G.A.M. Scott, T.J. Entwisle, T.W. May & G.N. Stevens
Environment Australia, May 1997
ISBN 0 6422 1399 2
George A. M. Scott
This report was commissioned by the Endangered Species Program of the former Australian Nature Conservation Agency with the aim of developing a '… national overview of the conservation status of Australian non-marine, cryptogams and recommend conservation priorities and research and management action with particular emphasis on endangered and vulnerable taxa'.
The report was prepared by four authors, each a practising specialist with field experience throughout much of Australia, and often elsewhere. In the preliminary stages of the report, the authors prepared their sections independently to achieve an unbiased review. These accounts were circulated as an interim report to various referees for comment, to whom grateful thanks are due. Comments on the report were obtained from conservationists, land managers and scientists (listed in the Acknowledgments and Appendix A). The responsibility for incorporating these various contributions rests with the authors.
Strictly applied, the word cryptogams refers to all plants which reproduce by spores rather than seeds. For simplicity in this report, it is generally used to refer only to non-marine cryptogams. This restricted definition excludes both the terrestrial pteridophytes (i.e. ferns and their allies) which are vascular, that is possess woody water-conducting tissues, and those members of the algae, fungi and lichens that are marine. The following plant groups are covered in the report.
Nowadays generally classified in the fungi, the lichens are compound organisms, each comprising a symbiosis between an alga and a fungus. They are therefore often referred to as the lichenised fungi. Being photosynthetic thanks to the algal component, lichens are ecologically quite different from the other fungi, and have traditionally been studied in a quite different way; by lichenologists rather than mycologists.
Bryophytes comprise the mosses, liverworts and hornworts; that is, all plants which develop from embryos enclosed by maternal tissues but which lack lignin.
Algae is a general term that includes all photosynthetic organisms which do not have embryos, excluding lichens. They include a very wide range of unrelated groups, which in the context of this report include mainly the Green algae (Chlorophyta), a few Red algae (Rhodophyta), Yellow-green algae (Chrysophyta) and the procaryotic Blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria). These groups are currently treated as two or more kingdoms, separate from 'plants'.
In older classification systems, fungi were included within the plant kingdom and were separated from other plant groups by the lack of photosynthesis and the production of spores. It is now generally agreed by mycologists that fungi are not plants and should be placed in one (or several) separate kingdom(s). Fungi are very diverse, including some groups closely related to algae and many others linked by life-style rather than ancestral relationship. The main groups of large (macro) fungi are the Basidiomycetes and Ascomycetes.
All the above groups lack lignin and consequently are of relatively small stature. Most algae and the microfungi are visible in detail only under the microscope. Bryophytes and lichens are slightly larger, from about 0.5 mm to 500 mm (rarely) but usually less than 100 mm. Macrofungi are the largest and tend to be much bulkier than other cryptogams.
The generally small size of cryptogams is one of the factors that have resulted in their being largely ignored in conservation. Others factors, some of which are related to size, include: failure to understand their role in ecosystems, difficulties in identification, the very great number of species (especially fungi), frequent lack of permanence, lack of attractive flowers, and the self-perpetuating problem of teaching which is biased towards angiosperm botany.
The remainder of this chapter provides an overview of the nature of cryptogams, their significance, conservation status and priorities for focusing the conservation effort. The four groups are then discussed in detail in Chapters 2 to 5. For convenience, a set of consolidated recommendations is given in pages viii–xi of this report.
In the sequence – lichens, bryophytes, algae, fungi – there is a rough general but paradoxical relationship: relatively decreasing taxonomic knowledge and decreasing numbers of taxonomic/ecological workers, but increasing species numbers, increasing technical difficulties of study, and increasing ecological importance. Apart from some cases within the first two groups, this relationship holds both in Australia and overseas.
Ecologically, these are probably most important as primary colonisers and stabilisers. On bare rock they are the most common initiators of colonisation (except in rain-tracks) and often remain the sole colonisers, with no real successors. But it is on soil crusts in semi-arid areas that lichens, together with other cryptogams, have perhaps their major role, holding the soil in place, preventing erosion, both stabilising the surface and building up humus to form more fertile soil. This very important function has been too little appreciated (Scott in Smith 1982) although soil crusts have begun to receive more attention in recent years. In wet forests, lichens may be abundant epiphytes, especially in areas of higher light intensity such as the canopy where they form part of the water-absorbing and cation-exchanging mantle through which much of the run-off into the forest is filtered. The significance of this function is still being investigated. The relationship between the mycobiont (fungal component) of the lichen and the host, which appears to span the range from epiphyte to saprophyte to parasite, is also much in need of modern critical investigation. It is quite likely that lichens are of much greater significance in many forest ecosystems than has yet been rigorously established.
Apart from their considerable ecological importance, lichens are particularly significant in several ways:
- as a source of unique chemical compounds, such as the lichen acids, which are just beginning to attract serious investigation from an applied viewpoint;
- as examples par excellence of symbiotic systems not only between a fungus and an alga but in some cases a fungus and two or more algae; they are the natural group for the study of parasitism/ mutualism/symbiosis;
- they are classic resurrection plants, capable of withstanding extreme desiccation without damage and hence are a potential source of drought-resistance genes for genetically engineered crop plants;
- as cheap and effective indicators and monitors of atmospheric contamination because of their great sensitivity to atmospheric pollution (particularly sulphur dioxide and heavy metals);
- as indicators of environmental change. They are exceedingly sensitive to changes in regimes of humidity and/or light of which they are a direct, precise and accurate reflection. This gives them a considerable but hitherto untapped potential in Australia for environmental monitoring.
