'Not adapting': Extinction fears for 20 native species

·News and Video Producer
·2-min read

Climate change could wipe out 20 Australian native plants in the coming decades if urgent action isn’t taken to reduce rising temperatures and longer seasons, a researcher is warning.

Having taken root above the tree line on Mount Kosciuszko National Park in southern NSW, most with an elevation of about 1800 metres, cooler areas are not available for the plants to migrate into.

While some of the plants are also found in New Zealand, their days in Australia could be numbered. 

While the alpine grevillea (left) has not adapted to climate change star plantain (right) did. Source: Casey Kirchhoff/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC
While the alpine grevillea (left) has not adapted to climate change star plantain (right) did. Source: Casey Kirchhoff/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC

Of the 21 species studied, all but one, star plantain, have shown no ability to adapt positively to their changing circumstances, Australian National University PhD research scholar Meena Sritharan said.

“So if they can’t move up towards a higher elevation, and they’re not changing, it looks like they’re not actually adapting to rapid changes in climate,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

“If that’s the case we might actually lose many of these species in the next several decades if climate warming continues.”

The alpine rice flower (left) and murnong (right) are two species that researchers are concerned about. Source: Casey Kirchhoff/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC
The alpine rice flower (left) and murnong (right) are two species that researchers are concerned about. Source: Casey Kirchhoff/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC

Ms Sritharan said the plants play “a really important role” in the ecosystem, supporting insects, which attract mammals, who in turn are eaten by other predators.

She said the world’s lack of action on climate change is “frustrating” as it doesn’t look like anything will be done soon to significantly reverse current trends.

Feral species introduced into the national park are also impacting the environment, leading her to call for measures to protect surviving native plants. 

'Bleak future': Researchers urge climate-change action

Specimens collected between 1890 and 2016 were compared with modern samples picked in 2017 as part of the study published in the journal Ecology and Evolution.

Plants studied included Cushion Caraway (Oreomyrrhis pulvinifica), Alpine Rice flower (Pimelea alpine), Carpet Heath (Pentrachondra pumila) and Snow Aciphyll (Aciphylla glacialis).

Samples from the last 125 years of plants including mountain celery (left) and billy buttons (right). Source: Casey Kirchhoff/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC
Samples from the last 125 years of plants including mountain celery (left) and billy buttons (right). Source: Casey Kirchhoff/iNaturalist, CC BY-NC

Only one plant, Star Plantain, had grown to a larger size to combat rising temperatures, while another, Cascade Everlasting, had actually decreased in leaf thickness over a 125-year period.

“We predicted leaves would become more thicker, as this would be advantageous if plants were facing longer growing seasons and increasing temperatures,” Ms Sritharan said.

“Our findings suggest that native alpine plants may not be adapting to the substantial local climate change occurring in Australian alpine regions.

“Australian native alpine plants face a bleak future in the face of rapid climate change.”

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