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June 23, 2024

Help save the Big Scrub rainforest with science

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Left Maurizio Rossetto (Botanic Gardens of Sydney) Right Mark Dunphy (Big Scrub Rainforest Conservancy). Photo supplied

There is only one per cent of the Big Scrub rainforest in Northern New South Wales remaining. This has left what were once mighty rainforests now critically endangered and facing the threat of extinction because of a serious lack of genetic diversity.

Aerial of McLeans Ridges Science Saving Rainforests Plantation Site. Photo supplied

Taking on this challenge to maintain and create greater genetic diversity, and hence a healthier future for the Big Scrub rainforests of Northern NSW, is a world-first Australian project, Science Saving Rainforests.

‘The idea is to repair the genetic diversity destroyed by land clearing, help save threatened species and grow a new generation of rainforest trees more resilient to threats like disease, pests and climate change, to reinvigorate the species found in the Big Scrub rainforest,’ said Mark Dunphy, co-founder and president Big Scrub Rainforest Conservancy when he spoke to The Echo.

‘We are using genetic testing to ensure we have the healthiest and strongest of a particular species, as well as ensuring that we have 95 per cent of the genetic material for that species, therefore allowing us to increase the health of the species.

‘The problem can be that sometimes there is only one of a particular tree species, within a remnant of Big Scrub rainforest. They can only reproduce themselves; the lack of genetic diversity leads to inbreeding which, as with any species, can lead to problems emerging. The idea is to bolster the genetic diversity and reinvigorate the species – good genetics within your stock ensures you have a healthy range of species.’

Mark Dunphy, President & Co-Founder, Big Scrub Rainforest Conservancy. Photo supplied

10,000 samples

Nearly 10,000 leaf samples from 60 species of rainforest trees have been collected between Southern NSW and Far North Queensland and their genetic make-up is being analysed using the very latest genome-based science. The outcome will be to find the most genetically diverse trees, collect cuttings from them to grow on and subsequently plant in a macadamia-style plantation.

Seed produced will be provided to commercial nurseries to grow resilient trees for future planting projects. 

The concept was the brainchild of Dr Tony Parkes (AO), co-founder and President Emeritus of Big Scrub Rainforest Conservancy, one of Australia’s leading not-for-profit community conservation organisations. The Conservancy have joined forces with the Botanic Gardens of Sydney, Firewheel Rainforest Nursery and one of Australia’s leading rainforest evolutionary and field ecologists, Dr Rob Kooyman.

McLeans Ridges Science Saving Rainforests Plantation Site. Photo supplied

Generous donation

A 38-acre plantation site at McLeans Ridge, near Alstonville, has been gifted to the Conservancy and will become the home for the Science Saving Rainforest Program.

‘I have spent the last 35 years of my life committed to saving the subtropical rainforests of Australia and the Science Saving Rainforests Program is the most important initiative I have ever been involved in. I firmly believe that our project is of global significance because the same issues we face here are the same issues facing the world’s rainforests and other degraded ecosystems,’ said Dr Tony Parkes.

The team has been collecting and analysing samples for the last two years and the project is a world first.

‘The Botanic Gardens do genetic testing of plants around the world but they don’t normally test a whole ecosystem. What we will be doing here is genetically testing a significant number of the local canopy of plants rather than looking at just one species,’ explained Mr Dunphy.

They have now started to collect cuttings and will be looking at getting plants into the ground in the next year to two years.

‘Everything we’ve collected has been GPSd. Every leaf collected went into an envelope and was mapped so we could identify the genetics of the species from across the range. Some species, like the Endiandra Floydii (Crystal Creek Walnut) take ten years to fruit, while others, like the Davidson Plums, will be fruiting in a few years.’

They will look at planting around 20 to 30 trees from a species that will cover around 95 per cent of the genetic diversity in the species. Then when the trees interbreed at the plantation site they will produce offspring with greater genetic diversity that can cope more effectively with future risks like climate change, pests and disease.

Dr Tony Parkes AO Co-Founder and President Emeritus, Big Scrub Rainforest Conservancy. Photo supplied

Can you help?

‘We now have an urgent need to raise funds to prepare the site for this vitally important plantation,’ said Dr Parkes.

Mr Dunphy agreed, saying that this work is essential to build strength within the regional rainforest species and preserve the genetic diversity that will be needed to face future challenges.

To find out more and support the project go to the Big Scrub Rainforest Conservancy website.

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  1. These guys presented at the Rainforest Connections Conference last week – clever sciency ideas and on ground practice that was inspirational. If only, our governments would listen and learn like we did at this amazing Conference. A big thank you to locals, Mark and Tony for their ground breaking work. Very exciting.


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