More than most other plants, lichens have proved to be exceedingly difficult to grow in culture so that conservation ex situ or by transplantation is not possible and conservation in situ is essential.
The ecology of bryophytes is akin to that of lichens. Both have large numbers of poikilohydric species, i.e. resurrection plants, capable of withstanding prolonged periods of drought in the desiccated state and resuming growth and metabolism rapidly on being moistened again (Scott in Smith 1982; Moore & Scott 1979). Major components of the soil crusts, and also of wet forests, bryophytes differ from lichens ecologically in that they generally prefer darker and often moister micro-climates, form denser clusters of greater water-holding capacity as epiphytes, and in rainforest may form a high proportion of the ground flora cover so that they act as a carpet through which all rainfall is filtered. In the stabilisation of sandy soils, bryophytes (mainly mosses) establish shortly after the initial colonisation by angiosperms, and are the major force in stabilising the soil by building up humus and capturing and consolidating blown sand.
Bryophytes are an ancient group and hence tend to have fragmented distributions. Many of them, if not endemic, are found only in small scattered and isolated populations of very small numbers of plants with little ecological resilience and apparently not capable of spreading to other uncolonised but seemingly suitable areas. This presents particular conservation problems.
The significance of bryophytes is illustrated in the following examples:
- bryophytes are a source of drought-resistant genes (many species are resurrection plants);
- the genus Sphagnum is of some economic importance both as an antiseptic absorbent – much used until about 1950 and recently re-introduced commercially – and as a horticultural medium. Both uses depend on the unique anatomical structure which creates a very high water-holding capacity; as much as 20–25 times the dry weight;
- although less sensitive to sulphur dioxide than lichens, bryophytes have been used as monitors of environmental contamination, particularly of heavy metals;
- recent work has shown the existence of antibiotics in bryophytes although none has yet reached the stage of commercial production (unless it is a trade secret);
- scientifically, bryophytes are the classic organisms for studying the relationships between chromosome complement (ploidy) and morphology, the effects of maternal environment on the phenotypic expression of genotype, and the nature of totipotency. Bryophytes, more than any other plants with the possible exception of fungi, are able to reproduce entire plants of complex morphology from single cells, not just in laboratory culture but in nature. They are therefore of great significance in the study of regeneration and wound repair.
Although algae are, together with lichens and bryophytes, important components of the soil crust flora and, if blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria) are included, are probably the major nitrogen-fixing components of the crusts, it is the planktonic forms that are probably of greatest significance in freshwater as in salt water. Phytoplankton is the basis of the food chains and hence is of crucial significance in the biosphere as the principal carbon-fixing and oxygenating agent. Without algae, all freshwater bodies would be effectively dead.
The alge of streams, in particular diatoms, are potentially powerful organisms for monitoring and assessing aquatic health. Filamentous algae also respond dramatically to natural and regulated flood regimes, and their importance in the dynamics and viability of stream ecosystems has so far received only cursory attention worldwide. In Australia, algae have been overshadowed by fish, invertebrates, chemistry and hydrology in all scientific studies of freshwater ecology.
The potential importance of algae in industrial biochemistry is very great. It seems certain that algal cultures, already under experimental trial, will become industrially significant in the relatively near future. There is a considerable, almost untapped resource of chemical compounds (including oils, some of which may have been the source of most petroleum deposits) and also of protein and carbohydrates for foodstuffs. It is important to conserve the available genetic diversity for future exploitation, if for no other reason.
A few fungi are well known to lay people although the overall importance of the group is generally not recognised outside scientific circles.
Although of undoubted importance for their very widespread symbiotic relationships with higher plants, the most striking significance of fungi is in the decomposition of dead plant material. Whereas some ecosystems might be able to function in the absence of lichens, bryophytes and even algae, and certainly without angiosperms, it is difficult to conceive of any bar the simplest ecosystem surviving in the complete absence of fungi. Especially in forests, a large part of the nutrient flux is mediated by fungi. The healthy functioning of forest fungi is hence of paramount importance to all the forests of the world, including those in Australia.
As a source of antibiotics, edible foods, yeasts and, conversely, of plant and animal pathogens, the economic significance of fungi is very great and is still scarcely tapped. As with all cryptogams, the proportion of fungal species that have been chemically investigated is minuscule.
No cryptogam in Australia (with the exception of Sphagnum in New South Wales and Victoria, the moss Pleurophascum occidentale in Western Australia and possibly two fungi in Western Australia) has been specially conserved, and no habitat reserved with non-vascular cryptogams as a main reason for conservation. Cryptogams therefore are only incidentally conserved when the habitats they happen to occupy are conserved. The legislation permitting or prescribing conservation varies in each jurisdiction and is summarised below.
McIntyre (1992) pointed out that rare species, because they are very numerous, tend to bias the lists of plants requiring conservation and that other plants, more abundant but perhaps more in need, are correspondingly underestimated. This observation must be kept in mind, although it is significant that the 1993 ANZECC List of Threatened Australian Flora includes only species considered vulnerable, endangered or presumed extinct.
