Wed. Jul 6th, 2022

An increase in the number of threatened tiny plant species in New South Wales is putting rare ecosystems at risk, according to scientists.

Mount Canobolas, near Orange in the state’s central-west, is home to more than 1,000 species, making it one of the most densely populated habitats in the country.

But there have been 18 species deemed threatened and four endangered in the area in the past decade.

Many of them are tiny organisms that can only be seen with a microscope.

Macquarie University honorary postdoctoral associate Alison Downing said microorganisms such as lichens and mosses played a vital role in the ecosystem.

“They act to trap moisture and soil and by doing this they actually stabilize the whole environment,” she said.

An elderly woman in a blue jacket in front of some bush
Alison Downing says introduced species, such as cattle, have contributed to a decline of microorganisms. (ABC Central West: Hamish Cole )

Dr Downing said the microorganisms were previously found across the state but mismanagement of livestock had resulted in only small, isolated communities remaining.

“One of the problems is with stock cattle in particular, they are really hard-hoofed animals so as they go through, they effectively cut up these soil crusts and convert them to dust,” Dr Downing said.

Mount Canobolas is part of a 1,672-hectare state conservation area.

A volcanic eruption 11 million years ago gave the region its rich, fertile soil and altitude.

According to the NSW Farmers Association, this has made the region one of the state’s prime agricultural regions, contributing almost $ 2 billion to the economy each year.

Growing issue across the country

Orange Field Naturalist Society member Richard Medd said losing the microorganisms, such as mosses and lichens, created a chain reaction.

“All of those species interact with each other,” he said.

He said taking one or two out would affect several others.

“They will not survive,” he said.

“As soon as you break them up it plays havoc.”

Canobolas Candlebark (Eucalyptus canobolensis) at the Walls Picnic Area, July 2008.jpg
The Canobolas candlebark tree is one of 10 species endemic to the mountain, meaning it does not occur anywhere else.(Supplied)

Dr Medd said Mount Canobolas was a rare oasis for tiny species.

“If the communities are fragmented then they lose their integrity and those ecosystems start to break down,” Dr Medd said.

New species found

He said if was not all doom and gloom for the Mount Canobolas ecosystem though after researchers found at least 15 new species for the region.

Green moss on a rocky structure
This type of moss is one of 15 species previously not found on Mount Canobolas. (Supplied: Rosemary Stapleton)

Polyrichum commune is a species of moss that is typically found in the alpine regions of Tasmania and the Snowy Mountains.

Dr Downing and Dr Medd stumbled across the bryophyte organism while conducting a survey on Mount Canobolas.

About 70 per cent of Mount Canobolas was destroyed by a bushfire that required more than 100 firefighters to put out in 2018.

Dr Medd said the fire most likely allowed microorganisms that had previously been lying dormant in the soil, such as the polyrichum commune, to sprout.

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