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Exploring islands of life in a changing climate

News story

An international research team led by Curtin University of Technology’s Associate Professor Grant Wardell-Johnson is exploring the possibility that granite outcrops may act as a refuge for some WA plants by helping them survive in a warmer climate. 

“The impacts of climate change already appear to be worse than predicted,” Associate Professor Wardell-Johnson said.

“With greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere providing further change, native plant life is facing serious threats.”

Associate Professor Wardell-Johnson said south-west Australia was particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

“As well as being one of the richest biodiversity hotspots in the world, it is also a very flat landscape surrounded by desert and ocean,” he said.

“This will make it very difficult for many plant and animal species to survive as the weather warms, for they will be unable to retreat to high mountains or towards the poles.”

However, his research has indicated that there may be places where many of these plants will be able to survive, with refuges an important part of adaptation.

“Some of the places where many native plant species might persist include granite outcrop environments because they have many microhabitats and local climates,” Associate Professor Wardell-Johnson said.

“These small areas, with their own particular environment, include protected and sheltered gullies and crevices which may reduce the effects of weather extremes such as intense fires.

“The physical environment of these rock outcrops is one likely reason for the survival of some plant species through periods of extreme environmental change.”

The ancient and flat landscape of south-western Australia is home to many outcrops. Although they comprise less than one per cent of the landscape, they include more than 12 per cent of the State’s plant species.

“These outcrops already harbour a level of biodiversity richer than in most other parts of Western Australia,” Associate Professor Wardell-Johnson said.

“This may be because they acted as a refuge through the changing climates of the past.

“This suggests that some outcrops may provide safe havens as the climate changes to levels not experienced by any living plant, making them critical areas for biodiversity conservation.”

The project involves collaborators from The University of Western Australia, the University of Trent (Canada), the Department of Environment and Conservation, the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew (England) and the remote sensing company AAMHatch.