Glen Paul: G'day, and welcome to CSIROpod, I'm Glen Paul. Since European settlement hundreds of animal and plant species have become extinct in Australia, while others have just managed to claw onto existence. The once prolific eucalyptus tree, Yellow Box, and the ecological communities to which they belong have come close to obliteration, with as much as 90 per cent being cleared in favour of cropping, horticulture, and grazing enterprises.
Fortunately the remaining Yellow Box communities are now recognised as critically endangered and protected under legislation. But unfortunately populations are now so low that there appears to be little genetic diversity, which means inbred seeds.
CSIRO Scientist, Dr Linda Broadhurst, in collaboration with Greening Australia, is working on a project to look at just how much genetic diversity remains of Yellow Box populations, with the hope of establishing healthy new communities. Linda joins me on the phone – just how serious is the situation with Yellow Box; could we lose the species because of this lack of genetic diversity?
Dr Broadhurst: We could theoretically definitely lose the species. You know, genetic diversity is really important for maintaining the health of a population. You’re quite right, inbred seed is a serious concern for lots of fragmented Australian plant species.
Glen Paul: Hmm, and I believe this led to a call for public involvement in identifying and collecting Yellow Box seeds across the country to help out with the research. What has the response been like from that?
Dr Broadhurst: Oh, the response has been fantastic. We’ve had over 30 people offer to collect from us and from a broad range across south eastern Australia, and from a much broader range than I could actually personally collect from, in terms of time and the funds that would be required to travel those large distances.
Glen Paul: Yeah. I mean that’s a great idea, getting the public involved, and I did see not long ago a call for assistance go out on the CSIRO Facebook page. Are you still after help, and how do people get involved?
Dr Broadhurst: Yes, we’re definitely still interested in people helping out. There are a few sort of gaps in our collection that we’d like to fill in if we can, and people just need to contact me. If they can look on that Facebook page or contact me directly, that would be great.
Glen Paul: Right. So how does one identify a Yellow Box eucalypt from another gum tree?
Dr Broadhurst: Oh, well Yellow Box has very specific morphological traits, and one of the key things that we’ve found with this call for help from the community is that people are very engaged with Yellow Box – they know it, and they love it, and they want to see it conserved in the communities in which they live.
Glen Paul: OK. Now obviously people need to know what they’re looking for, is there a site they can go, or do they just type Yellow Box into the search engine?
Dr Broadhurst: Yes, there’s a number of places people can go. They could just Google Australia’s Virtual Herbarium – that will bring them up lots of information about Yellow Box, and pictures.
Glen Paul: OK. Now once you’ve got enough genetic material, where do you propose to re-establish Yellow Box communities?
Dr Broadhurst: Oh well, re-establishing any community needs consultation, so we need to have landholders who want to perhaps have it established on their land; or we might want to look at communities that are currently in the environment but just need a little bit of help, so we might plant around and in those communities.
Because Yellow Box is part of a listed community we have to be careful about what we do with it, so we’d have to consult broadly with State and Commonwealth jurisdictions about where and how we might re-establish more Yellow Box seedlings.
Glen Paul: So by listed you mean endangered?
Dr Broadhurst: Endangered, yeah.
Glen Paul: Right. And have you at this stage had a chance to talk to farmers about establishing Yellow Box communities on their properties?
Dr Broadhurst: We haven’t actually done that yet, Glen, we’re just looking at genetic diversity at this stage. We just want to try and identify really key populations that are going to hold lots of genetic diversity, and then they will hopefully become our seed sources for the re-establishment in the future.
Glen Paul: So how would you encourage or promote the establishment of Yellow Box communities on landholders farms; what sort of benefits can they add to an existing property?
Dr Broadhurst: OK, so the Yellow Box community is a really important habitat for lots of birds, and insects, and animals, and that can provide functional advantages for farmers. They can provide things called ecosystem services, so crop pollinators might live there; or predators might live there that come out and eat the insects that are eating crops. A lot of farmers just enjoy having bush on their property, and are very happy to have a bit of Yellow Box communities still existing on their property.
Glen Paul: Now you’ve been focusing on the southern tablelands, what’s the genetic health like of the Yellow Box there? Were there any surprises in relation to diversity?
Dr Broadhurst: Yes, the idea behind this project stems from Greening Australia, we actually assessed some of their seed sources, so some of the sources that they use, some of the populations they use to collect seed from, that is used for their revegetation. And when we looked at the seed quality in terms of its genetic component, it actually showed that the collections they have were not very diverse, which doesn’t bode very well for putting that seed back out into new populations.
What that means is that you’re actually just taking a very low genetic diversity population and creating another one, you’re not actually improving the diversity in any way.
Glen Paul: Well it is a big country out there obviously, and there may be others doing similar research, or have information that might be useful – if that is the case, can they just contact you at your email address?
Dr Broadhurst: They certainly can. I’d welcome any information about Yellow Box would be fantastic.
Glen Paul: What about overseas, do you think it’s feasible that Yellow Box seeds may have ended up in other parts of the world in the years gone by, perhaps California in the United States, where there are plenty of gumtrees – is it possible that some could be Yellow Box?
Dr Broadhurst: It's possible. It’s possible some of it's turned up in botanic gardens; it may have been exported for botanic gardens at some stage, so anything worldwide we’d be interested in hearing about as well.
Glen Paul: Alright. So wherever you might be listening the world, if you can lay your hands on some Yellow Box gumtrees, Linda would love to hear from you, and eventually maybe we can get the Yellow Box communities re-established here in Australia. Thanks very much for discussing it with us today, Linda.
Dr Broadhurst: No worries. Thank you.
Glen Paul: Dr Linda Broadhurst. For more information find us online at www.csiro.au. You can like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter at CSIROnews.