A further, and illuminating, concept which has emerged recently (Vane-Wright et al. 1991) is that of phylogenetic conservation. According to this principle, the organisms most worthy of conservation are not necessarily the rarest, but rather those representing a distinct piece of evolutionary history, i.e. those with the longest distinct lineage or, in biochemical terms, with the greatest proportion of unique DNA, found in no other organisms and therefore potentially able to contribute most to future scientific and technological needs. On this basis, because of their undoubted greater antiquity and phylogenetic diversity compared to angiosperms, all cryptogam groups have an enhanced claim to conservation.
Following, in alphabetical order, is a synthesis of legislation relevant to the conservation of cryptogams within different jurisdictions around Australia.
Australian Capital Territory
Legislative responsibility for conservation and protection of cryptogams rests with the A.C.T. Parks and Conservation Service (Department of Environment, Land and Planning). Some relevant land management issues may also be the responsibility of A.C.T. Forests (Department of Urban Services). Protection is afforded by the Nature Conservation Act 1980 and the Protection of Lands Act 1937, but neither is likely to apply on leasehold land.
The Commonwealth Endangered Species Protection Act 1992 (ESP Act) aims to promote the recovery of species and ecological communities that are endangered or vulnerable. Schedule 1 of the Act contains lists of species considered endangered, vulnerable or presumed extinct, and Schedule 2 lists endangered ecological communities. Species currently listed in Schedule 1 are mainly vertebrates and vascular plants, but one invertebrate and one moss (Pleurophascum occidentale) are included.
Changes to the lists are made by the Minister for the Environment based on the advice of the Endangered Species Scientific Subcommittee (ESSS). The public can nominate species for consideration by ESSS for listing, and ESSS is obliged to take into account any changes made to the ANZECC threatened species lists. There is scope to list further cryptogams through either of these processes. No endangered ecological community is yet listed, but there is potential for the protection of cryptogams through the listing of ecological communities.
The Commonwealth is obliged to prepare and implement Recovery Plans for all listed species and ecological communities that occur in Commonwealth areas. If such species or communities also occur outside Commonwealth areas, the Commonwealth must co-operate with the States or Territories in which they occur. Joint preparation and implementation of a Recovery Plan across State and Territory boundaries is encouraged.
The ESP Act prohibits 'taking' (which includes kill, damage, destroy or collect) a listed species that is in a Commonwealth area unless in accordance with a permit issued by the Director of National Parks and Wildlife. Such a permit may be issued only if the action contributes to the conservation of the listed species or other listed species, or if the action is incidental to other acts and does not affect the listed species.
Under the ESP Act, Interim or Permanent Conservation Orders can be issued in order to prohibit or restrict specified activities, or to require a person or a group to take specified actions, on or in Commonwealth areas. These orders may be used to prevent a listed species or community from being further threatened by a particular activity, or to ensure that a particular activity does not impede the recovery of a listed species or community.
Conservation agreements can be made to conserve and manage listed species or communities that occur in a Commonwealth area. They are made between the Director of National Parks and Wildlife on behalf of the Commonwealth and a person who has an interest in a Commonwealth area.
New South Wales
Schedule 1 to the New South Wales Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 (TSC Act) lists endangered species (currently vertebrates and vascular plants), endangered populations (none currently listed) and endangered ecological communities (none currently listed). Schedule 2 lists vulnerable species and Schedule 3 lists key threatening processes.
Once a species, population or community is listed as endangered or vulnerable, N.S.W. NPWS must prepare a Recovery Plan. The TSC Act also allows for the declaration of critical habitat for a listed species, population or community which requires the approval of the Minister and takes into account economic and social factors of the relevant land owner who controls the land to be listed. Once an area is declared critical habitat, it gives the land strong protection from development.
In addition to the TSC Act, under the N.S.W. Environmental Protection Assessment Act (EPA Act), should a development be proposed on any land containing a listed species, population or community, the approval authority must seek the concurrence of the Director-General of National Parks and Wildlife or, in certain circumstances, consult with the Minister for the Environment. Under the EPA Act an 8 point test is used to determine if the development is likely to have a significant impact on the species. A Species Impact Statement is required if it is determined that the proposal is likely to have a significant impact on the species.
Under the TSC Act, there is potential for protection of non-vascular flora through the protection of endangered ecological communities and the declaration of critical habitat for a listed species, population or community.
The provision for a Biological Diversity Advisory Council to oversee the development of a State Biodiversity Strategy, as required, may also have some consequences for the conservation of non-vascular flora.
In 1993 the Territory Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1993 (TPWC Act) was amended to provide greater protection for plants. Under Section 9 of the Act, a plant is defined as '… any member, alive or dead, of the plant kingdom or of the fungus kingdom, and includes seeds and parts of plants and things produced from plants'. Wildlife is defined as '… animals and plants that are indigenous to Australia …'. Thus cryptogams are covered under the TPWC Act.
With respect to wildlife on various forms of land tenure, the TPWC Act provides the following:
- on all lands: areas may be declared protected areas for wildlife generally or for a species of plant, under section 22;
- on reserved land: parks and reserves are proclaimed under section 12 and provide protection for wildlife;
- on Aboriginal land: the Parks and Wildlife Commission may enter into an agreement with an Aboriginal Land Council relating to schemes for the protection and conservation of wildlife under section 73;
- on private land: the Parks and Wildlife Commission may enter into an agreement with a land owner relating to schemes for the protection and conservation of wildlife under section 74.
