Biodiversity Theme Report

Australia State of the Environment Report 2001 (Theme Report)
Prepared by: Dr Jann Williams, RMIT University, Authors
Published by CSIRO on behalf of the Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001
ISBN 0 643 06749 3

Biodiversity Issues and Challenges (continued)

Protecting Biodiversity (continued)

Ecosystem diversity

  • Ecosystems: What do they provide?
  • Ecosystem diversity
  • Number and extent of ecological communities of high conservation potential
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    Ecosystems: What do they provide?

    Ecosystems provide the ecological functions and processes on which consumptive and productive values depend (see A classification and examples of ecosystem services box below). These functions include photosynthetic fixation, pollination, gene flow, predation, competition, maintenance of water cycles, provision of nurseries for commercial fish species (in mangroves and coral reefs in particular), regulation of climate and carbon sequestration, soil production and protection, support of symbiotic fungi essential for plant growth, storage and cycling of essential nutrients, and the absorption, breakdown and dispersal of organic wastes, pesticides, air pollutants and water pollutants, and control of crop and livestock pests through predation.

    The Sharmans of Spreyton in Tasmania led community tree-planting programs to reverse the loss of habitat trees and sources of food for the endangered Swift Parrot (Lathamus discolor)

    The Sharmans of Spreyton in Tasmania led community tree-planting programs to reverse the loss of habitat trees and sources of food for the endangered Swift Parrot (Lathamus discolor). Mrs Sharman is recently deceased.

    Source: TW Norton

    Ecosystems provide many products that do not pass through a market, termed consumptive values. The most important direct uses are food, medicine, fuel and building materials. Consumptive values are usually more diverse and depend on a much wider spectrum of the available biota than do market-based patterns of use. Many people, particularly those who live in traditional ways such as some Australian Indigenous peoples, depend directly on the natural environment for live game, firewood, edible plants, medicines, building materials, materials for weapons and transport, cultural and spiritual items, raw materials for other technology and trade goods. Natural ecosystems also provide opportunities for aesthetic, recreational and tourist use, founded on the accessibility, composition and appearance of Australian species, ecosystems and landscapes. Tourist use of natural environments is part of Australia's largest export-earning industry (see also Species of economic importance).

    A classification and examples of ecosystem services

    Production of goods

    Food: Terrestrial animal and plant products, forage, seafood, spice

    Pharmaceuticals: Medicines, precursors to synthetic drugs

    Durable materials: Natural fibre, timber

    Energy: Biomass fuels, low-sediment water for hydropower

    Industrial products: Waxes, oils, fragrances, dyes, latex, rubber, precursors to many synthetic products

    Genetic resources: The basis for the production of other goods

    Regeneration processes

    Cycling and filtration processes: Detoxification and decomposition of wastes, renewal of soil fertility, purification of air and water

    Translocation processes: Dispersal of seeds necessary for revegetation, pollination of crops and native vegetation

    Stabilising processes

    Coastal and river channel stability, compensation and substitution of one species for another when environments vary, control of most potential pest species, moderation of weather extremes (e.g. temperature and wind), partial stabilisation of climate, regulation of the hydrological cycle (mitigation of floods, droughts and salinity).

    Life-fulfilling functions

    Aesthetic beauty, cultural, intellectual, and spiritual inspiration, existence value, scientific discovery, serenity.

    Preservation of options

    Maintenance of ecological components and systems needed for the future, supply of goods and services awaiting discovery.

    Source: after Daily (1999) by Cork and Shelton (2000).

    Ecosystems provide services that are more difficult to quantify and explain than those outlined above. They include cultural, spiritual, experiential and existence values. Natural environments in Australia include sites of religious, spiritual and cultural significance, especially for Indigenous people. In its submission to the Resources Assessment Commission, the Australian Heritage Commission (AHC) defined cultural heritage values as: 'features which are sacred to Aboriginal people, prehistoric archaeological sites going back to as far as 30 000 years, and material remains of historic activity since European settlement'.

    Since 1998, several projects have started on the role of ecosystem services. Cork and Shelton (2000) reported that the Myer Foundation has provided seed funding for a project on ecosystem services, The Nature and Value of Australia's Ecosystem Services, involving CSIRO, land managers, community groups, scientists and economists.

