Australasian Plant Conservation
Originally published in Australasian Plant Conservation 18(2) Setember - November 2009, p 13-14
Australian National Botanic Gardens:
protecting alpine plants in the face of
Roger Good1, David Taylor1,
Sarah Fethers1, Craig Cosgrove1, Joe McAuliffe1,
Adrienne Nicotra2, Kathryn Steadman3 and Gemma Hoyle2
1 Australian National Botanic Gardens, Canberra, ACT. Email Roger Good:
firstname.lastname@example.org 2 Australian National University, Canberra, ACT. Email:
email@example.com 3 University of Queensland, Brisbane, Qld. Email:
Australia’s alpine vegetation (see main picture, front cover) is well
recognised for its scientific significance, endemism, species diversity,
diversity of origins and its morphological diversity. The Australian Alps are
recognised as one of Australia’s 11 centres of plant diversity and one of the
world’s 187 biodiversity hotspots. The alpine zone is a small, single, high
elevation area in a much larger, low elevation, low rainfall continental
landscape, which further enhances the significance of its vegetation.
It is predicted
that climate change will have a significant effect on alpine plant diversity
and on the structure and function of many alpine plant communities by impacting
upon their physiology and timing of life cycles, and on their interactions with
other species. This will subsequently lead to the redistribution of alpine
plant communities and changes in their structure and composition.
There is now
documented evidence to suggest that changing climatic regimes in the Australian Alps over the past 10-20 years have already had significant impacts on the
distribution, abundance, life cycles and physiology of a number of alpine plant
species. Consequently the Alps biome has been identified as a priority for
ecosystem, community and species-specific studies in terms of predicted climate
change impacts and the responses of plant species to these changes (Australian
Greenhouse Office 2005).
The alpine vegetation and climate change
impacts of climate change and seasonal shift on the Alps vegetation vary with
the species’ life-forms, location in the landscape, sensitivity to small
changes in micro-environments, dependence on late autumn and early spring snow
cover, as well as changes in total and seasonal precipitation, humidity and temperature
(Good 1998; Pickering et al. 2004).
The Alps vegetation also has high levels of biodiversity and endemism due principally to the
combination of steep altitudinal gradients, the many micro-climatic sites
providing a range of microhabitats, and the evolutionary origins of alpine
alpine flora reflects a long history of
colonisation and speciation events. The species found at high elevations are
adapted to alpine conditions including a lengthy winter snow cover. It is
expected that species’ capacity to migrate or to move further up the elevation
range, as a response to predicted warmer climatic conditions and declining or
total loss of snow, is going to be limited. Pressure to colonise a smaller area
at higher altitudes
will be high and competition intense in an ecosystem
where the species have colonised all micro-habitats on all aspects, such that
existing populations and communities historically have been relatively stable.
of the impacts of predicted and identified changing climatic factors in the
Alps on the plant phenology, seed production, seed viability and longevity and
seed germination of indicator species, is therefore central to developing
management strategies to ensure the survival and adaptation of the alpine plant
species to future predicted and increasing climate changes.
An exciting new collaborative research
program between the Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG), Australian
National University (ANU), University of Queensland, Royal Botanic Gardens
Mount Annan, Centre for Biodiversity Research, Canberra and Kosciuszko National
Park, is to commence in October 2009 to address these alpine seed and seedling
Figure 1. Checking plant identification prior to collecting seed samples.
Photo: ANBG/David Taylor.
Role of the Australian National Botanic
The Gardens is
the premier national organisation with a long history of growing, studying and
promoting Australian native plants. Hence it can play a leadership role in
studies aimed at ensuring predicted climate change does not lead to extinctions
of native plant species and communities.
In their recent
report on the impacts and management of the implications of climate change,
Hyder Consulting (2008) noted that the Gardens is ‘ideally placed to respond to
this challenge and may play an increasingly important role in ex situ conservation’.
