Biolinks No. 7
Department of Environment, Sport and Territories - June 1994
ISSN 1073 4434
Monitoring of biodiversity is an essential part of good management. Without monitoring we will not know if our biodiversity is being managed in a sustainable way, or whether changes we make are actually helping to conserve biodiversity. Monitoring enables us to access the effectiveness of our policies, programs and management practices.
The development of a framework for a national approach to monitoring biodiversity was the subject of a workshop in Canberra on 10-11 May 1994.
Officially opened by the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment, Senator John Faulkner, the workshop was funded by the Biodiversity Unit, and organised by the CSIRO.
Senator Faulkner said that a national approach to monitoring Australia's biodiversity will be an important component of the implementation of the National Biodiversity Strategy. He said that the results will help our land managers to adopt better management approaches whereby decisions will be informed and early responses to problems more possible.
Some 85 representatives from all spheres of government, scientific institutions, community groups and industry participated in the workshop and considered monitoring needs and tools in a number of biome and sectoral groups.
More detail on the outcomes of this workshop will be provided in the next issue of Biolinks.
Genetic resources are materials originating from plants, animals, or microbes which have an actual or potential use or value for humanity. Globally there is an increasing awareness of the importance of genetic resources, due to the growth of biotechnology industries and the development of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Many commercial enterprises are making increased use of genetic resources in the production of valuable pharmaceutical, industrial and agricultural products.
As part of Australia's approach to implementing the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments will investigate and report on action required to develop a national approach to access to Australia's genetic resources.
In order to begin involving the community in this process, a round table discussion was organised by the Commonwealth Environment Department in Canberra on 14 March 1994. Key community representatives were invited to attend and identify their interests. The 50 attendees included members of conservation organisations, farming, fishing, and forestry groups, State and Territory agencies, academic institutions, legal experts, Aboriginal groups, the pharmaceutical industry and museum, zoo and botanic garden organisations.
Discussions ranged from debating what genetic resources are, to future work on the development of a national approach to the control of access. Participants contributed views on how access was currently controlled, what Australia's specific interests were in the various aspects of the issue (conservation, commercial, scientific, and those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples), and the various options for controlling access.
The discussion considered ways of sharing and using these benefits, including benefits for conservation and ways of encouraging Australian participation in biodiversity prospecting (assessing an area's biological diversity for potentially useful genetic resources) and product development. In the past, development of Australia's genetic resources has largely occurred overseas.
The meeting successfully canvassed interest group concerns and views on these issues. These views will be taken into account in the further development of the national approach to access to Australia's genetic resources.
Edited extracts from a lecture given by Dr Thomas Lovejoy, Assistant Secretary for External Affairs at the Smithsonian Institute and Science Advisor to the US Secretary of the Interior, at the Australian Academy of Science, Canberra, on 1 March 1994.
"So it is literally possible to say that millions of people are living longer and healthier lives because of the biology of some nasty snake in a faraway rainforest. These kinds of connections are very real and are rarely appreciated by people going about their daily lives." – Dr Thomas Lovejoy
Biological diversity is in fact very many things at the same time. It can be seen through evolutionary perspectives in terms of the radiation of evolutionary lines, and it can be seen as a characteristic of natural communities. Biological diversity is also a way of looking at the total variety of life on earth, whether it be in terms of the 1.4 million described species of plants, animals and microorganisms; in terms of units of life on earth, such as all the higher plants; or in terms of the way that living mass is distributed among different groups of organisms. We also think of biological diversity in the way it is distributed across the surface of the earth, and inevitably of the enormous concentrations of species in the tropical forests.
Biological diversity is far from completely explored. We have tended to do a much better job of exploring our fellow vertebrates; indeed, it is fair to say that biological science and conservation suffer from a degree of vertebrate chauvinism. But also there is differential knowledge about flora and fauna as one goes to different parts of the earth. In Australia there is still a great deal to be learned about the invertebrates, whereas in Great Britain I believe it is impossible for a bird to lay an egg without at least six people, three of whom are clerics, recording the fact!
When I started graduate school there was a general notion that perhaps 1.5 million species had been described by science and that perhaps an equal number remained, the majority of which would be found in the tropics. However, several years ago extrapolations from studies of beetles in samples taken from the canopy of Peruvian rainforest suggested that the variety of life on earth had been grossly under-estimated and that there might in fact be as many as 10 million or even 30 million species of plants and animals. While not wanting to comment on the merits of the actual estimates, the point is that we have done such a poor job of exploring life on earth, allowing ourselves to become distracted by the fascinating advances in laboratory science, that in fact we are unable to say within an order of magnitude how many species of living organisms we share the planet with.
How biodiversity intersects with our lives
"I think that as a community biological scientists have failed to communicate the gravity of the problem and the importance of the problem ..." On conveying the seriousness of the problem to the public.
I want to explore a variety of ways in which biological diversity relates to human existence and which we tend to ignore as we go about our daily lives. The most obvious way is in terms of direct consumption of biological resources, but there are also other interesting ways in which fortunes of nations and individuals have been built on natural resources, an example being the pelt industry.