In summary, there is considerable legislative protection for cryptogams under the existing legislation. The TPWC Act is currently under review and it is likely that there will be even greater provision to protect and manage wildlife under the revised Act.
A list of plant species of conservation significance in the N.T. has been prepared and includes bryophytes and lichens (Leach et al. 1992).
The objective of the Queensland Nature Conservation Act 1992 is to conserve nature through an integrated strategy including, among other things, the protection of native wildlife and its habitat. The Act protects all native wildlife listed as rare or threatened and some common wildlife which is harvested from the wild. The definition of wildlife includes plants, which includes any member of the '… plant or fungus kingdom'. More than 1200 plants are listed for protection under the Act, and while non-vascular flora have been considered in preparing this list, none has yet been included.
Generally, taking a protected plant species (other than a listed common plant) from the wild requires an authorisation from the Department of Environment for clearing before plants can be taken. It must first be demonstrated that removal of the plants does not constitute a significant threat to the survival of the local population of the species in the wild.
Plants that are heavily collected from the wild may be listed as restricted, and harvesting requires a permit. When offered for sale, such plants must be tagged.
The Department of Environment negotiates voluntary conservation agreements for important populations of rare or threatened species on State or private land. Priority is given to species subject to a significant level of threatening processes.
In the case of private land, there are few controls on land clearing. Where local government controls apply, the Department of Environment will provide advice on the occurrence of protected species or critical habitat to the relevant authorities. Where possible the Department will seek to negotiate conservation agreements with the owners.
The clearance of vegetation in South Australia is controlled under the Native Vegetation Act 1991. The objectives of the Act include:
- conservation of the native vegetation of the State in order to prevent further reduction of biological diversity and land degradation;
- limitation of clearance of native vegetation;
- provision of incentives and assistance to landholders for the preservation, enhancement and management of native vegetation.
Although the Act controls the clearance of native vegetation throughout the State (except in metropolitan Adelaide), exemption provisions allow for fire-breaks, fence-lines, vehicle tracks and housing development.
An independent seven-member Native Vegetation Council has been established to administer the Act, with the assistance of staff from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and other government agencies as required.
In making decisions on clearance applications, the Council considers such matters as the wildlife habitat significance of the vegetation, the presence of any rare or endangered species and/or plant associations, the diversity of plant species, and whether clearance would result in land degradation.
To encourage landholders to protect and manage their vegetation, the Native Vegetation Act provides for financial incentives through a special fund, administered by the Native Vegetation Council. Areas of vegetation on privately owned land can be given permanent protection through Heritage Agreements established under the Act.
Native plants (and their flowers, fruit and seed) are also protected under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972. A permit is required to take a native plant on any Crown Land or other land reserved for or dedicated to public purposes, such as roadside reserves. On private land, a permit is required to take a native plant of a prescribed species (no species has been prescribed to date). The Act also provides for a listing of rare, vulnerable and endangered plant species. Cryptogams could potentially be listed as rare, vulnerable or endangered under the Act, but this has not occurred to date.
Non-marine lichens, bryophytes, algae and fungi are currently protected in reserves under the National Parks and Wildlife Act, but outside these areas their protection depends on whether they are legally interpreted as "plants" under the above provisions.
The Threatened Species Protection Act 1995 provides for a strategic approach to conservation efforts for threatened flora and fauna. At present, about 500 plant species are listed for protection, and while cryptogams may be listed, none has been as yet. It is not clear whether fungi are included within the definition of 'flora' adopted in the Act. The Act provides a means for protecting listed plants on all land tenures through negotiation with land owners, interim protection orders, management statements and, where necessary, compensation.
Tasmanian plants are also fully protected within State Reserves under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1970, wherein all flora is wholly protected and collection is only by permit issued for scientific work. Some 21% of land in Tasmania is allocated to such reserves, although these tend to be biased towards alpine, moorland and wet scrub or wet forest habitats. The Act also provides for the listing of plants, including non-vascular plants, as partly or wholly protected regardless of land tenure. No species has been listed under this provision.
The Tasmanian Forests Practices Code also provides for flora protection.
In Victoria, plants are protected under a number of Acts of Parliament, principally the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 (FFG Act), but also at least three others.
The FFG Act aims to promote the conservation of Victoria's native flora and fauna and to manage potentially threatening processes. The definition of 'flora' adopted by the Act includes '… any plant life which is indigenous to Victoria whether vascular or non-vascular …', but it is not clear whether fungi are included in this definition. The Act applies over all land in the State but the provisions differ on public and private land.
Under the FFG Act, species or communities can be nominated (by anyone) for protection if they are threatened. After verification by an independent Scientific Advisory Committee and appropriate public consultation, they may then be listed for full protection. It is notable that the Committee must include one member with expertise in the non-vascular flora. The Government is obliged to prepare an Action Statement for listed species as soon as practicable, and it becomes an offence to remove or damage the plants on public land without special permission, and on both public and private land where a 'critical habitat' for the species has been declared. This protection is binding on governmental as well as private agencies. So far, no cryptogam has been listed as a threatened species.
In addition, section 46 of the FFG Act provides for the declaration of 'protected flora'. The list of species so declared is based on the 680 species protected under the superseded Wild Flowers and Native Plants Protection Act 1958, which includes all species of the genus Sphagnum as the only cryptogams. The FFG Act bans unauthorised collection of 'protected flora', but this status does not confer the binding obligations on government that are entailed by individual listing as a threatened species under Act. 'Protected flora' status may be seen as affording temporary protection pending nomination and full listing.
In practice, the application of this Act is not always enforced where other controls already exist. Thus, in National Parks, plants (and animals) are already protected under the National Parks Act 1975, and to apply FFG as well would entail wasteful duplication, except in cases of incompatible management. In State Forest, where the Forests Act 1958 (and the Conservation, Forests and Lands Act 1987) operates, controls apply to the taking of all flora, but less stringently than in National Parks; these controls are aimed mainly at preventing unlicensed commercial exploitation of minor forest produce. In this case, full protection under the FFG Act tends to be confined to species and communities that have gone through the full listing procedure, other species merely being protected against commercial exploitation, under the Forest Act.
On private land, protection is given under the FFG Act only where critical habitat has been declared or where native plants are being collected for sale.
Clearing native vegetation (which by implication includes cryptogams) is subject to Retention Control under the Planning and Environment Act 1987. Although theoretically applying to all land, in practice several governmental agencies are formally exempt (Department of Health, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources etc.) and the application of controls is focused on developments on private land. It does not apply to areas less than 0.4 ha., or to licensed extractive industries such as gravel or sand mining and timber harvesting, damage caused by grazing stock, the construction of buildings and the maintenance of public utilities. This Act is said to be under review.
Under the Wildlife Conservation Act 1950, protected flora has been declared by a gazetted Ministerial notice to include fungi and cryptogams in addition to the higher plants. This Act applies to all flora native to Western Australia (including coastal waters). Protected flora may be taken from Crown land only under licence, or from private land with the consent of the landowner or occupier. Protected flora taken from private land may be sold only under licence.
The Wildlife Conservation Act enables protected flora that is threatened to be declared as rare flora where the responsible Minister is of the opinion that the flora is either likely to become extinct, or is rare or otherwise in need of special protection. Where threatened flora is declared rare flora by notice in the Government Gazette, specimens of such flora cannot be 'taken' from a wild population on Crown or private land without the written consent of the Minister. The provisions of the Act relating to flora bind the Crown and private citizens. Owners or occupiers of land who are refused consent to take declared rare flora may be eligible for compensation if they are able to satisfy the Minister that they will suffer loss of use or enjoyment of the land as a consequence of the refusal.
To date, the compensation provisions of the Act are yet to be invoked, nor has the power to resume land to protect declared rare flora been used. This appears to reflect a willingness to conserve threatened flora, often at personal expense, by most farmers, private companies and government instrumentalities contacted by the Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM).
Currently all Spermatophyta (flowering plants, conifers and cycads) and Thallophyta (algae, fungi and lichens) are gazetted as protected flora under the Act. Of the lower plants (Bryophyta and Thallophyta) one species of moss is gazetted as declared rare (threatened) flora under the Act, and two fungi, 21 lichens and three mosses are listed as poorly known by the CALM.
The Western Australian draft Wildlife Conservation Bill 1992 is similar to the Queensland Nature Conservation Act in that it provides a framework for conservation, rather than setting statutory requirements for the preparation of recovery plans or similar management actions. As well as establishing that all flora is protected and providing for the declaration of flora as specially protected, it allows protected sites to be declared, if the site is of special significance for specially protected plants, or when there is special need to protect a community or habitat. This allows the Minister responsible for CALM to control or prescribe or proscribe any activity on a site, whether on Crown or private land, including making an emergency order (similar to an Interim Conservation Order). Land may be set aside for nature conservation values under Nature Conservation covenants between the land owners and the Executive Director of CALM. Under the draft Bill there is no provision, or requirement, for Management or Conservation Plans to be made.
1. Conservation status of vascular plants
In Australia, the conservation status of vascular plants at a national level is described by two related processes – the Rare or Threatened Australian Plants (ROTAP) listing compiled by CSIRO since 1979 (e.g. Briggs & Leigh 1996) and the List of Threatened Australian Flora published by the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC 1993). While having no legal status, these two lists are reflected to varying degrees in the various Commonwealth, State and Territory threatened species legislation outlined in the previous section.
Both the above schemes use definitions of threat category (e.g. Endangered, Vulnerable etc) and methods of assigning threat status to species that are based on the IUCN Red List Categories (most recently updated in 1994) but modified to suit Australian vascular plants. This process of modification is still in progress, and the ANZECC Endangered Flora Network has responsibility for developing an agreed national approach.
The latest (1995) ROTAP listing (published in Briggs & Leigh 1996) includes the following categories for Conservation Status: Presumed Extinct, Endangered, Vulnerable, Rare and Poorly Known, with a range of sub-codes giving additional information about species distribution and reservation status. Rare species are defined as those that are rare but have no identifiable threat. Poorly Known species are those that are suspected, but not definitely known, to belong to one of the other five categories (i.e. distributional information is inadequate to make a judgement). The ANZECC List of Threatened Australian Flora (ANZECC 1993) includes only the categories Presumed Extinct, Endangered and Vulnerable. This list is currently under revision by the ANZECC Endangered Flora Network.
