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Cape York Peninsula Land Use Strategy


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Areas of Conservation Significance on Cape York Peninsula

Cape York Peninsula Land Use Strategy
Abrahams, H., Mulvaney, M., Glasco, D., & Bugg, A.
Office of the Co-ordinator General of Queensland
Australian Heritage Commission, March 1995

Areas of Conservation Significance on Cape York Peninsula

(Citation : Abrahams, Harry, Mulvaney, M., Glasco, D., and Bugg, A. (1995). 'Areas of Conservation Significance on Cape York Peninsula'. (Cape York Peninsula Land Use Strategy, Office of the Co-ordinator General of Queensland, Brisbane and Australian Heritage Commission, Canberra.)

Executive Summary

The Conservation and Natural Heritage Assessment Project has identified areas of natural heritage significance across the Cape York Peninsula Land Use Strategy (CYPLUS) study area. The assessment has either modelled conservation values across the Peninsula, focused on particular themes, or used species specific or point location information. The assessment has particularly focused on extensive conservation values. The first part of the report details the distribution of particular conservation values across the Peninsula, while part two outlines the values of thirty-six places identified as being of natural conservation significance.

The report is also a guide to the 40 Geographic Information System (GIS) layers created during the conservation assessment. The report details all the raw data of the assessment and explains what use was made of this data to assess conservation values. This allows the possibility of re-interpreting results and updating data sets when more information becomes available. It also means that CYPLUS members and the wider public can use the CYPLUS GIS to focus on particular areas of interest such as their pastoral property. The report provides a professional, widely accepted and transparent methodology of natural heritage assessment. It interprets the results in a regional context and in comparison to international and national natural heritage information.

Cape York Peninsula is one of Australia's key conservation areas. Its dune fields and deltaic fan deposits are amongst the best developed in the world, while the biogeographic and evolutionary relationships of the plants and animals to the biota of New Guinea provides important insights into the evolutionary history of Australasia. In a national context, Cape York Peninsula is a key area for wilderness, heathland, rainforest, riparian, and wetland conservation. The Peninsula also contains some of Australia's highest concentrations of rare and threatened species as well as restricted endemics. It is also an important area for species richness, and is particularly rich for invertebrates, freshwater fish, mangroves, seagrass and orchids. The combination and extent of these features of national significance result in much of the study area being of international conservation significance.

Features of conservation value are not restricted or concentrated in a few areas but are generally widespread and occur over most of the Peninsula. For example, the best examples (being the largest and least disturbed patches) of each of the 201 natural vegetation classes that occur on the Peninsula, are not found in a few key areas but are distributed right across the area. Similarly, although rare vegetation classes tend to be clustered in certain areas, a different set of areas are important for different values such as endemic species, or wetland values.

Over 80% of the Peninsula has been identified as having natural conservation significance for at least one natural heritage attribute. The vastness and importance of this area, together with the widespread nature of individual values, necessitates a regional consideration of natural heritage values in land use planning, rather than a focus on a few key areas. Clearly conservation of its heritage values will be a major component of any land use planning or development strategy for the Peninsula, and will need to include both conservation within protected areas as well as land use outside protected areas.

Wilderness Values

A major reason why the conservation values are so extensive is that, unlike much of Australia, Cape York Peninsula is little fragmented with the large majority of the Peninsula still retaining its natural vegetation structure. About 40% of Cape York Peninsula is of very high wilderness quality, with the Peninsula being one of Australia's few biogeographic regions where the majority of the region is of high or very high wilderness quality. No other large, predominantly natural area in Australia contains the diversity, in such large areas, of major vegetation structural types that are found on Cape York Peninsula.

The Peninsula is unique, at least in Australia, in containing continuous areas of high and very high wilderness quality that encapsulates large areas of open woodland, woodland, tall open forest, closed forest, heaths (both dune field and plateau), riparian vegetation, coastal wetlands and freshwater wetlands.

Cape York Peninsula is also unusual in containing whole river systems of high wilderness quality. The large wilderness areas are important representations of northern Australia's ecological processes and natural systems. The Peninsula contains the largest areas in Australia of heathland, riparian vegetation and tropical rainforest that are of high wilderness quality. In addition the Peninsula has the largest area of high quality wilderness in Eastern Australia and the only large areas of high wilderness quality on the east Australian coastline.