In more subtle ways we draw on biological diversity and biological resources at the genetic level. A wild perennial species of corn discovered in Mexico in the 1970s has proven to be resistant to a number of the major virus diseases of corn, including one which took out about 10 to 20 per cent of the American corn crop one year in the early 1970s. It is now being used by people in the hybrid corn business to breed resistance to that particular virus disease for corn agriculture. In Australia, perennial relatives of soybean with resistance to the leaf rust disease which plagues soybean annual agriculture are being pursued [see article this issue - ed], as are wild relatives of cotton which are more tolerant of low temperatures than domestic cotton.
The vast majority of organisms are insects and other invertebrates. To the average individual it comes as a great surprise that insects play useful roles, particularly when one sees the kind of damage that insects can inflict on plants. But that is the basis for the great biochemical evolutionary warfare of all time between the grazing insect community and the plants on which they feed, with the plants evolving the capacity to produce biologically active secondary compounds which are noxious or poisonous to the insects and help them resist the grazing pressure. That in turn becomes the basis for exploration of the biochemical potential in these plants for medicinal purposes. Indeed, the best selling medicine of all time, aspirin, derives from such a biochemical/ ethnobotanical cure going back to the time of Hippocrates who was prescribing infusions of willow bark as an analgesic.
One of the rapidly new developing ways in which biological diversity is becoming useful to human society is in the field of bio-remediation, the use of living organisms with strange metabolisms and strange appetites to help with environmental clean-up. During studies of the chemical composition of sediments in the Potomac River, the US Geological Survey decided that they had to look to biological activity to explain some of the iron concentrations, and in the process discovered a bacterium capable of reducing chloro-fluorocarbons in anaerobic conditions. While there are people who discount the potential of microbial remediation, I feel that they are premature in discounting what these organisms will be able to contribute to human society, particularly with the whole notion of industrial ecology, of siting industries and clusters so that one industry can feed off the waste of another. As that industrial ecology practice develops it becomes useful to find a way to take, for example, the heavy metals out of the waste stream of one industry in order for that waste to be used by the next. In any case it is a fascinating field because all these organisms that somehow have developed over evolutionary time have the capacity to do things that just a few years ago we would never have dreamed of.
My own personal view of the most significant way in which biological diversity contributes to human society is as an intellectual resource. By studying how individual organisms interact with one another we find surprising ways to build the life sciences, which may not seem surprising in retrospect but certainly were surprising at the time that the observations were first made. An example is the chain of discovery that led to the development of captopril, the preferred drug for the treatment of hypertension in much of the industrialised world. Scientists in southern Brazil were studying the venom of the bushmaster, a large pit viper from the Amazon Basin which causes its victims to have their blood pressure drop to zero permanently, in order to determine how it worked. In doing so, they were able to uncover a previously unknown system of regulation of blood pressure in ourselves, the angiotensin system. Knowledge of the existence of this system made it possible for pharmaceutical chemists to develop a molecule which plays on it. So it is literally possible to say that millions of people are living longer and healthier lives because of the biology of some nasty snake in a faraway rainforest. These kinds of connections are very real and are rarely appreciated by people going about their daily lives.
Biological diversity contributes to human society in a whole number of ways through various ecological processes performing the public service functions of nature. An example is of the influence of the forests on rainfall in the Amazon Basin. Brazilian scientists in the past 20 years have demonstrated through three independent lines of evidence that half the rainfall in the Amazon Basin is generated internally and that there is little question that the presence of forests in the basin has a great deal to do with the amount of rainfall that takes place. Even the crudest of computer models suggest that if the forests were totally removed from the Amazon Basin and replaced with pasture grasses, there would be at least a 25 per cent drop in rainfall.
Another example of ecological processes dependent on natural species and systems involves Chesapeake Bay in eastern North America, which is famous for its crabs, oysters and fishes, but which has been declining in productivity over a number of years. The oyster population of Chesapeake Bay filters a volume of water equal to the entire bay about once a year. Prior to the decline in productivity in the bay, largely due to agricultural runoff, the oyster population filtered a volume of water equal to the entire Chesapeake Bay once a week. This is a very interesting way to think about a keystone species which clearly has a great deal to do with water quality and productivity in the bay.
The discovery of a heat resistant enzyme in a bacterium found in the slime of a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park is still a further example of how very often we are unaware of the connection between biodiversity and our lives. The enzyme is able to catalyse a reaction, which also requires high temperatures, that enables genetic material to be multiplied a billion times over in just a couple of hours. Diagnosis of a pathogenic disease can thus be carried out in a few hours, where previously the patient had to wait days; the condition can be treated earlier and the person concerned can be back in the work force sooner. This polymerase chain reaction has become fundamental in the past 10 years to molecular biology and biotechnology, and diagnostic and forensic medicine. But most people would never dream of connecting it (or the 1993 Nobel Prize for chemistry) with the world's first national park. I think it makes a very strong case for how we are entering an age where biological diversity can contribute to human welfare, can generate wealth at the level of the molecule in ways which have never been possible before.
Lastly, one of the most important things biological diversity can do to save itself is to inspire. By capturing our interest, whether through its beauty or through the fascination it holds, biodiversity can stimulate us to explore it further and make new discoveries. In the natural world and in biological diversity, beyond all the difficult social problems that we have to grapple with which relate to how we treat nature, in nature is part of the solution. I submit that in each and every one of us is the potential to be inspired by the natural world. That is yet another reason to be concerned about biological diversity
"I think this country is in a very special situation. You are one of the 12 countries with major repositories of biological diversity. You are a highly sophisticated industrialised nation, which the other 11 are not. The potential leadership role is very large indeed. I think to a certain degree you are already taking that lead in the way you are organising science in this country, by the way you are organising information about biological diversity in this country, and the way you are grappling with many of your conservation problems. That doesn't mean there aren't problems, we all know there are. But I think there is a very special role in history for Australia with respect to the biological diversity crisis." In relation to the role of Australian science in developing awareness of the biodiversity crisis.
Clive Kirkby, CSIRO Division of Soils
Why study the soil?
The soil, as the major medium for plant growth, is the basic resource for all land use and development. Ecologically sustainable development is not feasible unless it includes, as a basic concept, the conservation and sustainable use of soils.
The National Soil Conservation Program (NSCP), which was established to develop and implement national activities for the rehabilitation and sustainable use of the nation's soil and land resources, is broadly speaking physically and chemically based. Some of the major study areas include erosion, soil structural decline, acidification and salinisation, invasion of productive land by native woody plants, mass movement and water repellency. Originally the NSCP did not have biodiversity objectives in mind.
In 1993 the CSIRO started a multi-divisional program (MDP) to produce a national framework for conserving biological diversity and maximising its economic benefits, through a national collaborative venture involving all appropriate agencies. The group of which I am a part is particularly interested in two of the ten projects which make up this research program. These are methods for characterising, sampling and quantifying biodiversity in soil and litter and on the soil surface and effect of land-use practices on the biodiversity of functional groups of soil organisms'.
Soils are products of interactions between abiotic processes, including physical and chemical weathering, temperature regimes, hydrology etc., and biotic processes, including the production of organic matter (plants) by photosynthesis, uptake of water and nutrients by plants and the eventual return of this organic matter to the soil through decomposition.
The soil biota are extremely important in the regulation of plant nutrient uptake and release and organic matter decomposition. They are also important contributors to the formation of stable soil aggregates, and larger ones (especially earthworms, termites and ants) to soil porosity and the infiltration of water. These biotic processes, together with the abiotic physical and chemical processes, are prime regulators of soil fertility. If we are to protect our soil, arguably our most important resource, we must know more about the biota it contains.
The magnitude of the problem
Algae, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, viruses and invertebrates make up the soil biota that I am concerned with here. The total biomass of this biota in a fertile soil may exceed 20 tonnes per hectare. They range in size from the microscopic to earthworms that are more than one metre in length and can weigh more than 500g. The numbers of organisms in the soil can be enormous – invertebrate numbers can easily exceed 100 000 per square metre given the right conditions. However, what they are and exactly what they do is to a large extent a mystery.
It is well known that earthworms play an important role in promoting soil fertility, plant production and the rehabilitation of degraded soils. Introduction of selected European lumbricid species to pasture soils in Tasmania where those species were not formerly present has resulted in remarkable increases in pasture growth. We know little however, about our native species. Many plants are known to have associated mycorrhizal fungi that promote the uptake of nutrients from the soil, but little is known of their possible usefulness for plant establishment on degraded lands or for promoting the growth of plantations of native trees. The symbiotic nitrogen-fixing rhizobium bacteria have free-living stages that depend for their long-term survival in the soil on periodic encounters with their hosts. Agricultural practices favour the presence in the soil of strains that nodulate Trifolium species (grain legumes), while those associated with wild legume species become rare or disappear.
Less than 50 per cent of the estimated 200 000 Australian invertebrate species have been described. However, perhaps even more important, only about one per cent of these have been studied in detail, and these are often the pest ones which have been studied because of their economic and/or agricultural significance. The case with the micro fauna and flora is much worse. From these figures it is obvious that a reduction in biodiversity probably means that we are losing valuable resources that we do not even know about.
It is not feasible to describe all the species of invertebrates and micro-organisms; there are simply too many. So it is not constructive to argue that the conservation of biodiversity must wait until all species have been described. We must find ways to study biodiversity so that management decisions that have to be made now can be based on sound taxonomic and systematic knowledge.
Indicator species and functional groups
Particular species have been used to indicate the biological effects of environmental disturbance. Dragonflies and aquatic beetles have been used to monitor the water quality in wetlands near Perth. A reduction in the diversity of these groups has then been attributed to several factors including the presence of pollutants such as pesticides and excessive nutrients. This reduction in diversity is then assumed to have occurred in other species occupying the same environment. Some groups of collembola and mites could be used as indicator species when comparing the biodiversity of soil in a natural ecosystem and a managed one.
Sometimes it might be more profitable to study a function in an ecosystem rather than a particular organism or group of organisms. For example it is obvious that cellulose decomposing organisms are important in a soil ecosystem (fungi, termites etc). We do not want to be up to our necks in undecomposed plant litter, but does it really matter which organisms or species do the decomposing in a particular ecosystem? If we wipe out one organism but another can take its place such that the function can continue at the required rate, is this good enough? I am not advocating that species recognised as redundant to a particular function should be allowed to become extinct of course, but asking what limits we really have. Many groups of organisms, especially invertebrates and the micro flora and fauna, are not sufficiently well known for redundancy to be recognised. They may contribute to ecosystem function in ways other than those of immediate interest, or their roles may become more significant under changing climatic or other environmental conditions. Again we just do not know enough.
The level of biodiversity protection that should be deemed adequate is a difficult scientific question. All development is likely to cause some loss in biodiversity and disturbance to ecosystem processes. Protecting biodiversity means ensuring the conservation of species, ecosystems and gene pools such that essential ecological processes and life-support systems are maintained for future generations, namely, ecologically sustainable development is achieved. Over the next several years we shall be studying sections of the soil biota both in the pristine state (for which well-managed reserves set aside for the protection of biodiversity are crucial) and under different management regimes, with the specific intention of answering, or at the very least more clearly understanding, some of these questions.
Dr Stella Humphries, CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology
Among the greatest threats to Australia's biodiversity is the pervasive spread of weeds. Since European settlement, most parts of Australia have been modified by exotic plant species invading and displacing native vegetation and disrupting the processes of ecosystem function. Although the proportion of introduced species that have become major ecological problems is relatively small, single aggressive species have been known to transform an ecosystem, and almost every major ecosystem has been extensively altered and continues to be degraded as such species expand their range.
In a review of the impact of weeds on Australian ecosystems, Humphries et al (1992) identified at least 18 taxa as having such potential on a nationally significant scale. These either occurred or potentially occurred over huge continental areas or were clearly overtaking ecosystems that have a highly restricted continental range, e.g. coastal tropical rainforest or tropical wetlands. Many more species are ecologically highly significant at a regional and/or local scale across the continent.
In all environments, the habitats most at risk are watercourses. Watercourses provide moist conditions, act as a nutrient trap, provide a natural transport mechanism for seeds and propagules, and are subject to natural and other disturbance factors. Watercourses therefore tend to support a greater variety of exotic species than the surrounding landscape and a greater density of growth. Watercourses tend to be sites of higher native species diversity too, and weeds are placing this diversity at great risk.
The ecosystems which appear not to have a serious weed problem are mangrove flats, the alpine areas and the red sandy deserts of central Australia. Intact areas of upland rainforest are remarkably resilient to invasion. Even the temperate forests, if they are not fragmented, are not highly susceptible to invasion.
Even the marine environment is not weed free. Along the eastern Tasmanian coast, a giant Japanese kelp has established from spores carried in by freighters. The species (Undaria pinnatifida) produces millions of spores per plant per day and could potentially infest rocky substrates along the entire southern Australian coastline from Cape Leeuwin, Western Australia to Wollongong, New South Wales.
How human activity aids and abets weed spread
The establishment and spread of weeds is closely related to human activity such as roadworks, fragmentation of vegetation, grazing and changed fire regimes. The link between weed invasion and land use has important implications for weed management.
Numerous studies have shown roads to be transport corridors for weed seeds and propagules. For example, Acacia nilotica, a major weed of Australia's northern rangelands, is known to be spread long distances by cattle trucks.
Fragments, or 'islands', of vegetation in an alien matrix of urban or agricultural land have much lower resistance to invasion by alien species than intact vegetation as a result of ecological changes which take place once vegetation is fragmented. The cleared land is normally a repository of exotic species, which may be favoured by the new conditions such as increased nutrients, changed hydrological and light regimes, and soil disturbance.
Grazing, which may also be accompanied by altered fire management regimes, induces drastic changes to plant species composition and relative abundance, ground cover characteristics, soil structure, and nutrient cycling. Many exotic species tend to be favoured by grazing and consequently are spreading relentlessly in much of the rangelands. Among the more aggressive tree/shrubs are Acacia nilotica (prickly acacia), Cryptostegia grandiflora (rubber vine), Parkinsonia aculeata (parkinsonia) and Prosopis spp. (mesquite). Not one of these plants is under control continent-wide. Given the vast distances, the low human population available for management, and the low economic value of the land combined with the expense of control, the most intractable weed problems in Australia are these of the northern rangelands.
It is necessary to emphasise the dependence of weed spread on human impact on the original vegetation. The altered conditions resulting from ongoing human disturbance are at the basis of invasion. It follows that any attempts at ameliorating the situation must address activities which cause and perpetuate the altered conditions. This poses some difficult social questions of choice.
While most species cultivated for agricultural production pose little or no threat to biological diversity through uncontrolled spread, a small minority of species are notable exceptions. These include a number of exotic grasses currently being promoted for pasture in northern Australia, e.g. Hymenachne amplexicaulis, Echinochloa polystachya and Cenchrus ciliaris (buffel grass). Since awareness of the conservation threat is relatively recent, there is little documentation of the various impacts of these grasses. The first urgent step is to provide formal documentation.
How strong is our commitment to weed management?
Overall, weed problems are becoming increasingly severe and the need to address them increasingly urgent. We are faced with a problem which could be regarded as a national crisis. Continent-wide, weeds are ahead of the efforts to control them and they are increasing in number, range and spread at a rate which is rapid on ecological time scales but slow on political time scales. A major move toward addressing weeds in an integrated way is the National Weed Strategy which is currently being developed, but its effect will only be as good as the sustained commitment that all levels of government and the community are willing to give it. Getting on top of the weeds will not happen overnight and will require some creative solutions. I shall be outrageous and suggest that the army could be invited to participate in weed patrols, mapping and even control in remote areas as part of its exercises. If we want to beat the weeds we have to be committed to doing it, not only to trying to do it.
The most important recognitions of recent years are: (1) that prevention is the best management tool we have; and (2) that the current emphasis on direct control of the plant has to be replaced by integrated management of the ecosystem which includes complementary land management practices.
Direct control by mechanical and chemical means can only be effective at a local and possibly regional scale. It is expensive, labour intensive and a perpetual drain on resources because of re-infestation. Biological control is only suitable for some species and the rate of success world-wide is at best one in ten attempts. Biological control must be supported where appropriate but it is not a magic bullet which can be relied on to solve most of our weed problems. Integrated management which emphasises prevention, applies direct control judiciously and incorporates modification of land use and management is the only strategy with some possibility of long-term success.
As major threats to biological diversity, weeds already established must be more effectively managed. Efforts are being made at both the state and federal level to better focus resourcing and improve co-ordination of weed management programs; these recent changes are a step in the right direction. The land use/land management link cannot be ignored and weeds must not be seen as the sole target for effort. Weeds are the end result of a series of social decisions beginning with what is allowed into the country and what priorities we place on weed management relative to other social and economic imperatives. Resolution of conflicts of interest with production objectives is a priority but tends to fall into the politically 'too hard basket'. The management process should include rationalisation of the deliberate spread of potentially invasive species and should propose adjustments to land use where land management practices influence weed spread.
The risk of introduction of new environmental weed species must be minimised by tighter import screening procedures and a legislative and administrative framework that reflects the seriousness of the problems. It has been argued that this is expensive to implement but the costs of weed control and loss of conservation value are not accounted for in these arguments. Moreover, a user-pays scheme for screening plants could be implemented. The draft National Weeds Strategy recommends a thorough review of current plant import legislation and protocols to ensure that procedures to minimise risk are developed and implemented.
Last but not least, awareness of the issues must be increased among all sectors of the community. Public, bureaucratic and political cooperation and support is the foundation for reducing and reversing the erosion of biological diversity in our natural systems.
The vine Thunbergia grandiflora (blue thunbergia) smothers rainforest trees, eventually killing them. Because of its rampant growth and devastating effects in the tropical lowlands, control efforts have increased considerably in the last year and appear to have a good chance of succeeding if continued.
The shrub-vine Cryptostegia grandiflora (rubber vine) similarly smothers native trees and shrubs along many watercourses in monsoonal Queensland, particularly along rivers flowing into the Gulf of Carpentaria where it is displacing gallery forests which have not been biologically surveyed. This plant has infested over 350 000 sq km of north Queensland and is the subject of biological control trials.
The vigorous tree Annona glabra (pond apple) is gradually displacing the broadleaf melaleuca woodlands on the wet tropics coast with the centre of spread in the Russell River region (Humphries and Stanton, 1992). It forms an understory and prevents regeneration of the melaleuca; as adults die, the pond apple replaces these to form a monospecific, impenetrable thicket. It is now the priority weed species for management in the wet tropics.
Mimosa pigra (giant sensitive plant) is forming impenetrable monospecific thickets on the floodplains of the Top End in the vicinity of Darwin. Although the subject of biological and chemical control efforts, the risk of it spreading to clean areas in Kakadu National Park and Arnhem Land is still very high and vigilance is required.
Ponded pasture grasses such as Brachiaria mutica (para grass) have escaped from target pasture areas to choke shallow wetlands and creeks in the wet and wet-dry tropics. Brachiaria and more recently planted larger pasture species are threatening the viability of these continentally restricted aquatic habitats.
The eastern coastal and subcoastal vegetation is infested by two sub-species of the shrub Chrysanthemoides monilifera (bitou bush and boneseed). In New South Wales C. monilifera is found on 60 per cent of the coast and 80 per cent of the headlands. Biological control agents are being trialled but a new species of escaped garden plant, Polygala myrtifolia, is poised to replace it in some areas.
Myrsiphyllum asparagoides (bridal creeper) is spreading throughout southern Australia invading a range of habitats where its dense cover prevents regeneration of native species. This species is also targeted for biological control.
The world's two worst aquatic weeds, Salvinia molesta (salvinia) and Eichhornia crassipes (water hyacinth), each capable of extreme ecological degradation of a shallow waterbody, are found in Australia. Although among very few established species that are controlled on a continental scale, outbreaks, particularly in remote tropical areas, are a constant threat.
In central Australia, athel pine Tamarix aphylla) is a considerable threat to the dryland watercourse ecosystems. Introduced at the turn of the century, it began to spread explosively in the Finke River in the 1970s, coinciding with floods. This remarkable tree is capable of displacing native flora, destroying resources for fauna, lowering the water table, salinising the soil and changing river flow and sedimentation regimes. In the USA this tree has irreversibly damaged entire river systems. In Australia it is still not too late to avert such catastrophes if control is adequately resourced.
