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Building a shared future for all life by supporting biological diversity


 From discovering a new frog species or learning more about shy tropical dolphins, to improving the production of food crops like hempseed and coffee, Southern Cross University researchers are working alongside nature to ensure longevity and viability of plant and animal species.

Their stories of hope, innovation and collaboration underpin 'Building a shared future for all life', the theme of this year's International Day of Biodiversity.

The UN-proclaimed day, held annually on May 22, is a chance to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues. In explaining its theme for 2022, the UN says:

… biodiversity – from ecosystem-based approaches to climate and/or nature-based solutions to climate, health issues, food and water security and sustainable livelihoods – is the foundation upon which we can build back better.

Here are some of the ways the Southern Cross community is working together to tackle these challenges.

Researchers from Southern Cross University have helped uncover a new species of mountain frog in the rainforests at the NSW-QLD border, and are now working to protect its habitat.

Known as Philoria knowlesi, this new frog varies in colour and pattern and is confined to upland rainforests of Queensland's Mount Barney National Park and Levers Plateau in Northern New South Wales.

Philoria knowlesi breeds in spring and early summer, in small bogs, seepages and banks of headwater streams. During mating season, the males create a small breeding chamber in wet areas and tadpoles develop entirely within this chamber.

The University's frog expert, Dr David Newell, said the amphibian's only known habitat – the Gondwana Rainforest of Australia World Heritage Area – had one of the most diverse ecosystems in Australia.

"This new species of frog belongs to a lineage only found in upland rainforest communities. There are currently seven known species of mountain frog, six of which are found only in the Gondwana rainforest area. Most are confined to the very headwaters of mountain streams and a key threat to their survival is climate change. As these habitats warm, these frogs literally will have nowhere else to go," Dr Newell said.

Coloured rice, mustard, hemp, tea tree, coffee and macadamia. It reads almost like a shopping list yet this diverse collection of food and essential oil crops represents the diversity of research at Southern Cross Plant Science (SCPS).

SCPS researchers and Higher Degree Research students are ensuring biodiversity collections are maintained for posterity and systematically characterised. Their work supports the tea tree oil, coffee and macadamia production industries located in NSW Northern Rivers and south east Queensland and the challenges faced in production environments and quality maintenance.

At the same time, SCPS is characterising collections of specialised crops such as coloured rice, mustard and hemp to enable the development of new markets that emphasise quality and health benefits.

The distribution of natural populations of the tea tree oil species Melaleuca alternifolia coincides with the reach of Southern Cross University campuses in northern NSW and southern Queensland. About a decade ago Southern Cross invested in establishing a unique living biodiversity collection on its Lismore campus that represents 10 coastal and inland locations, with 1000 genotypes available in the field. This includes germplasm from locations subsequently disturbed, or lost, due to the M1 motorway upgrade. This collection not only conserves, but contributes to the national breeding program co-funded by industry (ATTIA, the Australian Tea Tree Industry Association) and the Commonwealth government (AgriFutures Australia).

The University's Tea Tree Breeding Program project leader Dr Merv Shepherd said: "Adaptations to disease and drought have been identified in the living collection of tea tree that might help the tea tree oil industry address current and future threats. PhD student Julia Voelker is also using the collection to develop genetic markers that will help the industry to take advantage of future opportunities by accelerating the pace at which novel oil or agronomic attributes can be introduced into the breeding population."

Field-based collections can be vulnerable to weather events (thankfully, after a La Niña summer and autumn, the University's is only just a little bit swampy right now), so Southern Cross has also invested in building world-class facilities for long-term seed storage. Low humidity rooms enable seed to be dried and hermetically sealed as 'time capsules' prior to storage at a low temperature that can extend viability over decades.

Southern Cross University is a long-term partner in the World Coffee Research (WCR) program for ensuring diversity of coffee varieties that can adapt to changing production requirements. Our funding partner is AgriFutures Australia.

PhD researcher Parth Patel and University staff maintain and characterise 29 quarantine-introduced leading cultivars from 10 of the major coffee-growing countries around the world to find the perfect match for local growers of the Australian Sub-tropical Coffee Association. We appreciate the support of the NSW Department of Primary Industries for use of its land to grow the cultivars.

Funded by the Australian Research Council and direct industry contributions through Kavasil Pty Ltd, PhD researcher Lennard Garcia-De Heer and Dr Jos Mieog are characterising a global collection of more than 100 hemp accessions, of both international (15+ countries) and local germplasm.

"Their goal is to establish a well-characterised genetic resource that will underpin the development of the rapidly emerging hempseed industry in Australia," said project leader Associate Professor Tobias Kretzschmar.

This is complemented by a recently launched global information portal developed by PhD researcher Locedie Mansueto, with Dr Ramil Mauleon for the International Cannabis Genomics Research Consortium.

Associate Professor Tobias Kretzschmar has assembled more than 300 pigmented rice varieties from 13 countries that range in grain colour from pink and red to purple and black. These are being characterised for their chemical composition and genetic makeup by PhD researcher Truong Duc Nguyen and ulitised in a breeding program by Dr Szabolcs Lehoczki-Krsjak to help meet demand for functional foods with health benefits that can thrive in Australia's typically high UV-radiation environment.

Understanding the importance of biodiversity and how to assess it is an integral component of the University's Bachelor of Science degree.

For example, invertebrates make up more than 90% of all animal species on planet earth!

Our undergraduate students are taught how to identify and survey invertebrates in a unit called "Invertebrate Life". Under the guidance of Professor Kirsten Benkendorff, who's the Director of the National Marine Science Centre, students undertake surveys in marine, forest, agricultural or urban habitats and develop their own invertebrate reference collection.

"The biodiversity assessment project not only provides a valuable hands-on learning experience, but also provides a valuable contribution to the knowledge of regional biodiversity, with data that can be made available to the broader community through the Atlas of Living Australia," Professor Benkendorff said.

Australia's Great Barrier Reef is visited by more than 30 species of cetaceans. Among them are a few highly charismatic species that we have very little information about. Species like the Australian humpback dolphin and the snubfin dolphin.

"Both species are vulnerable because they live in small numbers, have a low reproduction rate and are dependent on the quality of coastal habitat," said Dr Daniele Cagnazzi who has been researching the unique species for 15 years using photos, videos and genetic testing.

Dr Cagnazzi and his team were the first to document the unusual risky feeding behaviour of the humpback dolphins. Called strand feeding, the dolphins beach themselves on the mud banks of the Fitzroy River, in Central Queensland, to catch fish.

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