Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne. Email: tom.may@rbg.vic.gov.au

A number of papers in this issue of Australasian Plant Conservation discuss the connection between taxonomy and plant conservation. Orchids are one of the most diverse plant groups in Australia, and unfortunately many are rare and threatened. Zoe Smith, Elizabeth James and Cassandra McLean bring molecular evidence to bear on the question of species boundaries in Diuris. They show that the highly endangered Diuris fragrantissima is indeed a separate species, but that populations of Diuris punctata currently recognised as a separate species (D. daltontii) are not sufficiently distinct to warrant formal recognition, but rather are local variants. Also examining orchids, Colin Bower asks the question ‘what is an orchid species?’ and provides an answer from the point of view of pollinators. Some orchids mimic the appearance and odour of female wasps to deceive males of the same species into visiting their flowers. Each orchid species seems to be pollinated by a different insect species. From the perspective of the pollinators, morphological taxonomy appears to have underestimated diversity in Chiloglottis, where there are as many as nine as yet undescribed species, each with its own specific pollinator. However, in Caladenia, the number of species is likely to have been overestimated, because there are pairs or groups of species that are morphologically very close and have the same pollinator.

Geoff Carr discusses the current state of taxonomy on the genus Dianella (flax-lilies), in which he suggests that there may be 5-10 times as many species as currently accepted. Carr argues that characters important for distinguishing species (such as the colour, shape and fragrance of flowers) may not be evident on herbarium specimens. In Victoria, for example, about half the species of Dianella recognised by Carr are rare or threatened, and many of these taxa have been previously overlooked from a conservation standpoint. Stephen Bell, Travis Peake and Colin Driscoll consider that dealing with taxonomic uncertainty is vital for appropriate conservation of populations of Weeping Myall Acacia pendula in the Hunter catchment, New South Wales. They discuss the uncertainty around the taxonomic status of non-pendulous forms of Weeping Myall in the Hunter region, and the possibility that stands have arisen from hybridisation or are cultivated in origin.

Taxonomy underpins ecological studies, particularly because it allows for reliable identification of species. Brendan Lepschi and Bob Godfree, working on the dynamics of invasive species in southeast Australian grasslands, argue that accurate identification in taxonomically difficult (but ecologically important) groups such as Poa is vital for understanding the functioning of the communities they dominate. Correct identification of exotic species is also important for collating accurate and defensible information on their occurrence, ecological function and relative importance.

Included in this issue is a piece reprinted from Plant Talk by Mark Mattson in which he critiques the notion that describing species will automatically contribute to conservation. He suggests that, rather than focusing on the number of undescribed species, it might be better for taxonomists to emphasise their potential role in providing detailed natural history information about species, since for many species it is only taxonomists who have any detailed knowledge of where and how they grow.

Standardisation of names used for plants is important in enabling everyone who uses the names (taxonomists, ecologists, horticulturalists, regenerators, park managers, etc.) to speak the same language. Anna Monro, Brendan Lepschi and Murray Fagg provide an introduction to the Australian Plant Census which is an ambitious project to produce an agreed list of scientific names for all native and naturalised vascular plants occurring in Australia. Already, all plants listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 are covered, as are species from some large and iconic groups such as the Proteaceae, Chenopodiaceae and Mimosaceae