Phycologist visiting the Herbarium

The State Herbarium of South Australia has the largest and most varied collection of specimens of the algae tribe Polysiphonieae in all of Australia, largely due to the detailed work of H.B.S. Womersley and his encyclopaedic work The Marine Benthic Flora of Southern Australia (1984–2003).

Tolypiocladia glomerulata, a widespread species, also found in Australia (WA, NT, Qld). Photo: Moorea Biocode, French Polynesia (EOL), CC-BY-NC-SA.

This week, Dr Yola Metti from the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney is visiting the State Herbarium to study the valuable specimens housed here. Specifically, Dr Metti will look at the morphological differences within and between the genera of the tribe Polysiphonieae, as well as detailed distributions of each species.

In 2016, Yola received a 3-year postdoctoral grant from the Australian Biological Resources Study (ABRS). She and her collaborators, from S Korea, USA, PERTH, MELU and NSW, will be working on the systematics of the tribe Polysiphonieae (Rhodomelaceae, Rhodophyta) of Australia in both marine and non-marine environments.  This project will determine species and genus-level taxonomy and phylogenetic relationships within the tribe Polysiphonieae (Rhodomelaceae, Rhodophyta) within Australia, including both marine and nonmarine taxa.  It will result in the first detailed, taxonomic study of an extremely diverse and difficult group in Australia.

The tribe Polysiphonieae is a cosmopolitan red algae and contains 15 genera and over 300 species; 11 genera encompassing 81 species are recorded for Australia, though there would appear to be several dozen undescribed taxa. The tribe in Australia has many problematic species, and there is a great deal of uncertainty in the application of names and distribution of taxa. Morphological characters are conflicting and highly variable, making identifications through molecular markers critical. Worldwide studies indicate that the larger genera are polyphyletic, prompting revision of the group outside Australia and resulting in new genera. The group has poorly defined genera and many of the Australian endemic genera are not represented in published analyses.

Echinothamnion hystrix. found in Australia (WA, SA, Vic., Tas.) and New Zealand. Photo: J. Huisman, Esperance, Western Australia (Algaebase).

In addition to the taxonomic issues mentioned above, the relationships between marine and non-marine taxa are uncertain: we don’t even know if they are the same species? Polysiphonieae are an important component of waterways and are used as eutrophication indicators. They are fouling organisms that can become invasive and damaging to the environment, fisheries and tourism. In Australia, the group is rarely targeted for taxonomic study, but is often collected by workers surveying aquatic habitats.

No global study of the tribe has been completed, though large amounts of data are available. Bringing together this data is required to understand the taxonomy of the group. This Australian-wide study, that will incorporate the high diversity found here along with the world-wide available data, will be key to the understanding of the tribe.

Yola Metti during field work. Photo: Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney (Instagram).

Contributed by Yola Metti, Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney

Conserving a species is hard if you don’t know it exists!

Over 200 years ago the botanist Robert Brown, collected many specimens of Australian plants that were then new to science. One of those specimens, a plant to become known as a species of the genus Hibbertia or guinea-flowers (common name), was collected near Sydney.  Sadly, Brown was one of the first and last scientists to officially see that particular species alive, with the final recorded collection in 1823. An apparent casualty of the development of the Sydney area, it was subsequently and sadly believed to be extinct.

Hibbertia fumana, line-drawing by Gilbert Dashorst (scale bar: 1cm).

State Herbarium of South Australia’s Honorary Research Associate, 77-year-old Dr Hellmut Toelken, is an authority on Hibbertia. His taxonomic research on the numerous collected and preserved specimens held in Australian and overseas herbaria (remember Australia didn’t have any official herbaria in the early days of settlement, so all the original collections of Australian plants went to overseas herbaria, like the British Natural History Museum or Kew Gardens) lead him to re-examine these old specimens—one of the scientific benefits of having collected specimens stored in perpetuity—and to describe the plant as Hibbertia fumana in 2012 (Toelken & Miller, J. Adelaide Bot. Gard. 25 (2012) 71-96, 1.8mb PDF).

Hellmut had an inkling from past experience that once a species is properly described and published, it is often rediscovered. And sure enough, using his new identification key, a population of 370 plants was found in a small remnant of native vegetation on Sydney’s south-west fringe in late 2016, and provisionally listed as critically endangered in December last year. The discovery also generated some controversy, which demonstrates the importance of having up-to-date taxonomic knowledge (see also articles in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Guardian).

Hibbertia fumana, flower and bud. Photo: A.E. Orme.

Taxonomic discovery can also teach us much about the evolution of our landscapes and past climates (and test our comfortable assumptions!). It also shows us how important it is to have well documented preserved specimens to refer back to, particularly when extraordinary discoveries require extraordinary proof.

Hibbertia hirsuta, showing the very reduced, small florwer. Photo: Key to Tasmanian vascular plants web-site.

