Dots in the Dark - Wild and Rare

By Jamie Kirkpatrick

Illustrations by Tom O'Hern

Eastern quolls live in fast time, the Doctor Gadgets of the Tasmanian bush. Almost in stasis, sitting on its spotted haunch, a brown eastern quoll consumes a lump of our precious porridge while closely examining its exotic providors, who are camped among buttongrass hummocks two and a half days walk from the nearest road. Porridge makes a pleasant change from the chitinous invertebrates the quoll usually consumes, albeit less carapaceously crunchy. Not many of these non-threatening apes come the way of the quoll, but enough to beget begging behaviour. Its subalpine lakeside habitat sits below a massive dolerite cliff. Black water is ringed by ancient pencil pines, reminiscent of the Cretaceous; romantically beautiful, but hungry, country.

The providers of porridge are biological scientists, who know that the eastern quoll became extinct on the mainland of Australia as recently as the 1950s, in the beachside suburbs of northern Sydney. Tasmania is now its global distribution. The eastern quoll is only one of the many rare and threatened species that dot the wildernesses of Tasmania, and dot they do.

Some of my scientist friends and I have produced a map of the places where rare plants are concentrated in Tasmania. The map is a face with a bad case of measles. Many of the plants that create the red dots are rare because our species has destroyed them over most of their ranges. This propensity to destruction has become worse recently, despite acts of parliament that pretend to protect, because the politicians in control at both State and Commonwealth levels believe that economic growth, no matter how minor, is more important than maintaining the dazzling variety of living things. The COALition government in Canberra is highly unlikely to exercise its powers to protect even the one population orchid species currently threatened by a proposed roundabout near the Hobart Airport, much less protect the many rare species threatened by the Adani coal mine. The State Government is equally uncaring, its Threatened Species Protection Act seemingly designed to be impossible to enforce. My soul aches from the pain of prospective loss. However, not all of the measle spots are in developed areas. Many are within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, as safe a location as a species can get. How safe is that? As safe as public pressure to keep it wild? As safe as a constant climate?

Between 1972 and the early 1990s, I tried to visit at least one new alpine area a year in Tasmania, mostly by foot in the western wilderness with a hideously heavy pack on my back. There are approximately 60 alpine habitat islands, some tiny and isolated, as in the Norfolk Range, others more extensive, as with Clumner Bluff. I did not visit them all, but got close to it, before writing my book on alpine plants and vegetation published by Oxford University Press in 1996. I still research the ecosystems of the high country of Tasmania, which I love, while assiduously avoiding carrying my home and sustenance. However, memories of increasing pack weight, weakening muscles, flattened tents and desperate attempts to toilet in root-matted ground do fade a little with age, so I might yet venture out again in search of a plant list from a botanically unexplored peak, with the possible, but unlikely, bonus of the prospect of a calm evening sunset over the wilderness.

As recently as 18,000 years ago most of area now known as Tasmania , including the present location of the town of Oatlands and most of the Tarkine wilderness, was covered by alpine vegetation. Because of this recent connectivity, most Tasmanian alpine species occur on many alpine habitat islands, but there are some confined to one or a few. One of our rarest alpine plants is Persoonia moscali, named after Tony Moscal, a hunter and collector of rare and endemic plants in the south west wilderness in the late twentieth century. I stand next to fleshy mats of this geebung on Mt Counsel, looking down on a cartwheeling flock of white cockatoos visiting to feed on bloodroot, Cox Bight almost touchable behind them. I smell the ghost of the acrid cigarette smoke that followed Tony through the dense southwest scrub and hear the phantom of his cough.

Geum talbotianum
Geum talbotianum on the flanks of The Needles by Dan Broun

Moscal’s geebung is one of a group of mountain plant species confined to the southernmost part of Tasmania. The most spectacular is Geum talbotianum, with its large white flowers, very occasional in the few places where snow persists, as in the dolerite boulder jumble near the peak of Precipitous Bluff. There is only 86 ha of Tasmania where snow lies reliably over winter, as the surrounding ocean acts as a radiator in winter, in the same way as it acts as an evaporative air conditioner in summer. These snow patches are botanically wondrous, full of herbaceous rarities. The rest of the alpine zone is dominated by hard-leaved shrubs and bolster plants, strong enough to survive ice-blasting in 140 km per hour winter winds. The heaths and bolster heaths of the Tasmanian alpine zone are, in themselves, a global rarity, as most alpine vegetation elsewhere is dominated by herbs, cryptogams and grasses. In some of the western mountains seven out of ten vascular plant species are confined to Tasmania. Many of these Tasmanian endemics are little changed since the Cretaceous.