    Ecosystem diversity [BD Indicator 11.1]

    Ecosystems can be defined in several ways. Typically, and for convenience, ecosystems may be defined by different vegetation types and marine and freshwater habitat types. These types of ecosystems can be quantified at a continental scale, regional scale or landscape level. Compared with many other parts of the world, ecosystem diversity in Australia is high. In Queensland, for example, there are 13 terrestrial bioregions and 1085 regional vegetation ecosystems (Sattler & Williams 1999). These include rainforests of the wet tropics, vine thickets of the Brigalow Belt and coastal wetlands, a number of which may occur on offshore islands. A comparable level of marine ecosystem diversity is yet to be undertaken in Queensland, but the diversity of marine habitat types may be higher given the presence of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem and the range in water depths, sea currents and other environmental gradients encompassed.

    When completed, the National Vegetation Information System (NVIS) will provide a national overview of terrestrial vegetation types at the bioregional scale. NVIS is being developed by the NLWRA in collaboration with Agriculture, Fisheries and Forests Australia and the states and territories. For the first time, a consistent, nationally agreed vegetation classification will be produced, along with a set of core vegetation attributes. Monitoring the condition of rangeland systems is the most advanced, with both production and conservation values being addressed. Reporting on marine habitats will be further down the track as many aquatic and marine ecosystems remain relatively unexplored, as well as some terrestrial ecosystems such as cliff faces (see Unexplored ecosystems: Seamounts and terrestrial cliffs).

    Number and extent of ecological communities of high conservation potential [BD Indicator 11.2]

    Many Australian vegetation communities have high biodiversity significance. At the regional, state and territory level, many communities have been formally identified for priority reservation. There are also a number of 'grey' lists of threatened communities (e.g. from the assessments undertaken through the RFA process and from Queensland and Western Australian agencies). At a continental level, there are 27 threatened ecological communities that have been listed recently under the Commonwealth government's EPBC Act (Table 57).

    Table 57: Threatened ecological communities listed in 2001, under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999
    The Scientific Committee's advice to the Minister regarding the listing of each of these ecological communities is also available.
    Aquatic Root Mat Community 1 in Caves of the Leeuwin Naturaliste Ridge
    Aquatic Root Mat Community 2 in Caves of the Leeuwin Naturaliste Ridge
    Aquatic Root Mat Community 3 in Caves of the Leeuwin Naturaliste Ridge
    Aquatic Root Mat Community 4 in Caves of the Leeuwin Naturaliste Ridge
    Aquatic Root Mat Community in Caves of the Swan Coastal Plain
    Assemblages of plants and invertebrate animals of tumulus (organic mound) springs of the Swan Coastal Plain
    Bluegrass (Dicanthium) Dominant Grasslands of the Brigalow Belt Bioregions (North and South)
    Brigalow (Acacia harpophylla dominant and codominant)
    Buloke Woodlands of the Riverina and Murray-Darling Depression Bioregions
    Corymbia calophylla - Kingia australis Woodlands on heavy soils of the Swan Coastal Plain
    Corymbia calophylla - Xanthorrhea preissii Woodlands and Shrublands of the Swan Coastal Plain
    Cumberland Plain Woodlands
    Eastern Stirling Range Montane Heath and Thicket
    Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub of the Sydney Region
    Grassy White Box Woodlands
    Natural Temperate Grassland of the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory
    Perched Wetlands of the Wheat belt region with extensive stands of living sheoak and paperbark across the lake floor (Toolibin Lake)
    Sedgelands in Holocene dune swales of the southern Swan Coastal Plain
    Semi-evergreen Vine Thickets of the Brigalow Belt (North and South) and Nandewar Bioregions
    Shale/Sandstone Transition Forest
    Shrublands and Woodlands of the eastern Swan Coastal Plain
    Shrublands and Woodlands on Muchea Limestone of the Swan Coastal Plain
    Shrublands and Woodlands on Perth to Gingin ironstone (Perth to Gingin ironstone association) of the Swan Coastal Plain
    Shrublands on southern Swan Coastal Plain ironstones
    Silurian Limestone Pomaderris Shrubland of the South East Corner and Australian Alps Bioregions
    The community of native species dependent on natural discharge of ground water from the Great Artesian Basin
    Thrombolite (microbial) community of coastal freshwater lakes of the Swan Coastal Plain (Lake Richmond)

    Source: Wildlife Australia, Environment Australia (

    Sites that qualify as centres of diversity are geographically defined regions that contain many endemic species (see Endemism). One difficulty in selecting areas for protection is that the sites of endemism and richness for different taxa usually do not occur in the same place (Prendergast et al. 1993). For example, areas of tropical rainforests in northern Queensland are renowned for their extraordinary plant and bird diversity and these areas now have World Heritage Status and are well protected. However, areas of wet sclerophyll forest that border the margins of tropical rainforest are not protected yet support rich endemic bat and ant faunas (Harrington, pers. comm., in Burgman & Lindenmayer 1998).