A biodiversity love story
"The genetic resources presented by our native plants are as important for our future as are Australia's reserves of oil and minerals."
Millions of years after their ancestors parted company on the northern shores of Australia, two world-roaming plants have been sexually reunited by biodiversity researchers from Australia and the United States. CSIRO scientist Dr Tony Brown likens this to a botanical version of Wuthering Heights , where millions of years ago the ancestors of these two species were wrenched apart. Now science has brought them back together.
Biodiversity researchers hope the new cross, between soybean and a wild Australian plant called woolly glycine, will give rise to a new type of bean which can live in salty and dry areas and which is resistant to diseases like rust. Wild biodiversity is an important source of new genetic material for world agriculture.
The ancestor of the soybean and its Australian cousins probably evolved in South East Asia, tens of millions of years ago. Then Australia was much further south, near Antarctica, but was very slowly drifting north. About 15 million years ago Australia's continental plate collided with that of South East Asia. The soybean ancestor was one of many Asian plants which jumped ashore in Australia. The rest is history.
From the plants which stayed in South East Asia a wild type of soybean evolved, which was domesticated in China around 1100 BC to become one of the world's most important food crops. Meanwhile in Australia, the soybean's ancestor evolved into at least 15 different species, growing everywhere from Alice Springs to the Alps.
Woolly glycine (Glycine tomentella) is a short, twining perennial with purple to reddish pea-like flowers. It lives in open eucalypt woodland in northern Australia, from Grafton on the New South Wales north coast up to Cape York Peninsula, and as far west as Katherine in the Northern Territory and Broome in Western Australia. As it evolved to suit Australian conditions, woolly glycine adapted in order to survive droughts, live in salty soil (it even grows on some beaches) and resist the damaging crop disease rust.
'The Australian Glycine species represent a precious genetic resource for one of the world's most important crops', Dr Brown said, 'and illustrate just how valuable Australia's native biodiversity is to the world. We have species growing wild on this continent which carry all kinds of useful genes. The genetic resources presented by our native plants are as important for our future as are Australia's reserves of oil and minerals.'
Dr Ted Hymowitz from the University of Illinois in the US has spent 15 years trying to produce a soybean-like descendant through cross-breeding woolly glycine with soybean. This year for the first time he finally succeeded in breeding fertile soybeans containing genes from the Australian plants. The breakthrough required painstaking laboratory work using a variety of woolly glycine found by the CSIRO on Queensland's Brampton Island in 1976. Dr Brown will now work with Dr Hymowitz to test whether the resulting plants have inherited rust-resistance from their Australian ancestor.
The US harvests about eight million hectares of soybeans each year. Australia imports about $20 million worth of soybeans a year, mostly from the US. But Australia now has a growing soybean industry of its own in northern NSW and Queensland.
Soybean rust is a major problem throughout Australia's region, with growers in Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand, and South America seeking ways to combat the disease. Australian growers also suffer from rust, although it usually strikes too late in the season to be a major problem. The US is so far free of the disease, but scientists are concerned about the vulnerability of their crop.
World agricultural trade, worth an estimated $3 000 000 million a year, depends on new varieties of livestock and crops being bred continually from their wild cousins. Scientists use wild genetic stocks to keep domesticated crops and animals a jump ahead of pests and disease, to breed drought-resistance and other desirable traits, to boost nutritional content and to increase crop yields.
The CSIRO has developed some computer-based education/information packages relating to biodiversity.
The DIVERSITY software package is a tool which can be used to help determine how much species diversity is represented by a given set of areas (such as a proposed set of nature reserves). It links to well-known GIS systems.
CSIRO's Division of Entomology has developed a descriptive database system called DELTA (Description Language for Taxonomy). DELTA is in worldwide use for diverse kinds of organisms, and DELTA programs are readily and regularly updated. The software uses a powerful interactive identification program called INTKEY. Using INTKEY, CSIRO has produced two interactive identification and retrieval packages on CD-ROM, 'Beetle Larvae of the World' and 'The Families of Flowering Plants'.
The Division of Entomology has also developed a multimedia CD-ROM called 'Insects: a world of diversity' for educational use. It consists of collections of colour photographs and scanning electron micrograph images of insects; recordings of insect sounds; documentaries on the roles that insects play in the environment; instructions on catching, preserving and displaying insects; and games and quizzes that build on the information in the other segments.
For further details, contact:
CSIRO Information Services,
314 Albert Street,
East Melbourne Vic 3002
Telephone: 03 418 7217
Facsimile: 03 419 0459
A small mallee moth which feeds on koala droppings was discovered in the Tantawangalo State Forest in New South Wales earlier this year. According to the head of the Australian National Insect Collection, Dr Ebbe Nielsen, the moth is an excellent example of Australia's importance as a world centre of biodiversity, being one of an estimated 6000 species of small mallee moths in Australia which together are essential in breaking down fallen eucalypt leaves and recycling their nutrients back into the harsh Australian soil.
Dr Nielsen said 'It is biodiversity in action: without these many different species of moths, large tracts of Australian bush and farmland could not survive. Each species of moth does something different, but all are part of the recycling process. The new moth is really a modified leaf eater, which makes sense because koala droppings consist of part-digested gumleaves'.