A number of small scattered populations of another seemingly new species of South Australian Hibbertia were recently ‘discovered’ along Meadows Creek in the southern Mount Lofty Ranges. Hellmut investigated, and it came as a big surprise when the small, ground-hugging plant was identified as hairy guinea-flower or Hibbertia hirsuta, a species that was previously only know from Tasmania — or was it…

In writing the scientific paper announcing this discovery (Toelken, J. Adelaide Bot. Gard. 27 (2014) 35-39, 760kb PDF), research in botanical literature uncovered several publications by early botanists Ferdinand von Mueller and Ralph Tate in the late 1800s. Surprisingly these papers showed that the very same populations had been discovered then with collections made by Tate and Johann Gottlieb Otto Tepper in 1881 (the specimens proving this were housed in the National Herbarium of Victoria, Melbourne, as the South Australian herbarium didn’t exist then). For reasons unknown these collections were overlooked in subsequent botanical publications and the species was effectively ‘lost’ from South Australia until its rediscovery in 2014.

Hibbertia hirsuta with immature fruits at Kuitpo forest. Photo: SA Seedbank.

The other surprise of course is how a species came to occur in two such widely separated localities! Hairy guinea-flower has never been recorded in Victoria, even though it is geographically closer to Tasmania and has a similar climate. Unlike other hibbertias, hairy guinea-flower has very small non-showy flowers and being a ground-cover plant, it may yet lie undiscovered in other areas. At least now Hellmut has updated our knowledge and documentation, which will greatly increase the chance of this happening.

The research into the genus Hibbertia is a good example of how new species are discovered and the impacts that knowledge can have. Back when the last hard-copy edition of the Flora of South Australia was printed in 1986, about 110 species of Hibbertia were recognised in Australia, Madagascar, New Guinea and New Caledonia. As a result of this ongoing research the tally has now gone beyond 300 species in Australia alone and a new record for Fiji, but there is still much work to be done.

Contributed by Peter Canty, Manager, State Herbarium

Invasive Grass Workshop in the APY Lands

The following article on the work of our weeds botanist appeared this week in Palya, the electronic newsletter of Natural Resources Alinytjara Wilurara (AW NRM)…

Contracted by AW NRM, land management experts from Rural Solutions SA delivered an Invasive Grass Workshop in the APY Lands late last year.

The group travelled in convoy from Ernabella to the Warru Pintji (fenced enclosure for black-footed rock wallabies). APY Land Management (APY LM) helped to organise and transport participants out to the site, and also assisted with workshop delivery.

Warru Ranger Magda Zabek talked to the group about the warru program and how her teams manage Buffel grass control inside the fence. The rangers spend around two weeks a year spraying Buffel grass using a mix of chemicals sprayed from back packs.

Chris Brodie (SA herbarium) explaining how to press grass species. Photo: Palya, AW NRM.

Traditional Owner, Donald Fraser explained how Buffel had spread rapidly since the 1970’s. He suggested that the donkeys that roam around the Pintji might be used to graze Buffel grass down.

Chris Brodie (State Herbarium) demonstrated how to collect and press samples for identification and showed the group different grass species that grow/could grow in the APY Lands. The group then discussed any weeds that participants had or hadn’t seen on their country.

James Kidman (APY LM) demonstrated how to most effectively dig up Buffel plants to minimize the spread of seeds. Each plant can contain thousands of seeds. Participants collected wood and burnt the plants they had removed. James emphasised that it was important to have the fire really hot in order to kill the plant and destroy the seeds.

The workshop was funded through the Federal Government Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper.

Plant of the Month: April 2017

The State Herbarium of South Australia‘s Plant of the Month for April 2017 is Leptospermum lanigerum, a species that also occus in DEWNR’s Park of the Month, Deep Creek Conservation Park.

Leptospermum lanigerum near the SA-Vic. border. Photo: C.C. Clarke, ALA.

Leptospermum lanigerum (Aiton) Sm. has the common names of “silky” or “woolly tea-tree”. It is found in Deep Creek Conservation Park along its permanent creeks, around its waterfalls and in its swamps. There it is often associated with other wetland species such as Eucalyptus ovata, Leucopogon lanceolatus, Correa eburnea, Goodenia ovata and Blechnum ferns.

L. lanigerum, seeds. Photo: SA Seedbank.

The plant’s scientific name is derived the Greek words “leptos” and “sperma” meaning “slender seed”, which directly relates to the seeds of the type species L. scoparium, but also applies to L. lanigerum; “lanigerum” is from Latin for wool–bearing, describing the hairy fruit, buds and leaves of the species. The genus is commonly called “tea-trees”, a name which originated from the crews of Captain Cooks voyages who brewed tea from the leaves in an attempt to prevent scurvy.

L. lanigerum, flower, Photo: R.Wiltshire, Wikimedia (CC-BY-SA).

The silky tea-tree occurs from the Mt Lofty ranges east to Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania. The Type was from material cultivated in Kew Gardens from Cook’s second voyage in 1773 after seed was collected by Captain Furneaux of the HMS Adventure in Tasmania, so becoming the first Leptospermum brought into cultivation.