Goal 3 of the National Strategy and action plan for the role of Australia’s botanic gardens in adapting to climate change (CHABG 2008) is ‘to establish a long-term monitoring program of plant
responses to environmental change’. The focus of this goal is ‘To monitor the
effects of climate change across Australia’s wide variety of ecosystems using
the established network of botanic gardens across Australia’. The strategy
further states that the Gardens has significant expertise and knowledge of plant
flowering and seasonality studies and is well placed to develop methodologies
for monitoring the impact of climate change. Goal 4 of the strategy—‘to
increase national community awareness of climate change and facilitate
effective responses’—gives further support to the Gardens’ role in climate
change studies and has specifically been built into the aims of the project
The Gardens is ideally located to undertake
phenological and seed
germination trials of alpine species and the subsequent growth of ex situ plants for further morphological and genetic
studies. Its staff have already collected seed of some 80 alpine species
(Figure 1) and are well placed to commence germination and seed viability
studies, as well as the storage of a seed reserve for use in the event of
species decline or at worst, species extinctions in the Alps.
Gardens staff already have a close working
relationship with management and research personnel in the project’s partner
institutions. The Gardens thus is in an ideal situation to co-ordinate the
initial collaborative alpine seed viability and germination trials, ex situ plant conservation studies and in
situ field plantings for climate change/plant morphology studies, with
Seed and seedling ecology project
is little knowledge or appreciation of the resilience of alpine plants and
plant communities to changes in climatic regimes and seasonal shifts in weather
conditions. The purpose of this new collaborative project on seed and seedling
ecology is to use detailed ecological and genetic analysis to identify a range
of alpine species that may act as indicator species in the Australian Alps, and
to determine the impact of future climate change on alpine species and
The project is
to commence in October 2009 and will support an ARC postdoctoral fellow program
based at the ANU and ANBG and working in collaboration with other partners. The
project will also involve post-graduate and honours student research programs.
The project will receive funding from a Commonwealth ARC grant and from the
Friends of the ANBG, and additional support from the participating
organisations. The Friends of the ANBG will also contribute to field activities
and assist with laboratory studies.
Links have been established
with the Millennium Seed Bank in the United Kingdom to which alpine seed will
be supplied for long-term storage.
The aims of the project are:
investigate the germination and dormancy patterns of alpine plant seeds and
determine how germination methods can be enhanced; whether physiological
dormancy is prevalent among alpine seeds and whether mimicking natural alpine
environments can alleviate this dormancy in alpine seeds. This will enable
protocols to be developed for the propagation of alpine plants ex situ.
- To investigate variation in
quality and longevity of seeds from alpine plant species in order to optimise
protocols for their ex situ conservation.
- To determine how seed
production, seed quality, seedling vigour and recruitment in common alpine
species vary along a natural altitudinal gradient and how these traits will be
affected by climate change.
- To assess the role of the
maternal environment in determining alpine seed quality, germinability
(including dormancy status) and seedling vigour under current and predicted
alpine climatic conditions.
- To develop outreach and interpretive materials
including an alpine garden showcasing results and providing opportunity for the
general public to learn more about the ecology and management of the Australian
Studies into the
maternal effect of environmental factors such as ambient temperature, soil
moisture and UV radiation upon seed set, quality and germination will make use
of facilities at CSIRO and ANU. The propagation of plants for ex situ conservation and field plantings for in situ plant morphology and growth studies will be carried
out at the ANBG nursery.
To compliment the project the Gardens will
feature a publicly accessible display and interpretive element as the shopfront
for the work. This will be a tool for connecting and engaging people with this
and similar projects and more broadly with biodiversity and climate change.
Australian Greenhouse Office (2005) Living with
climate change. Department of the Environment and Heritage, 36 pp.
Council of Heads of Australian Botanic Gardens (CHABG) (2008). National strategy and action plan for the role of Australia’s botanic gardens in adapting to climate change, Commonwealth of
Good, R.B. (1998) Changing snow regimes and the distribution of
alpine vegetation. In: K.Green (ed.) Snow. A natural
history, an uncertain future. Surrey Beattie & Sons, Sydney, 252 pp.
Hyder Consulting (2007) The impacts and
management implications of climate change for the Australian Government’s
protected areas. Report to Australian Government, 311 pp.
Pickering, C., Good, R.B. and Green, K.
(2004) Potential effects of global warming on the biota of
the Australian Alps. Report to the Australian Greenhouse Office, Canberra, 48 pp.