Australian environmental experts are keen to explore a unified approach to combat myrtle rust, in the hope of preventing the devastating disease from spreading
to Western Australia.
The need for a more coordinated response was raised in a recent national workshop coordinated by the TSR Hub in April, amid concerns that previous efforts have been sporadic and ineffective. A working group was established to progress a national plan.
“We believe there are still things we can do to mitigate the impacts of myrtle rust and prevent extinctions,” said Dr Ben Phillips, who leads the Hub’s Project 1.4.
Myrtle rust is an exotic fungal plant disease that entered Australia in 2010 and has since spread rapidly throughout eastern Australia, infecting and killing plants in the Myrtaceae family (eucalypts, tea trees, bottle brushes and paperbarks).
More than 350 plant species are already affected and 30 species are at serious risk of extinction.
“While it’s now almost impossible to rid Australia of myrtle rust, because its spores disperse so easily, our focus is keeping it away from WA (a biodiversity hotspot for native plants) and working to mitigate its impacts,” explained Dr Phillips.
The workshop was attended by leading biosecurity experts from government, research institutions, primary industry groups and conservation parks and led to the establishment of a working group to oversee Australia’s first national myrtle rust protection plan.
Dr Geoff Pegg, Forest Pathologist at the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and workshop organiser, is optimistic about the plan.
“I think it’s important for us to take what we have learned from the myrtle rust outbreak and develop better structures for dealing with invasive pests and pathogens in native ecosystems,” said Dr Pegg.
“The working group established in this workshop will form and oversee those structures.”
The group will use its extensive biosecurity experience and incorporate advice from American and New Zealand experts to mitigate the damage caused by myrtle rust and prepare for other potential new disease outbreaks.
Dr Phil Cannon from the United States Department of Agriculture, which has been dealing with the challenges of exotic plant diseases in Hawaii and California, highlighted that a national protection plan will help to keep out many more, and worse, pathogens yet to enter Australia.
Workshop participants toured the Brisbane Botanic Gardens to observe the extensive damage caused by myrtle rust, hearing firsthand accounts from botanists who documented the spread of infection and the vulnerability of certain myrtle species.
The workshop was facilitated by Dr Lucy Sutherland, National Coordinator of the Australian National Botanic Gardens' Australian Seed Bank Partnership.
Many landscapes in Australia are fire-prone, and increasingly so. Altered fire regimes can have a serious negative impact on threatened plant species and ecological communities. A Threatened Species Recovery Hub project is working to better understand the effects of different fire regimes on threatened flora in order to improve fire management strategies and conservation outcomes.
Almost a quarter of Australia’s possums and gliders are listed as threatened under Australian environmental law, and many more are showing signs of decline. Dr Rochelle Steven from The University of Queensland believes people in the community can do a lot to support conservation, especially in urban areas.
The detection and monitoring of threatened species have been a strong area of research in the National Environmental Science Program and also the two national environmental research programs which preceded it. Hub Director Professor Brendan Wintle takes a look at what we’ve been achieving and why it is so important to the conservation of Australia’s threatened species.
In 2009, the Christmas Island blue-tailed skink and Lister’s gecko were headed for imminent extinction. Parks Australia acted quickly to collect remaining wild individuals in order to establish captive breeding programs on Christmas Island and at Taronga Zoo, Sydney, which have been highly successful. A Threatened Species Recovery Hub project team is working closely with Parks Australia to help secure a future for the two lizards beyond captivity.
The silver-headed antechinus and black-tailed dusky antechinus are carnivorous marsupials found in high-elevation forests in parts of central-eastern and south-eastern Queensland. They were only described in the past six years, but they are already listed as Endangered. Knowing where they occur is essential for effective conservation, but current distribution knowledge is patchy. To address this, PhD candidate Stephane Batista in partnership with the Queensland Herbarium and Queensland Department of Environment and Science is modelling the habitat where these threatened species are likely to occur, and is using detection dogs to rapidly survey these sites.