Underground orchid (Rhizanthella gardneri) Interim Recovery Plan 2003-2008

Interim recovery plan no. 127
Andrew Brown, Andrew Batty, Mark Brundrett & Kingsley Dixon
Department of Conservation and Land Management, WA, 2003

2. Recovery objective and criteria

Objectives

The objective of this Interim Recovery Plan is to abate identified threats and maintain or enhance in situ populations to ensure the long-term preservation of the species in the wild. Also to understand in more detail the relationships between orchid, fungi and shrub to improve management decisions and conservation of the species.

Criteria for success: The number of individuals within populations and/or the number of populations have increased by 10% or more.
Criteria for failure: The number of individuals within populations and/or the number of populations have decreased by 10% or more.

3. Recovery actions

Existing recovery actions

The majority of land managers and adjacent landowners have been notified of the location and threatened status of Rhizanthella gardneri. The notification details the Declared Threatened status of the taxon and legal responsibilities to protect it.

Surveys of all known populations were undertaken in 2002.

Staff from the BGPA Orchid Research Unit, the Department's Narrogin and Esperance Districts and the Department's Threatened Species and Communities Unit are monitoring populations of the taxon.

The Narrogin and Esperance District Threatened Flora Recovery Teams (N & EDTFRTs) are overseeing the recovery of this species and will include information on progress in an annual report to the Department's Corporate Executive and funding bodies.

Two reserves near Babakin, both of which have populations of Rhizanthella, have now been vested in the Conservation Commission as Class A Nature reserves for the Conservation of Flora and Fauna.

Approximately 500 seeds were collected from one Babakin population in November 2001 and in 2002 a further 1000 seeds were collected from the same reserve and 1000 seeds from a second nearby reserve. However, seed failed to develop on plants at a third Wheatbelt reserve and on plants in southern populations, possibly due to drought. Seed used for research into propagation methods and ex-situ seedling establishment is stored at the BGPA seed store. Germination tests were commenced in May 2002. However, results on fungal efficacy are unknown at this point.

Mycorrhizal fungi have been isolated from section of rhizomes from four populations. However, to date efficacy of isolates has not been established.

DNA extraction from floral bracts and fungal isolates collected during the 2001 season have commenced at the BGPA to examine genetic variation in R. gardneri.

BGPA staff have commenced genetic studies which will provide invaluable information for the implementation of appropriate conservation and management practices. Preliminary results suggest that R. gardneri has a large genome which may cause problems with AFLP (a DNA fingerprinting technique) analysis. Techniques such as micro satellites may need to be developed.

A preliminary in situ seed baiting trial was conducted by BGPA staff. Results appeared promising with early signs of seed germination. However, seedlings failed to develop due to extreme drought conditions.

A two sided poster containing photographs of the species, description and threat information, and outlining current recovery actions has been produced by the Department and distributed.

Future recovery actions

Where populations occur on lands other than those managed by the Department, permission has been or will be sought from appropriate land managers prior to recovery actions being undertaken.

1. Coordinate recovery actions

The Narrogin and Esperance Districts Threatened Flora Recovery Teams (N & EDTFRTs) will oversee the implementation of recovery actions for Rhizanthella gardneri and will include information on progress in their annual report to the Department's Corporate Executive and funding bodies.

Action: Coordinate recovery actions
Responsibility: The Department (WATSCU, Narrogin and Esperance Districts) through the N & EDTFRTs
Cost: $3500 per year

2. Liaise with land managers and achieve long-term protection of habitat

Staff from the Department's Narrogin and Esperance Districts will continue liaison with land landowners and managers to ensure that populations are not accidentally damaged or destroyed. In addition, ways and means of improving the security of populations and their habitat will be investigated. This may include land purchase, conservation covenants or utilizing the Land for Wildlife scheme. Populations at Kunjin and Oldfield River are currently on unallocated Crown land and it is desirable for the long-term conservation of the species that these areas be vested in the Conservation Commission as Class A Nature Reserves for the purpose of Conservation of Flora and Fauna.