2. Conservation status of cryptogams
Because comprehensive distribution and ecological data are lacking for most cryptogams, conservation status must at present be based solely on apparent rarity. Like estimates of endemism (Scott 1988), estimates of rarity are, with some exceptions, merely confession of ignorance. Many species of cryptogams are at present known from only few collections (this is particularly the case for fungi and algae) and hence would have to be categorised as Poorly Known.
The challenge of assigning meaningful threat categories to cryptogams in Australia is made difficult mainly for the following four reasons:
i) insufficient information and qualified personnel
With the fungi, bryophytes and algae, and to a lesser extent, the lichens, the availability of good quality field information is severely restricted by the distribution of workers competent to recognise and identify. There are recorded instances in Australia of a cryptogam remaining undetected for 70 years and then found to be common (Tyler et al. 1989). In the case of fungi, a high proportion of the 12 500 described species are known only from the type specimen.
ii) the status of the taxonomy
Many cryptogams were described last century by workers who were not competent by modern standards and/or who subscribed to the prevalent doctrine that all species described from a remote island continent had to be new. The literature is therefore burdened with a large number of supposed species which have never been rediscovered and whose type specimens have never been re-examined or have disappeared (many were destroyed in the bombing of Berlin and London during the Second World War).
iii) the existing classification schemes
The current ANZECC and ROTAP classfications schemes were designed for vascular plants. Without modification, neither is suitable for most cryptogams. For example, the ROTAP sub-code 'a' is used to denote a species for which 1 000 or more plants are known to occur within a conservation reserve(s). For most species of bryophytes and lichens it is virtually impossible to count individual plants, and individuals cannot be defined for algae and fungi. Other measures of abundance are therefore required.
iv) the nature of the organisms themselves
For all fungi and algae, and for bryophytes and perhaps lichens of dry habitats, a species may be discoverable only at particular times of year and in or after particularly suitable climatic conditions. Failure to locate a particular species when searching in areas of known habitat may be of no significance. The problem with fungi is particularly acute since, with the macrofungi belonging to Basidiomycetes and higher Ascomycetes, the visible fungus is only the fruiting body which may or may not be produced in any given year; most of the fungus is an invisible, effectively unmeasurable mycelium underground.
Under present circumstances, the ROTAP Poorly Known category applies to a high proportion of cryptogams. Similarly, under the IUCN Red List Categories, the great majority of Australian cryptogams would be in the Data Deficient category. Clearly a system of threat categories should be developed for cryptogams, taking into account the difficulties mentioned above. This could include further subdivision within the ANZECC/ROTAP categories – particularly Poorly Known – to assist in prioritising future survey efforts.
Following the individual group accounts contained in Chapters 2 to 5, Appendix B provides a list of threatened lichens, bryophytes and algae and their critical habitats. Note that the term Potentially Vulnerable has been added to the Endangered and Vulnerable threat categories used by the ROTAP/ANZECC schemes, and is defined in Appendix B. Given the lack of information on fungi, no attempt has been made to compile a list of threatened species in this group. Appendix B is presented as a starting point for future work. It represents a fair picture given the current state of knowledge, but clearly the list could be improved by development of an agreed national approach for assigning cryptogams to threat categories, and additional resources/workers for conducting such work. Recommendations to this effect are included at the front of this report.
Most of the significant processes threatening to cryptogams fall within three types-habitat destruction, damage and defilement. Of these, habitat destruction (particularly of the vascular plant cover) is probably the major factor that has diminished and threatened the flora of lichens, bryophytes, algae and fungi, at least historically. Largely this has been by clearance of vegetation for agriculture and to a less extent for other activities: roads, dams, urban development etc. Damage to the habitat without actual destruction, especially by repeated burning, grazing and fertilising, has probably had major effects on all groups but perhaps especially lichens. Algal habitat is highly susceptible to alterations in catchment land use. Defilement by eutrophication and pollution of both water and atmosphere is particularly serious for algae, fungi and lichens.
There are two general approaches to the practice of conserving cryptogams (or other biota): species-based (where habitat conservation follows incidentally from protection of individual species), and habitat-based (where species conservation follows incidentally from protection of habitat). The former approach is exemplified by the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1986 under which species (or species groups) alone can be listed for protection and the habitat is protected under the action plan that must be drawn up for each listed species (see Section 1.2 for more detail). Such a species is protected wherever it occurs, so that relatively inferior habitats (judged by a range of criteria) are liable to be protected for the sake of an individual species.
An example of the habitat-based approach is the practice adopted in Britain (Hodgetts 1992) where only sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) can be protected, but these are so chosen to ensure that rare or endangered species are also protected. This, in theory, should protect the best sites even if individual rare species are protected over only part of their range. The selection of sites follows guidelines and requirements in a way that has not been attempted in Australia but should be considered. A similar classification of significant sites operates in Antarctica.
In the British example, sites are selected on the basis of points which are awarded for different categories of rare or endangered species, as follows.
- Plants on Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 score 200 points. This Schedule is roughly equivalent to listing on the Victorian FFG Act. At the time of Hodgetts' writing (1992), only one was on the Schedule – a green alga (Lamprothamnium papulosum).
- Nationally Rare species listed on the IUCN Red Data Book score 100 points.
- Nationally scarce species score 50 or 30 points depending on locality.
These scores are additive at any site and are augmented by points given for different phytogeographical distribution patterns, indicator species, local importance etc.
