Alpine Plant Research: Climate Change and Conservation

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The Friends have been actively involved in promoting and extending the Gardens' research and conservation capabilities. Since 2009 we have been partners with the ANBG, the Australian National University and the University of Queensland under an  Australian Research Council Linkages project to further research into the seed ecology of Australia’s alpine flora. Australia’s alpine region is critically vulnerable to climate change and we still have limited knowledge about the ecology of our alpine flora, including its capacity to adapt to changed climatic conditions. Many plants are potentially under threat of extinction.

Botanic gardens have a key role to play in helping to conserve plants for the future. Over the years the ANBG has developed a large collection of alpine plant seeds placed in long-term storage. The Alpine Seed Ecology research project has adding to this national collection of alpine seeds, as well as helping us to better understand plant seed management requirements and germination strategies.

As well as extensive seed collection through field trips, the project conducted several glasshouse projects including what became known as ‘the move-along experiment’, in which seeds of more than 50 different species were moved through a series of temperature regimes designed to mimic seasonal shifts that dispersed seeds would experience in the field. ­The study helped identify germination strategies of alpine species, many of which appear to include seed dormancy, and led to investigations of the ecological and environmental factors that influence these strategies.

Researchers involved in the project have presented their results at several Australian and international conferences. The writing-up phase of the project began with publication of a paper by Dr Gemma Hoyle, entitled Soil warming increases plant species richness but decreases germination from the alpine soil seed bank, in Global Change Biology. The study, which drew conclusions about the impact of soil warming on germination from the alpine soil seed bank, was considered by reviewers to be ‘novel’ and ‘important’.

Friends contribution and participation

The Friends contributed about $66,000 over the life of the project, which completed in mid 2014. Some of the Friends contribution was used to fund new seed drying facilities at the ANBG seed bank. This significantly enhanced the ANBG's seed drying capabilities. Friends’ funding also contributed to a new display on alpine plants and education about alpine seed ecology.

The Friends also participated through volunteering activities, joining field excursions to the Alps to collect seeds and assisting in the preparation of seeds for their long-term storage. For more information about Friends’ involvement, see the articles in Fronds 65 August 2010 and Fronds 68 August 2011.

Seed collecting at Lake Albina

Anne Campbell, Meredith Cosgrove and Adrienne Nicotra collecting seeds   Photo: BV

The red fruit of Pentachondra pumila  Photo:  Gemma Hoyle
The red fruit of Pentachondra pumila Photo: Gemma Hoyle

People involved

The team for the current seed ecology project brought together people with diverse backgrounds and skills. Alpine park managers, university researchers, horticulturalists, seed bank curators, botanic garden managers and volunteers were all involved. Sarah Fethers, ANBG Seed Bank manager, was closely involved in the project until her retirement in March 2012

The research project was led by Dr Adrienne Nicotra, senior lecturer at ANU in the School of Botany and Zoology. The key researcher was Dr Gemma Hoyle, who has been investigating alpine seed germination strategies, including dormancy mechanisms and soil seed bank persistence Also involved were Dr Kathryn Steadman, senior lecturer in Pharmacy at the University of Queensland; Dr Jose Ramirez Valiente, who received a post-doctoral travel grant from the Spanish government to visit the lab for 6 months; and Mr Roger Good. ANBG staff in the seed bank and in horticulture worked closely with university researchers in designing and carrying out experiments on seeds and seedling ecology.