A new project being carried out by The University of Western Australia will look at ‘plant communities’ that took millions of years to assemble, to try to understand the mechanisms allowing them to persist for such a long time.
The four-year study, which will help resource companies with the rehabilitation of mined land, will focus on the species-rich kwongan shrublands. Found on mineral-rich sands in WA’s mid-west, these shrublands are recognised as one of the most significant natural heritage assets in the world and form part of Australia’s only global biodiversity hotspot.
Led by acclaimed UWA plant scientist Professor Ladislav (Laco) Mucina, who is the Iluka Chair in Vegetation Science and Biogeography at UWA’s School of Plant Biology, the research will look at the drivers behind the functioning of the kwongan heathland.
Made up of thousands of different plant species including many that are rare or endangered, the shrublands assemble in complex communities even in arid, nutrient-poor soil.
“Land management, rehabilitation and closure activities are a big focus for those companies involved in mining mineral sands rich in titanium and zirconium from these areas,” said Professor Mucina.
“But it’s not just as simple as bringing back the removed top soil and then replanting once the job is done - there are millions of years of ecological legacy and memory that have shaped the ways these plant families have come together,” he said.
“We have to understand these processes to be able to ‘reconstruct’ the communities successfully. Plants are like people, they have certain qualities that enable them to fit into their environments.
“We’ll look at functional traits such as how they acquire nutrients and water, to predict how to best put these communities back together.”
Working with industry partners, Perth-based mineral sand mining companies Iluka Resources and Tronox Management, Professor Mucina and his 10-strong team hope to deliver management tools that will help mining companies meet important restoration targets.
“Virtually all of the kwongan species are found nowhere else on earth so this work is incredibly important and relevant also to biodiversity conservation and nature management,” he said. “It will position Australia as a leader in predictive plant ecology and its application to restoration ecology.”
The project is one of 12 at UWA to receive more than $5 million funding under the recently announced 2015 Australian Research Council Linkage Grants for studies as diverse as improving risk management in mental health to developing new and improved anchoring systems for wave energy converters.
Professor Mucina has served in universities on four continents (Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia) as an internationally renowned expert in biogeography and vegetation science, in particular vegetation surveys, classification, and mapping.
With more than 300 scientific papers and 26 books to his name, his global scientific interests also include biosystematics, molecular phylogeny, evolutionary biology, paleoecology, biodiversity science, environmental management, plant community restoration and conservation biology.
Professor Laco Mucina (UWA School of Plant Biology) (+61 8) 6488 7095
David Stacey (UWA Media) (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 32 637 716