The CSIRO's chief executive, Dr John Stocker, after whom the moth will be named in recognition of his strong support for biodiversity research, said 'I believe research into biodiversity is essential for Australia's future economic prosperity and for our environmental health – the two, after all, are inseparable. In this world it's not always the cute cuddly things which are important; the message of biodiversity is that all kinds of strange creatures are essential to keep the planet healthy'.
'And in the name of biodiversity I don't mind being identified with a creature which spends its whole life in the poo, especially in the droppings of such a celebrated Australian. It seems the perfect metaphor for public service.'
Associate Professor Ronald J Quinn, Queensland Pharmaceutical Research Institute
"Conservation of the biodiversity of Australia's rainforest and marine organisms is therefore not only wise from a scientific and ecological viewpoint but also economically justified." – Ronald J Quinn
In the ongoing quest for drug discovery the trend is slowly shifting away from the synthetic chemistry route which has been prevalent over the past two decades. Many pharmaceutical companies are now sourcing new leads for drug discovery from natural resources. Natural products constitute a significant proportion of drugs currently in use. Products such as amoxycillin, cefaclor, ceftriaxone and lovastatin, all derived from natural products, have had a huge impact on the pharmaceutical industry and were listed in the top 20 best selling pharmaceuticals in 1990 along with captopril and enalapril which resulted from leads provided by a natural product. A large percentage of new agents used in medical practice tend to be either natural products or derived from natural products. In 1991, 16 out of 43 and in 1992, 18 out of 43 new chemical entities introduced onto the world pharmaceutical market were natural product derived.
Australia's unique plants and marine organisms offer the potential to discover unique bioactive compounds which have therapeutic potential or which can be the basis for the further development of therapeutic compounds. A single new pharmaceutical product with a novel therapeutic action could gross annual sales worldwide in excess of $1 billion and could generate returns comparable to those of major export industries based on wool, wheat and coal.
Conservation of the biodiversity of Australia's rainforests and marine organisms is therefore not only wise from a scientific and ecological viewpoint but also economically justified.
The use of naturally occurring compounds in medicinal applications is not new – traditional medicines derived from natural sources have been used by indigenous people throughout history and by the Aboriginals for the last 40 000 years. Recently a bark extract, used by Aboriginals to relieve pain, was found to exhibit analgesic qualities superior to morphine. The Queensland Pharmaceutical Research Institute (QPRI), Griffith University, in collaboration with Dr Jack Carmody, an expert in the physiology of pain, conducted preliminary tests on the bark which indicated that a crude extract was as potent as morphine. Research into the nature of the active constituent is being pursued by QPRI.
Traditional medicines continue to play a significant role in modern-day pharmacology although western medicine requires the isolation of the active constituent of a Chinese antimalarial preparation known as Qinghaosu. Artemether has been introduced for the treatment of drug-resistant malaria. The Chinese have a long history of using herb medicines and have accumulated vast experience in the use of medical plants. Many Chinese medical centres offer both traditional and western treatments.
Natural products, as well as continuing to provide essential medicinal compounds, provide a basis for the development of synthetic ones. The abundant pool of untested natural resources can be assessed with advanced screening technologies.
The Queensland Pharmaceutical Research Institute was established by Griffith University in December 1990 to provide a vehicle for collaborative research between industry and academia and brings together researchers with special expertise in drug discovery for the purpose of engaging in industry-oriented research and development. This enables Queensland to participate in the growth of the pharmaceutical industry, an industry which is expected to earn Australia some $2 billion a year from exports by the year 2000.
In June 1993, a joint venture agreement was signed between Griffith University and Astra Pharmaceuticals Pty Ltd, a subsidiary of Scandinavia's largest pharmaceutical group – AB Astra of Sweden. Astra Pharmaceuticals agreed to invest $10 million over a five year period in the joint venture which will screen natural products from Queensland's reef and rainforests to discover potential new pharmaceutical agents. This joint venture with Astra – one of the world's fastest-growing pharmaceutical companies – is proof of the importance the pharmaceutical industry is placing on natural products.
The basic research in natural product chemistry and screening at Griffith University has received long-term support from the Australian Research Council. The resultant Australian-developed technology, as well as unique Australian flora and fauna, attracted Astra to support this project in Australia. This project creates employment in a high value-added industry – the pharmaceutical area.
The Queensland State Government through the Department of Business, Industry and Regional Development constructed the $3 million Griffith Research Centre adjacent to Griffith University in order to facilitate private sector research and development. The building is leased back to Griffith University. In July 1993, the QPRI Astra Laboratories in the Griffith Research Centre were opened by the Hon. Jim Elder, Minister for Business, Industry and Regional Development.
Today, the QPRI has attracted top quality Australian scientists to conduct the research and development. The QPRI is now fully operational with state-of-the-art screening and structural elucidation equipment, including Queensland's only 600 MHz nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer and computer aided drug design facilities, to allow natural products to be developed as new therapeutic agents.