The wetlands of Cape York Peninsula are amongst the largest, richest and most diverse in Australia. Many of the wetlands are also amongst the best examples of their type in Australia, while vast coastal and sub-coastal wetlands of the mid west coast are of national importance to waterbird populations. Fourteen wetlands on Cape York Peninsula are identified as of national significance and a further three wetland areas as of regional significance.

The mangrove and seagrass communities of the CYPLUS study area are floristically amongst the richest in the world, with over thirty mangrove species and twelve seagrass species recorded from individual communities. On the basis of species richness, rare and uncommon species or features, diversity of habitat, the relative lack of disturbance and importance for maintaining fish populations, sixteen mangrove and seagrass areas within the CYPLUS study area have been identified as of conservation significance.

Sea and Shorebird Habitat

Adjoining islands, within the northern Great Barrier Reef area support some of the largest breeding and/or roosting populations of seabirds in Australia. The northern Great Barrier Reef area, together with Horn Island, is also a habitat of international significance for seven shorebird species and of national significance for a further three.

Rare and Uncommon Features

Cape York Peninsula is amongst the most important areas in Australia for rare and threatened plant species, with 379 species recorded from the area. These include 15 endangered, 49 vulnerable, 213 rare and 102 poorly known species suspected of being at risk. The number of rare species and threatened species identified in the CYPLUS study area is greater than that of any phytogeographical area in Australia (outside the north-east Queensland area of which the CYPLUS area is a part). Only the adjoining Wet Tropical Forests and the large south-west Western Australia biogeographic areas contain comparable numbers of rare species and threatened species.

Vegetation communities that were either rare or uncommon on a regional basis have been identified by considering the relative total area of a community across the Peninsula and/or the number of occurrences of that community across the Peninsula. Nine uncommon and eight rare broad vegetation groups were identified which occupy about 13% of the Peninsula. Sixteen uncommon and ninety-six rare vegetation classes were identified. Areas with a large proportion of uncommon vegetation classes include the mid-Peninsula rainforests, the far north-east of the Peninsula, the Torres Strait Islands, the south-east of the study area, the Starke-Cape Melville- Lakefield area and coastal areas generally.

Eighty-five vertebrate species occurring on Cape York Peninsula are listed as rare or threatened on the schedules of Queensland's Nature Conservation Act (1992) and/or the Commonwealth Endangered Species Protection Act (1992). The greatest concentrations of these species occur in the rainforests and the boulder and cliff habitats of the study area. However, there are many endangered, vulnerable or rare fauna species outside of these habitats. The CYPLUS study area supports major populations of two endangered taxa: the Little Tern (Sterna albifrons sinensis) and the Golden-shouldered Parrot (Psephotus chrysopterygius).

Rainforest and Heathlands

Cape York Peninsula contains major proportions of Australia's rainforest and heathland communities, both of which can be considered as nationally uncommon. Uncommon rainforests are a very rich component of the Australian flora and are consequently of high conservation value. About one fifth of Australian rainforests occur on the Peninsula, while 5.6% of the Peninsula is covered with rainforest and 3.3% by heathland.


There are at least 264 plant species and four plant genera that are only known to occur on Cape York Peninsula. This number of endemic plants places the Peninsula amongst the top biogeographical areas in Australia for richness in restricted endemic plant species. Vegetation classes on the Peninsula that support particularly high numbers of endemic species tend to be rainforest.

There are forty-one vertebrate species that are endemic to Cape York Peninsula. The most important habitats for endemic vertebrates are rainforest and boulder mountains and cliffs.

Many invertebrate species are endemic to Cape York Peninsula. Recorded locations for 258 of these species is provided in the GIS coverages accompanying this report. Areas which contain endemic species only known from two or less records include Mt Webb, McIlwraith Range, Iron Range, the Heathlands, the Bamaga-Somerset area and the permanent insect trap sites in the vicinity of Coen and Batavia Downs.

Features of Biogeographic and Evolutionary Significance

There are several plant and animal species which only occur on Cape York Peninsula and also in New Guinea. Plants, birds and mammals with this distribution are largely found in the northern half of the Peninsula and reach their greatest diversity in the mid-Peninsula rainforests. The fish and invertebrate community of the Jardine River and the invertebrate community of Lockerbie Scrub also contain a large New Guinean element.