A total score of 200 qualifies a site for consideration as an SSSI over most of England. Elsewhere, including most of Wales and Scotland, 300 is the threshold figure. The choice among qualifying sites is based on a range of other criteria that are intended to assess special significance. It is at this point that the rarity of the species in its extra-British distribution is taken into account.
Rarity is assessed relatively precisely on the basis of mapping schemes at the 10 km² level of resolution, only possible because of a large, organised body of knowledgeable amateur naturalists. It is acknowledged that 'Fungi are uniquely difficult to record effectively, since they are recognised by their fruiting bodies, which are only available at certain times of the year and whose appearance is often very erratic. To know the fungus flora of any site reasonably well therefore involves visits at different times of the year over many years' (Hodgetts 1992).
This extreme example of a habitat-based approach to conservation is moderated by the qualification that the presence of a single Nationally Rare species is sufficient to qualify a site for selection if the population is a particularly good one (i.e. meets one of five listed criteria) even where the selection threshold score has not been reached.
While this kind of quantitative evaluation of sites is not yet feasible with cryptogams in Australia, it would seem to be perfectly possible in principle to develop a points scheme for habitats on an appropriately broad scale. Indeed, in a non-quantified way sites are already chosen for protection throughout Australia by an additive kind of assessment; rare surviving examples of formerly widespread communities have a better chance of protection if they are also the home of rare species and have other desirable attributes such as cultural/historical associations, educational value, or even scenic attractiveness.
Richness of species in a particular taxonomic group of cryptogams such as bryophytes, lichens, Basidiomycetes, desmids, or diatoms (as well as the more customary labelling of sites as rich in orchids, eucalypts, wattles, gymnosperms etc.) provides a very natural reason for habitat conservation, but one that has not often been used Australia.
The quantification of habitats for priority of conservation, by a scheme such as the British example, has the further value that it would give some kind of objectivity in disputes between alternative uses. It would also be a necessary first step towards assessing the real values of native vegetation, even expressed in purely monetary terms and amortised over the expected life of a community. There are already strong suggestions that this is the way in which conservation will have to be evaluated in the future (e.g. Kirkpatrick et al. 1991).
More efficient reserve selection can be achieved by the use of iterative procedures recently developed (Pressey & Nicholls 1989) under which, once a reserve has been (at least nominally) decided upon, the effect of this on the total reserve system, according to any desired criterion, is re-calculated before assessing the next most desirable reserve. Such procedures seem to be more theoretical than empirical, best suited to initial choice of reserves within a hitherto uncommitted region. Recent refinements (Bedward et al. 1992) show promise of allowing existing realities and constraints to be incorporated and may well provide the best method of deciding on the most profitable expenditure of limited funding for purchasing new reserves. A principal limitation of this method, as of others like it, is the underlying assumption that vascular plants (and vertebrates) are the biological attributes on which selection is to be based. There is no reason at all, except the extra time and effort and hence cost involved, why cryptogams (and invertebrates) should not be incorporated in the analysis, but in practice this is unlikely at present. A simpler scoring procedure such as that operating in the United Kingdom may therefore, paradoxically, be more effective for cryptogams even if less efficient. This matter clearly requires, and deserves, further investigation.
All cryptogams present difficulties of recognition (some to the point of being mostly invisible) and identification which are exacerbated by the small number of specialists able to carry out identifications. Many of these difficulties were aired at the Forgotten Flora Workshop held by the Endangered Species Unit of the former Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service (Canberra, 24–25 September 1991). Such difficulties flow on to management problems which require general, rather than case-by-case, solution. In order to complete the decision-making chain that would make cryptogam conservation feasible, the following priorities for research and management are needed (in descending order of priority):
1. Completion of the cryptogam volumes of the Flora of Australia and Fungi of Australia
The widespread perception that lack of taxonomic knowledge is the prime obstacle to conservation would be met by the publication of the appropriate Australia-wide treatment. In some groups such as the fungi and algae, this will involve a great deal of research, in others very little. It is largely because of cut-backs in funding that many of our current gaps in knowledge have had to be left off the Preferred Objectives of the ABRS grants list.
Completion of the Flora or Fungi account would not only provide an agreed reference standard and a means of identifying any taxon, including new and rare ones that might require conservation, but would also be an essential pre-requisite for training staff.
There are strongly held opinions that, for at least some algal and fungal groups, the full Flora or Fungi treatment is impracticably distant and that simpler, more quickly produced guides are urgently needed in the short term. This need should be clarified and met, most logically by specialists under contract to ABRS, which would need increased funding for the purpose.
Recent proposals to give the Flora Section of ABRS a little more flexibility in awarding small-sum contracts to plug gaps in research and preparation of manuscripts (Flora Editorial Committee, October 1993) are to be welcomed as a move to expedite the production of the Flora; but this progress should be still further accelerated by providing more funds.
2. Establishment of cryptogam reserves
Cryptogams must be incorporated more explicitly within the National Reserves System, and an objective approach for ensuring such action is required that will focus on areas of high endemism and biodiversity for each of the four groups. Although the British model of declaring Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) is not one that should be followed uncritically, something similar is needed for the conservation of cryptogams in Australia, if only because a species-based approach to conservation is impracticable given the current state of taxonomic knowledge and expertise. The SSSI model provides for the efficient use of the few available expert taxonomists to identify areas of particular importance and, with appropriate resources, to monitor progress.