An international meeting of scientific experts on biological diversity was held under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Convention on Biological Diversity (ICCBD) in Mexico City from 11 to 15 April 1994. The meeting was convened as a result of a decision taken at the October 1993 meeting of the ICCBD. Its objectives were:
- to consider the process for developing a research agenda for the purposes of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity;
- the elements of such an agenda; and
- to identify examples of innovative technology for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
The meeting was well attended with approximately 250 registrations and 92 countries represented. A number of prominent biodiversity experts were present, including Dr Thomas Lovejoy of the Smithsonian Institute; Dr Bob Watson, Chair of UNEP's Global Biodiversity Assessment; and Dr Mark Collins, Director of the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, England. Representatives from DEST, the Australian Nature Conservation Agency and the CSIRO were on the Australian delegation.
An important outcome of the meeting was agreement on an approach for developing a research agenda which takes into account:
- the needs of countries;
- the requirements of the Convention on Biological Diversity;
- the use of various existing electronic data networks.
This will be an important input to the Conference of the Parties when it meets later this year. The meeting also suggested a number of possible elements of a research agenda including:
- species diversity in the functioning of ecosystems;
- indicators of biodiversity;
- sustainability of manipulated ecosystems.
An issue raised frequently was systematic biology and the need to increase the number of taxonomists and to ensure career opportunities for them.
A large number of innovative technologies for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity were also identified. The products of the meeting will go to the June meeting of the ICCBD and will be further considered by the Conference of the Parties.
The 1994 Australia Prize, awarded for outstanding achievement in science and technology promoting human welfare, has been won by distinguished American ecologist Professor Gene E. Likens. Each year, the prize is awarded in a different research category; this year's field was sustainable land management. Professor Likens is the first sole winner of the $250 000 award, which is in its fourth year.
Professor Likens is Director of the Institute of Ecosystems Studies at Millbrook, New York. Over the past three decades, he has been engaged in a whole-ecosystem study of a forested valley at Hubbard Brook, New Hampshire, which has helped to lay the foundations for modern ecological science. The reductionist methods used by most branches of modern science were inadequate to cope with something as complex as an ecosystem, so Likens and his colleagues developed an innovative holistic approach that could provide key information on nutrient pathways within the ecosystem. In the 1970s he alerted the world to the threat of acid rain, and during the 1980s his research demonstrated how industrial pollution damaged forests and lakes on both sides of the US-Canadian border.
In April, Professor Likens travelled to Australia to be presented with his Australia Prize in Canberra. While he was in the country, he also visited Adelaide, Melbourne, rural Victoria, Sydney and Perth. Among his many engagements, he gave public lectures on the topic 'Human Accelerated Environmental Change – An Ecologist's View' in the capital cities he visited.
Global status of ratifications
The following countries have ratified the Convention as of 19 May 1994.
|China||Saint Kitts and Nevis||Ecuador|
|Antigua and Barbuda||Mexico||Papua New Guinea|
|Portugal||Spain||European Economic Community|
Coral has been used for bone grafts for about 20 years and is increasingly being used in orthopaedic, plastic and dental surgery. Its porous structure is compatible with the requirements of bone growth, and when grafted to bone it is accepted by the bone cells and eventually completely assimilated and replaced by bone. The obvious advantage is that bone does not need to be taken from elsewhere in the patient's body, saving much time in surgery as well as substantially reducing the amount of blood required for transfusion. Surgeons have found coral inserts useful in repairing broken hip bones in elderly people through providing a more solid base for inserting screws. In facial surgery, granules of coral can be arranged to form the desired shape. Dentists are also looking at the use of coral granules to strengthen jawbone and firm up wobbly teeth.
A Perth-based company, Biotech International Ltd, is developing a biological pulp bleaching process. If successful, it could lead to significant reductions in the use of chlorine compounds, which are currently in widespread use in paper mills around the world and produce environmentally hazardous effluents. Biotech has been conducting research into tree-dwelling micro-organisms from the forests of Western Australia to identify enzymes used to break down lignin in the wood. Two species, one a fungus, the other a bacterium, have been selected for developing a commercial process. The basic idea is to breed the micro-organisms under optimal conditions for their growth and then extract the enzymes. At the bleaching stage, pulp would be pre-treated with the enzymes, reducing the need for chlorine chemicals by 50-80 per cent.
The forest before dawn
has a cool digestive glow;
the dropped leaf is a ghostly radar screen
– its skein of fungus threads,
glimmering moistly, a decaying universe
where microbial nations plunge to entropy.
Moss-buried stumps that silently subside,
dead logs glowing with the force within,
the pale Kirlovian flame of the forest.
At first light you hear the chowchillas
going at it hammer and gongs,
and the bush turkey raking its mound.
You walk on live wood-mulch, a bygone forest
inherited, not exported.
Here roots have abandoned soil,
grow in moist air, among damp leaves,
flanged and buttressed
holding back the hill's avalanche,
an arrested wave, that trickles
leaf by leaf to the hot coast.
– Mark O'Connor
From The Great Forest, 1989,
Hale & Iremonger Pty Limited
Biodiversity Unit, DEST
GPO Box 787 Canberra ACT 2601
Telephone (008)-803 772
Biolinks is published by the Department of the Environment, Sport, and Territories. The views expressed are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Commonwealth Government or the Department.