The relationship of the Australian biota to that of New Guinea is best illustrated in Australia in the Jardine, Lockerbie and mid-Peninsula rainforest areas. This concentration in the mid-Peninsula forests is thought to be because the high mountains of this area have acted as a refuge during times of aridity when rainforests on the Peninsula have contracted.

The mid-Peninsula forests together with the wet tropical forests within the CYPLUS study area have also been important for retaining relic Gondwanic (a ancient southern super-continent) species and those rainforest species that invaded Australia from Indo-Malay following the collision of the Australian and Asian plates about 15 million years ago.

The populations of at least 134 plant species on Cape York Peninsula are separated or disjunct from other populations in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, or further south on the east coast. These disjunctions provide insights into past environmental conditions and plant distributions. A large number of the disjunct species occur in vine thickets and riparian forests.

Species Richness

The number of vegetation classes in each ten minute and six minute grid cell on the Peninsula was determined. At the ten minute level a grid cell was considered to be of significance if it contained at least fifteen different vegetation classes. Areas of high vegetation diversity include the Lakefield - Cape Melville - Starke area, the south-east coast, Iron Range, Shelburne Bay, Lockerbie and Virilya.

An analysis of relative vertebrate richness on Cape York Peninsula was provided by McFarland (1993) as part of CYPLUS project NR03. Ten minute grid cells identified as having, or likely to have a high faunal diversity included cells at Somerset, Port Musgrave, Iron Range, Coen - McIlwraith Range, Aurukun, Edward River, the mouth of the Mitchell River, the base of Prince Charlotte Bay, Cooktown and the Wet Tropics area.

At a local scale, riparian vegetation supports a relatively high diversity of vertebrate species, while this vegetation type also provides important corridors across the Peninsula along which many species of fauna move, as well as being a refuge area during times of drought and flooding.

The Wenlock River contains the richest known freshwater fish fauna of any river in Australia, while the diversity of the Olive River is exceptionally high for an Australian river of this size.

Cape York Peninsula contains several areas that are amongst the most diverse in Australia for particular invertebrate groups. These areas include the Iron Range area, the McIlwraith area and the rainforests in the Mt Webb - Hopevale region.

The butterfly fauna of Australia is amongst the best known of the invertebrate groups. Butterflies found on Cape York Peninsula represent a significant component of the Australian butterfly fauna, with almost 60% of the total known Australian species occurring there. Twelve areas that are of particular significance to butterfly species on Cape York Peninsula are identified in this report.

Research Sites

Cape York Peninsula has been an important centre for plant and animal collection since the time of first European exploration. The Somerset - Lockerbie and Endeavour River areas are particularly important collection areas, being the type localities for hundreds of species. Many of the collections were made by scientists whose activities have been significant within the history of Australia (such as Sir Joseph Banks, Alan Cunningham and Sir William Macleay). Thus the type areas, which have changed little since the original collections were made, provide important associations with significant figures in Australian history.

The chenier ridges near Fig Tree Creek contain a high-resolution record of environmental and landform processes over the last 6 000 years and provide important information about past environmental processes and events in northern Australia. The swamps of the Glen Garland area that contain fragments of Pleistocene fauna are the most northerly known of such deposits, and are of importance in comparing past environmental trends across Australia. The dune fields of eastern Cape York Peninsula have very high potential as research sites for studying geomorphological and biological processes.

Dune fields and Geological Sites

The dune fields of eastern Cape York Peninsula also provide internationally significant examples of the evolution of sandy landscapes in the humid tropics. The dune fields are exceptional at the global level for the development of relict (dunes formed by past processes) and active variants of parabolic dune forms and associated water bodies. Some of the parabolic dunes are amongst the longest in the world. The gegenwalle (small dunes that run counter to the prevailing winds) ground-patterns developed in the deflation corridors of the Cape Bedford - Cape Flattery dune field are the best developed in the world.

The Mitchell River delta contains one of the best developments of depositional fan features in the world, with lateral migrations of the river channel resulting in complex series of fan like deposits.

There are several other geological and landform features on Cape York Peninsula that are amongst the best examples of their type in Australia. These include: