Humming incubators and climate-controlled cool rooms: the other side of conservation

The one process now going on that will take millions of years to correct is the loss of genetic and species diversity by the destruction of natural habitats.
This is the folly our descendants are least likely to forgive us.

E.O. Wilson

When I envision biodiversity conservation, I think of the outdoors: planting trees, surveying for animals, and listening for frogs in the cool twilight hours.

What didn’t come to mind was the importance of genetic diversity, and how I could possibly contribute to this cause as a volunteer.

… It would appear the internet would agree with me! A simple image search of the words “conservation opportunities” is dominated by images of outdoor conservation activities (Photo credit: Google images).

… It would appear the internet would agree with me! A simple image search of the words “conservation opportunities” is dominated by images of outdoor conservation activities (Photo credit: Google images).

Yet genes are one of the three fundamental levels of biodiversity. In the fight to conserve biodiversity in our ever-degrading world, the protection of genetic diversity is fundamental to ensuring the prevention of genetic bottlenecks and extinctions. The conservation of flora in particular is crucial for the ongoing preservation of ecosystem structure, climate and carbon regulation, habitat provision for wildlife, and as a resource for human use.

The quandong (Santalum acuminatum) is one of the many rare species of flora that are declining in central Australia. Known for its distinctive bright-red edible fruits, wild populations of the quandong are becoming increasingly isolated, resulting in a lack of seed recruitment and natural regeneration.

The quandong tree is a hemi-parasite, meaning it relies on the roots of a host plant to obtain nutrients but is also capable of photosynthesising. Its characteristic red fruits are edible and sweet, and often used for making jam (Photo credit: Aus-e-made).

The quandong tree is a hemi-parasite, meaning it relies on the roots of a host plant to obtain nutrients but is also capable of photosynthesising. Its characteristic red fruits are edible and sweet, and often used for making jam (Photo credit: Aus-e-made).

Within the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, there are a mere 8 healthy individuals remaining. Significant threatening processes to the quandong include inappropriate fire regimes, weed invasion, human interference and damage, and enhanced grazing pressures from rabbits and camels, keen to eat to the sweet fruit.

The distribution of the quandong spreads across much of the arid centre and south of the continent, with declining fragmented populations in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National park in the southern Northern Territory (Photo credit: Atlas of Living Australia).

The distribution of the quandong spreads across much of the arid centre and south of the continent, with declining fragmented populations in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National park in the southern Northern Territory (Photo credit: Atlas of Living Australia).

Enter the National Seed Bank.

Situated within the Australian National Botanical Gardens, the National Seed Bank is responsible for the storage and supply of seed collections, ecological and biological research of seeds and plants, and the propagation of seedlings for research and transplanting, within the Botanical Gardens and beyond.

My project worked on a number of accessions of quandong seed obtained from the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The aim was to germinate as many seedlings as possible for translocation back to the Park, in an attempt to rehabilitate dwindling quandong populations.

The process included researching prior germination methods for the species, recording seed details, preparing the seed for germination, and photographing the resultant seed variation.

Not much to show for a couple of hours work! Preparing the seed by removing the red-brown fibrous outer fruit was necessary to expose the inner seed and speed up germination (Photo credit to the author).

Not much to show for a couple of hours work! Preparing the seed by removing the red-brown fibrous outer fruit was necessary to expose the inner seed and speed up germination (Photo credit to the author).

A float test was conducted to verify the viability of the prepared seeds. Viable seeds were then treated in a water bath for 18 hours at 60oC, packed in tubes of sphagnum moss, and placed the incubator to germinate. Every week, the seeds were assessed for germination, a process that can take a number of weeks.

Photographs of the seeds, with and without fruits, were taken for National Seed Bank records, and to showcase the variation in seed form produced by each of the parent trees (Photo credit: T. North, National Seed Bank).

Photographs of the seeds, with and without fruits, were taken for National Seed Bank records, and to showcase the variation in seed form produced by each of the parent trees (Photo credit: T. North, National Seed Bank).

The seeds are germinated in tubes filled with sphagnum moss, with two layers of five seeds each per tube (Photo credit to the author).

The seeds are germinated in tubes filled with sphagnum moss, with two layers of five seeds each per tube (Photo credit to the author).

Should this project prove successful, it has the potential to set a standard for future quandong germination and rehabilitation. However, as the weeks tick on, and we are still awaiting germination, there has been concern that the seed has become sterile, been incorrectly stored, or are not viable.

Although the concept of translocation is a common method of vegetation rehabilitation, this project has highlighted the difficulties in germinating some forms of seed, which we often take for granted when planting seedlings. While the germination is still continuing, it may help to inform future conservation methods of the quandong, and the conservation of other difficult, but vitally important, native flora.

In indigenous Australian culture, bush food such as the quandong play an important role in the communication of knowledge to future generation. Ensuring the viability of wild populations is therefore important not only for biodiversity conservation, but also for the heritage and cultural identities for Australia’s oldest people (Photo credit: flickr).

In indigenous Australian culture, bush food such as the quandong play an important role in the communication of knowledge to future generation. Ensuring the viability of wild populations is therefore important not only for biodiversity conservation, but also for the heritage and cultural identities for Australia’s oldest people (Photo credit: flickr).

And for all those out there who are curious about the uses of the quandong fruit, the following video even has a recipe for quandong pie!

 By Madeleine Hearnden u5023546

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About Biodiversity Conservation Blog

I am an Associate Professor at The Australian National University and convene a (very awesome) course called Biodiversity Conservation. Myself and students in the course contribute to this blog.
This entry was posted in biodiversity conservation, national seed bank and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Humming incubators and climate-controlled cool rooms: the other side of conservation

  1. Chloe says:

    Interesting piece and very valuable work. After reading through your blog, what might be some of the ecological or ecosystem consequences of losing the threatened quandong?

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