Just as the Flora is a federal responsibility, it would seem to be essential for any system of cryptogam reserves to have Federal as well as State and Territory participation. This could best be achieved through a forum such as the ANZECC Scientific Task Force for the National Reserve System. Such an approach would be the only way of achieving consistent policies and standards, of using the small corps of taxonomic experts effectively, and of ensuring the efficient and, indeed, parsimonious allocation of funding.
3. Register of consultants
Not all experts will be either willing to serve as consultants, or good at doing so, but it would be easy to form a register of those acceptable and willing to identify or offer advice on cryptogams on a fee-for-service basis. The basis for a register of consultants is found in Appendix A.
Few cryptogam experts are employed by Australian herbaria and they can devote little time to non-core activities (e.g. identifications for surveys). University staff and private individuals (some retired) form the majority of experts in cryptogamic botany and even a small fee increases both willingness and accountability, and expedites service.
4. Standardisation of Commonwealth, State and Territory legislation
A necessary corollary to 2 (above) is that cryptogams should be recognised uniformly as flora in the conservation legislation in all States and Territories. At present this seems to be true implicitly, but legal opinion on this should be obtained and any amendments within the individual legislations made to bring them into line.
The ANZECC (1993) threat categories should be amplified to make them suitable for cryptogams, as discussed in Section 1.3, above.
5. Training land managers
It is unrealistic to expect all those involved in land management to be expert taxonomists in all groups. What is needed is an awareness of cryptogams, their nature and needs. Short training programs of no more than a day or two, in the field and laboratory, would be sufficient to achieve this and to instruct managers in what sort of help is available and how and where to seek it. This is a natural follow-on from 3 (above) and could be organised at relatively small cost – provided appropriately qualified teachers were available – without burdening land managers unduly. Such courses would be an appropriate part of university extension work since laboratories with multiple microscopes would normally be required.
Prescriptions for conserving cryptogams through land management are required. These should reflect the principles applying to most cryptogams – namely that they lack vascular (water-conducting) tissue and therefore tend to be sensitive to changes in the external water regime. They are likely to be damaged or eliminated by any management practice that alters humidity, light or nutrient regimes, or that disturbs their substratum. Despite these generalities there are some cryptogams that require disturbance. Like flowering plants of similar ecology, these pose particular difficulties for conservation. Clearly, more research is required on this aspect.
In the community, knowledge of cryptogamic groups is very limited. The vast majority know almost nothing but the names lichen, moss, algae and fungus; a large number know a little more-perhaps from biology at school; a few naturalists have a limited general knowledge; and a very few have extensive knowledge. Appropriate methods of increasing public awareness differ for each part of that pattern. Depending on the target group, some methods will therefore seem elementary and even trivial or naive, and the marketing strategies will differ correspondingly. The aims of an awareness-raising program should be that those who know nothing should know something; those who know a little should learn more; and those who know a lot should grow in numbers rather than in knowledge.
Nowadays, raising the level of public awareness on any matter is limited only by money. Given unlimited finance, advertising techniques are available to make any target sector of the population aware of, although not necessarily either understand or agree with, a policy or issue. Raising public awareness of cryptogams therefore needs to be expressed as: what level, what target, and what cost? Pragmatically, no imminent catastrophic outcomes to wrong decisions on such questions can be envisaged, so the answers to these questions would seem to be: a generally raised but still low level of awareness among all members of the population who have, or could come to have, an interest in natural history, and as economically as possible. The following steps seem appropriate and feasible.
- Publication of the Flora and Fungi of Australia and other identification guides. This is in progress and is one of the best vehicles for raising awareness among the serious and experienced naturalists. It should be supplemented by week-long instruction courses in identification such as those on bryophytes run at Monash University (Clayton) in the 1980s, a similar course for freshwater algae run recently at La Trobe University (Albury), and courses regularly held in countries such as the USA and UK.
- At a lower level of awareness and a less committed target population, coloured posters can be an effective, long-lasting medium that can be aimed at any level from school children to adults, as has already been shown with the national parks posters on birds. The set of six fungal posters produced by Bruce Fuhrer (enlarged from plates in Fuhrer 1985) have had great appeal; and the two wall charts (with an information booklet) painted by Claire Dalby for the Natural History Museum (London) and BP Educational Services in UK – Lichens and Air Pollution, and Lichens on Rocky Seashores – are good examples of how posters on cryptogams can have a serious educational purpose but still be attractive and successful. Posters, wall charts and simple, well-illustrated booklets, such as Fuhrer (1985) and Fuhrer & Robinson (1992) are effective if well marketed and can be targeted at any level from kindergarten to university.
- At a more general level still, TV programs can reach the widest audience and (if well done) have the greatest impact, but are also the most expensive medium. If tied to publicity, e.g. for national parks, a documentary on cryptogams could be very effective just as recent ones on insects have been.
One medium with enormous potential as a means of teaching a serious scientific message is children's computer games, particularly interactive CD-ROM-type games.
Of these three vehicles, the first is already being used, the second is the main one that should be developed, and the third requires a greater commitment, but with greater potential returns.
- Professional publicity. Whereas the above suggestions are made from a botanical perspective, the prime consideration in any serious attempt to raise public awareness of cryptogams (or any other topic) should be to employ the skills of imaginative professionals in the advertising industry. There is no lack of professional skills to achieve any desired level of awareness, but they are unlikely to be cheap.
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