Action: Achieve long-term protection of habitat
Responsibility: The Department (Narrogin and Esperance Districts) through the N & EDTFRTs
Cost: $1000 in the first year, $200 per year thereafter. Note: if land is purchased the cost will be considerably higher.

3. Monitor populations

Annual monitoring of factors such as population stability (expansion or decline), habitat degradation, pollinator activity, seed production, recruitment, longevity and predation is essential. Particular attention should be paid to the level of threat posed by the deaths of Melaleuca uncinata.

Action: Monitor populations
Responsibility: The Department (WATSCU, Narrogin and Esperance Districts) through the N & EDTFRTs
Cost: $4,750 per year

4. Collect seed and associated mycorrhizal fungi from all populations and develop suitable long-term storage protocols

Preservation of germplasm is essential to guard against extinction if wild populations are lost. Such collections are also needed to propagate plants for translocations. A small quantity of seed has been collected from 2 populations but further collections are required from these and the other 4 populations. The collection of specific mycorrhizal fungi is also necessary as the seed requires it to germinate. Development of suitable long-term storage protocols for propagation material (seed and mycorrhizal fungi) is required.

Action: Collect seed and associated mycorrhizal fungi from all populations and develop long-term storage protocols.
Responsibility: BGPA through the N & EDTFRTs
Cost: $5,500 for the first two years and $2,000 in subsequent years

5. Obtain biological and ecological information

Improved knowledge of the biology and ecology of Rhizanthella gardneri will provide a better scientific basis for its management in the wild and will include:

  1. Studying the role of disturbance, competition, rainfall and grazing on flowering, seed production, recruitment and seedling survival.
  2. Investigating the interactions and levels of dependence of the three-way relationship between Rhizanthella gardneri, associated mycorrhizal fungi and Melaleuca uncinata.
  3. Determining the pollination biology and reproductive methodology of the species.
  4. Studying the impact of salinity and habitat degradation on Rhizanthella gardneri.
  5. Investigating seedling establishment and survival in field sites.
  6. Investigating mycorrhizal distribution and persistence in the field.

Action: Obtain biological and ecological information
Responsibility: BGPA and the Department (Narrogin and Esperance Districts) through the N & EDTFRT
Cost: $12,500 per year

6. Population genetics

Determine genetic diversity between known populations, especially southern and northern populations. This will be important for future translocation and establishment of possible new populations. Information gained will be valuable when planing translocations. The use of micro satellites may be needed to overcome problems with AFLP's and the apparent large genome size of R. gardneri increasing the time and resources required for genetic analysis.

Action: Genetic analysis of Rhizanthella gardneri plants and populations Responsibility: BGPA through the N & EDTFRT Cost: $6,000 in the first two years.

7. In situ seed germination

Seed collected in retrievable pouches from known Rhizanthella gardneri locations will be trialed to assess viability under field conditions. If successful this method may be suitable for establishing new individuals of Rhizanthella gardneri at field sites. These trials will be conducted at known Rhizanthella gardneri populations in accordance with necessary regulations and permits.

Action: Trial in situ seed germination of Rhizanthella gardneri
Responsibility: BGPA through the N & EDTFRTs
Cost: $3,500 per year

8. Conduct further surveys

Further surveys by BGPA, Departmental staff and community volunteers will be conducted during the flowering period of the species (May to July).

Action: Conduct further surveys
Responsibility: The Department (WATSCU, Narrogin and Esperance Districts) and BGPA through the N & EDTFRTs
Cost: $8,000

9. Develop and implement a translocation proposal

As the number of extant adult plants is low and populations are not secure from threats, a translocation proposal will be developed and suitable translocation sites selected. This will be coordinated by Threatened Flora Recovery teams and the Esperance and Narrogin Districts in conjunction with the BGPA. Information on the translocation of threatened plants and animals in the wild is provided in the Department's Policy Statement No. 29 Translocation of Threatened Flora and Fauna. All translocation proposals require endorsement by the Department's Director of Nature Conservation. Translocation is dependent on the development of suitable propagation protocols and the availability of appropriate translocation sites.

