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Fire reveals rare species of the Australian Alps

Snow speedwell. Photo: N. Walsh
Alpine cress. Photo: N. Walsh
Mountain storks-bill. Photo: N. Walsh
Three previously rare species found after the 2003 fires in the Australian Alps (from top to bottom): snow speedwell, alpine cress and mountain storks-bill
Photos: N. Walsh

Fire is traditionally viewed as a stranger to the alpine plant communities of south-eastern Australia. However, the wildfires of 2003 and 2007 are suggestive of more regular burning in our warming climate. What will this mean for the rare species of the Australian Alps?

In 2003, the alpine areas of Victoria and adjacent areas in New South Wales experienced fires of unprecedented intensity and extent. While this was a tragedy, it also allowed an opportunity to understand the biology of some of the area’s rarer plants.

Several species, previously exceedingly rare in the Alps, were found to be relatively common following the fire. This provided an opportunity to gather rare seeds and attempt to understand the mechanisms by which seeds can lie dormant – often for many decades – between fires in alpine areas.

Normally rare species, previously known from only a handful of collections prior to the 2003 fires, were noted across many sites through the alpine region in the season following the fires. These included:

  • native wintercress (Barbarea grayi)
  • snow speedwell (Derwentia nivea)
  • alpine cress (Drabastrum alpestre)
  • elusive cress (Irenepharsus magicus)
  • mountain storks-bill (Pelargonium helmsii).

Victorian Conservation Seedbank staff investigated the cues required to break seed dormancy of these species. A complex combination of temperature and chemical stimuli enabled these species to be germinated in the laboratory, allowing speculation on how these conditions might be provided in nature.

An increasing frequency of fires in the Alps may be expected under a warming climate. This underlines the need for conservation of rare species, and the need to better understand their seed biology to prevent their extinction.