The highest concentrations of high mountain plants with local distributions in the wild are on the dolomite ridges of subalpine Mt Anne and on the alpine sand dunes of the eastern Central Plateau. Here, rare landforms support rare plant species. Parabolic dunes composed of sand-sized dolerite particles created by glacial grinding lie at the east of the Lake Augusta and Lake Ada beaches which, instead of a line of seaweed have a line of the quill-like leaves of Isoetes gunnii, a Tasmanian endemic fern relative which grows on the lake floors. Such sand dunes have not been reported from alpine areas elsewhere in the world, and the intersection of karst topography with maritime glacial activity makes Mt Anne an exemplar of a global geomorphic rarity.

The influence of carbonate rocks, such as dolomite and limestone, on rarity in the wild is not confined to the high mountains. Some of the few people who have walked the remote flat valley floors in the western Tasmanian wilderness since the area was declared world heritage have been alarmed to stumble across linear gashes in the vegetation that resemble the wreckage of rampant mining exploration activity. On closer examination, these gashes resolve themselves into sandy wetlands in which the waters spring from the carbonate rocks below. The occasional rock outcrops are grey rillenkarren castles. The sparse vegetation has a high component of species confined to this highly alkaline wetland environment, some of them of ancient origin. In some of the alkaline wetlands the alkaline sand is full of small stromatolites. These are rare, ancient, partly organic rocks that have made Shark Bay famous. These small wetlands are the only place they have been recorded outside shallow marine embayments.

The rarest vertebrate animal in the western Tasmanian wilderness is the Lake Pedder galaxias, which survives only because it was introduced to an alpine lake in the Western Arthurs, after being eaten out by trout from the new and unimproved Lake Pedder. The rarest plant consists of acres of a single individual capable of only vegetative reproduction, a hybrid between an extinct and extant species of Lomatia, threatened by an introduced root rot fungus. These, and other threatened species, like the orange-bellied parrot and the Maugean skate, need human help to survive, which they deserve, because we are the cause of their impending demise. The act of protection in national parks and world heritage has not stopped the de-oxygenation of Macquarie Harbour by fish farms, or the inexorable advance of destructive species that we have introduced to Tasmania, or the changes in fire regimes we have caused by murdering and dispossessing the original peoples. The act of protection has also failed to prevent the effects of global climate change.

Illustration of a fish by Tom O'Hern

In the last 70 years, western Tasmania has not got warmer or drier on average, but global climate change has caused the summer rains to become more variable and the strong winds stronger. Lightning fires, a rarity in much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, now account for most blazes. Fires threaten the surviving stands of species which have no defences or means of recovery. The existing balance between fire-sensitive rainforest and alpine vegetation and the fire-requiring moorland and scrub could be shifted away from the former. Both common and rare species may depend on programs of hazard reduction combined with the rapid responses of a sufficient number of wilderness fire fighters.

I am sad and discomfited that our species has modified the planet to the degree that even the areas we do not directly occupy need to be managed to retain the diversity of life they now possess. In this program of rescue, the greatest rewards will come from preventing extinction. This is best done by concentrating on the needs of the species and ecosystems closest to the brink. Looking after the common species in the hope that this will save the rare is a recipe for an extinction disaster. Trickle down does not work with either economies or ecologies.
The work of biodiversity conservation is worth discomfort. Maintaining the variety of life is a goal of societies and individuals because it avoids the depletion of the lives of humans in both spiritual and venial senses. The other species are also our close relatives. Some of them like porridge, even if they eat it with their hands, not a spoon.

Jamie Kirkpatrick AM is Distinguished Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Tasmania. He teaches in the undergraduate program and supervises many postgraduate and honours students. His main research loves are alpine, grassy, coastal and garden ecosystems, nature conservation and the politics of environment. He has been recognized by several national awards and prizes for his work developing methods for planning reserves and his contribution to forest conservation and world heritage matters. His most recent books are The Tasmanian Development Calendar and Conservation Worrier.

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