Action: Develop and implement a translocation proposal
Responsibility: BGPA and the Department (WATSCU, Narrogin and Esperance Districts) through the N & EDTFRTs
Cost: $7,000 in the second and $3,500 in the third and fourth years

10. Conduct research into the reasons for habitat degradation

The habitat of Rhizanthella gardneri in the areas of populations 1 and 2 is under severe threat as the Melaleuca uncinata thickets under which it grows, and on which it relies for its mycorrhizal nutrient link, is showing signs of severe stress with many mature plants dead or dying. The reasons for these deaths is unknown but may be due to either senescence, drought or rising saline water tables or a combination of all three. Research is needed to ascertain the causes so that management decisions can be made to reverse the trend.

Action: Conduct research into the reasons for habitat degradation
Responsibility: The Department (Science Division, Narrogin and Esperance Districts) through the N & EDTFRTs
Cost: $8,000 for the first two years

11. Develop and implement a fire management strategy

The effect of fire on plants of Rhizanthella gardneri and associated native species is unknown, however, one southern population has not reappeared following fire and fire should, if possible, be prevented from occurring in the area of populations until more is known about its affect. A fire management strategy will be developed to determine fire control measures and fire frequency.

Action: Develop and implement a fire management strategy
Responsibility: The Department (Narrogin and Esperance Districts) through the N & EDTFRTs
Cost: $2,400 in the first year and $1,000 in subsequent years (if required)

12. Undertake weed control

Weeds are a minor threat in all populations. The following actions will be implemented:

  1. Appropriate herbicides will be selected after determining which weeds are present.
  2. Weed control will be scheduled to include spraying of other threatened flora populations within the district.

Action: Undertake weed control
Responsibility: The Department (Narrogin and Esperance Districts) through the N & EDTFRTs
Cost: $1500 per year (if required)

13. Rehabilitate habitat

If identified as a need during monitoring the Department will undertake habitat restoration including the re-introduction of endemic plant species to the site.

Action: Rehabilitate habitat
Responsibility: The Department (Narrogin and Esperance Districts) through the N & EDTFRTs
Cost: $6000 per year (if required)

14. Promote awareness

The importance of biodiversity conservation and the need for the long-term protection of wild populations of this taxon will be promoted to the community through poster displays and the local print and electronic media. Formal links with local naturalist groups and interested individuals will also be encouraged. An information sheet, which includes a description of the plant, its habitat, threats, recovery actions has been produced and distributed.

A reply paid postal drop illustrating Rhizanthella gardneri and describing its distinctive features and habitat will be produced and distributed by the Department's Narrogin and Esperance District offices to local farmers and other residents in Shires containing possible habitat of the taxon. The identification of any populations found through this action will be confirmed by staff from Narrogin and Esperance Districts. Postal drops aim to stimulate interest, provide information about threatened species and provide a name and number to contact if new populations are found by members of the community.

Action: Promote awareness
Responsibility: The Department (WATSCU, Narrogin and Esperance Districts) through the N & EDTFRTs
Cost: $1,300 in first year and $1,000 in subsequent years

15. Review the need for a full Recovery Plan and prepare if necessary

At the end of the fourth year of the five-year term of this Interim Recovery Plan, if the taxon is still ranked as Critically Endangered, the need for a full Recovery Plan or a review of this IRP will be assessed and a plan prepared if necessary.

Action: Review the need for a full Recovery Plan and prepare if necessary
Responsibility: The Department (WATSCU, Narrogin and Esperance Districts) through the N & EDTFRTs
Cost: $21,300 in the fifth year (if required)