Featured News JCU plant-saving team on conservation mission

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Thu, 4 Apr 2024

JCU plant-saving team on conservation mission

Team from JCU stand in greenhouse that is home to some of the threatened plant species
The JCU plant-saving team includes Zoology and Ecology Lecturer, Doctor Myles Menz, Environmental Officer Brandan Espe and Grounds Team Leading Hand Hayden Maloney. In the image Mr Espe holds the threatened species, coleus thalassoscopicus.

A team of James Cook University conservationists and researchers could be the key to safeguarding the future of Queensland’s rarest plants, including native bananas with commercial market potential.

Led by Environmental Officer Brandan Espe, the Estate Directorate team tends to a living collection of about 80 threatened plant species including a rare native banana species that would be crucial should an invasive disease strike.

“Australia originally had three native bananas (Musa) of which one is already extinct, one is endangered and in decline, and the last is poorly recorded and rarely grown,’’ Mr Espe said.

‘‘On the Bebegu Yumba (Townsville) campus we now have the last two remaining species planted out and we intend to grow more clones for distribution to other conservation organisations.

‘‘By strengthening the species, we can ensure they are around for future generations, as well as future research to help protect the commercial banana industry.

‘‘Native species of bananas are incredibly important to the industry as they still contain seeds and can be bred to create a stronger commercial crop and improve resilience of commercial banana cultivars.

‘‘If a species of mainstream banana such as Cavendish was to ever come under threat, we can use the native species to develop a new breeding program and this could safeguard the future of commercial bananas in the face of new pathogens or climate change.’’

Mr Espe said other plants on the campus played a key role for local Traditional culture, fire management and our native animals, while others such as the Tristaniopsis (water gum), were pivotal in protecting waterways and fish populations.

‘‘The Tristaniopsis (water gum) is a myrtle that holds together the banks of rivers and waterways by stabilising riverbanks and preventing sediment dumps into freshwater which runs into the ocean and reef where it can impact the delicate marine ecosystem and in short, our seafood,’’ Mr Espe said.

‘‘While the work is intricate, there are instances where these plant species play a big role in day-to-day things some of us may take for granted.’’

At the Townsville campus a team of eight passionately cares for 380 hectares of flora and fauna-rich grounds, which has the little-known honour of being one of three universities in Australia with grounds officially recognised as a Botanic Garden.

As the driver of the team’s conservation efforts, Mr Espe said his love for the environment began at a young age growing up in the Kimberley before moving to Hinchinbrook Shire for his schooling years.

‘‘I completed a Bachelor of Ecology and Zoology right here at JCU and during my studies the then Environmental Manager, Adam Connell, took me on as a placement student, and I initially asked to do some rehabilitation and restoration work,’’ Mr Espe said.

‘‘The role soon became fulltime but all the while, I was using my spare time to continue working on my passion of conserving threatened species as well as those impacted by myrtle rust prevention.

‘‘I saw an opportunity and asked to bring this conservation work into my professional career at the university and they were hugely supportive. Over time the collection kept growing and I knew we were set for much bigger things and it was at this point we reached out to Zoology and Ecology Lecturer, Doctor Myles Menz as well as the Australian Tropical Herbarium, for support and guidance.

‘‘Since that day we’ve combined the conservation work of the Grounds Team with Academia and we’re now proudly home to two main programs, the Threatened Species Program and the Myrtle Rust Initiative, which work hand in hand to protect and cultivate at-risk native plant species.’’

Mr Espe said with support from the Estate Directorate leadership, he continued to work closely with the Queensland Department of Environment, Science and Innovation to identify and conserve at-risk plants.

‘‘Once we become aware of an at-risk plant, we work to understand more about it including the climate it likes to thrive in and where it was last sighted to pinpoint where we might relocate specimens in the wild,’’ Mr Espe said.

‘‘We then set out to these locations to collect propagules before they become extinct, which might mean walking on foot to remote locations or being dropped in by a helicopter to the side of a mountain.

‘‘Once we have the specimen, we collate all the information we have gathered into a document that includes their location, current population condition and proposed recovery options to bring them back from the brink.

‘‘This component of the program is primarily funded by the Department of Environment, Science and Innovation, which uses the field information to assess the current state of these species.

‘‘Another part of this is taking high-definition photos of the specimens we collect, which is important because often no one has ever photographed them or seen them in more than 20 years.’’

Mr Espe said the process from beginning to end had saved plants from extinction, with some clones collected already lost in the wild due to fire or myrtle rust.

‘‘We know the program is saving plants because we’ve been able to propagate and retain species which are in decline by safeguarding them in our plant zoo,’’ Mr Espe said.

‘‘One species, the Atherton Mint, Prostanthera athertoniana, was at risk of extinction and once we went looking, we found five specimens in the wild - just five.

‘‘We now have clones of those specimens here at JCU that we are cultivating and saving that species from extinction with hope of reintroducing it once it has become established through our program.

‘‘To say we’ve saved a plant from extinction is pretty special and something we’re really proud of as a team.’’

The public are welcome to visit the Bebegu Yumba campus’ Botanic Gardens during business hours. Community gardening groups and schools can enquire about guided tours via the JCU website.


Media enquiries: erin.goldsack@jcu.edu.au