In South Australia, it grows into a small tree but can become quite large in springs on Western Kangaroo Island. Its white flowers are prominent in late spring and attract many insect pollinators such as jewel beetles. The seeds are held in woody capsules and are released after fire or other disturbances, but the species also possess lignotubers and epicormic buds and can grow back quickly after fire.

As its common name describes, the silky tea-tree’s hairy leaves gives the plant an attractive grey-silver sheen, it commonly grows with the greener foliaged “prickly tea-tree” Leptospermum continentale, and hybrids with intermediate characters are fairly common. A green variant of L. lanigerum also occurs in the South-east of South Australia and Western Victoria and was considered by Joy Thompson in a revision of the genus (Telopea 3(3): 301-449, 1986, 17.7mb PDF) to be a possible relict influence of L. nitidum that now occurs in Tasmania.

L. lanigerum, fruit. Photo: Lyn Allison, ALA.

The recent high prices for New Zealand’s Manuka honey from L. scoparium has created much ongoing interest and research into Australian Leptospermum species. Many Australian species have been found to have significant levels of DHA (dihydroxyacetone), with one website report noting that L. lanigerum “ticks many boxes”. Selection of high yielding populations and breeding programmes are continuing (see ABC report).

Note that the related species Leptospermum laevigatum (coastal tea-tree) from Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales, is a highly invasive weed in most Australian states and now declared in South Australia (580kb PDF fact sheet from Biosecurity SA).

Contributed by Martin O’Leary.

What does it mean to be a botanist?

From time to time, we get enquiries from students about our job as a botanist.  State Herbarium of South Australia staff member Chelsea Novice answered these questions recently…

What qualifications do you need to become a botanist?

Botanists Peter Lang and Chelsea Novice working late nights during the Bush Blitz expedition to Lake Torrens in 2016. — Click on images to read more.

Our botanists have a range of backgrounds and qualifications. An education in science is typical and beneficial. Some individuals, however, have interests in a particular group of plants, leading them to a lifelong passion and profession in botany.

Personally, I studied a Bachelor of Science (Marine Biology) with Honours. This lead to an opportunity to work as a researcher in marine botany at the State Herbarium. Now I am employed as a qualified researcher and curation officer, working with many botanists and helping out on amazing projects.

Does botany as a profession allow you to branch out to other jobs if you wanted to?

It is common for a botanist to become very specialised in their area of work. We have botanists who focus on weeds, native terrestrial flora, marine algae, mosses, lichens and fungi, to name a few. This is because some species or groups of plants may be very complex, they may require intensive study to understand them. There are many questions Botanists work on and think about, for example:

  • What species is it?
  • Is it a new species?
  • How does it grow?
  • How does it reproduce, how is it pollinated and by whom?
  • Has its structure and appearance changed over time?
  • Is it native or an introduced weed?

Answering these questions builds new knowledge that can, and are, be used in many other areas of science.

Goodenia valdentata, a new species from inland South Australia, described by Peter in 2014. Photo: SA Seedbank.

Approximately how many hours does a botanist work per week and how long have you been working in this field?

Botany is a mixture of love and full time dedication. Most of our botanists are full time workers. We have retired botanists who continue to work in their retirement years, as the job can become very addictive and there is just so much more to discover.

For me personally, full time is 37.5 hours a week. I have been in this field for 6 years, working on a variety of projects.

Leading up to the position, I undertook full time study with lots and lots of work experience.

Some of our botanists also like to ‘botanise’ in their personal time, it depends on each individual.

Chelsea in the herbarium vaults, with a very large algae specimen.

What are some daily activities of a botanist?

A daily routine can have many different tasks and is generally based on what needs the most research. These can include:

What school subjects should be chosen to get a job as a botanist?

Anything-science related is a positive start, e.g. biology or chemistry. Art subjects are also great, as science and art can go very well together. English would be beneficial as good writing-skills are needed.

I chose biology, chemistry, art studies & English, and was luckily enough to have subjects such as agricultural science, when attending Urrbrae Agricultural High School.

Many of our botanists also have continued their studies to complete postgraduate degrees in science such as Masters or PhD programs. This involves several years of intensive research study at a recognised University.

Peter with his plant presses, waiting to board the helicopter during the Bush Blitz expedition in 2016.

What are the challenges faced working as a botanist?

Botany, like most jobs, can sometimes involve very tedious work. For example, in the herbarium we undertake a lot of information-recording and recording of data. Botanists also spend time writing reports or research papers to share their work with others.

As is the nature of science, sometimes the work botanists undertake can be complicated as research doesn’t always discover the answers you thought you would find – leading to more questions.

2016 State Herbarium Summer Scholarship students Sarah Harvey & Jessica Burdon

What are the positives of the job?

The job involves many different skill-sets and can include both field work and office work, it rarely gets boring.

You are also surrounded by similar-minded people, all on a mission to discover the secret life of plants (or other flora) and that can be very special.

Do you have any advice for young inspiring botanists?

Having an interest in botany and nature is a fantastic start. Take up as many opportunities as you can through work experience or volunteering to get a feel if the career path is right for you.