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THE STORY OF THE REDISCOVERY OF THE IDIOSPERMUM

by Prue Hewett*

My daily excursions through the rainforest have become a reminder of the antiquity and rarity of the Daintree rainforest as I see the flowers of the Idiospermum scattered across the forest floor

In 1902, a German botanist by the name of Ludwig Diels found a flower that had many of the characteristics of a primitive flowering genus, Calycanthus, previously unknown in Australia. Diels named the species Calycathus australiense. Seven members of the genus had been found in North America and Asia. Because his floral specimens were in poor shape, he concluded that the proper identification could not be achieved without rediscovery of the native member in Australia.

That rediscovery came in 1971 when four cattle died belonging to local farmer John Nicholas (Daintree Tea). The Divisional Veterinary Officer from Cairns was called in to determine the cause of death and witnessed the collapse and death of two more cattle. Autopsies found the partly masticated remains of large seeds in their stomachs. It was found that that the seeds were responsible for the cause of death and that a poison producing symptoms similar to strychnine poisoning was present in the seeds.

Flowers, fruit and branches were sent to the Queensland herbarium where the tree was identified as the long lost Calycanthus australiense. The large seed was totally unlike any other member of the Calycanthus genus, so in 1972 TS Blake, a taxonomist with the Queensland herbarium, reclassified the species into a new genus and family, Idiospermum australiense, Idiospermaceae.

The discovery of such an ancient species, believed to have evolved more than 110 million years ago, was the magnet that drew many more botanists into the Daintree to find a treasure trove of primitive angiosperms (flowering plants).

At this time the economy of the Daintree was built on primary production. Farming of sugar, bananas, rice, cattle and selective logging of lowland rainforest all contributed to a fairly meagre economy. I have a map of my 160acre (66hectare) allotment. It describes the magnificent fan palm forests as "good scrub." Then gives an indicator of its wealth with the words, "black bean, sassafras and silky oak." Australia was a nation of farmers and the cabinet timber industry in Queensland was worth a lot of money to the wealthy timber merchants and the government.

As more and more rare and primitive species were discovered, the need to protect the lowland rainforests became more urgent. Endress (1986) wrote, "there is no question that the tropical rainforests of Northern Queensland are the most important ecosystems with primitive flowering plants in the world, as far as concentration and diversity is concerned. The region indeed fulfils all four of the criteria defined by the "World Heritage convention for inclusion in the World Heritage List." The Daintree is the jewel in Australia's tropical rainforest crown. Habitat of twelve families of primitive flowering plants, it is the richest concentration of ancient flora species in the world.Its inscription as World Heritage in December 1988 provided a level of protection that brought an end to extractive industries such as timber and gravel and set the scene for conservation through tourism.

Today landholders are reliant on the benefits of tourism for a sustainable future that includes conservation as its most important function. Visitors to the Daintree can walk through the closest counterpart to Gondwana rainforest in the sacred heart of the Daintree - Cooper Creek Wilderness, knowing that their financial contributions are direct payments for conservation of a unique ecosystem. In 1997, Andrew Small, environmental scientist wrote, "The Cooper Creek catchment encapsulates the majority of the attributes of interest of the Greater Daintree area: flora relicts from ages past, primitive animals, examples of on-going evolution and speciation, rare and endemic flora and fauna, and living links with the recent past incursions of fauna and flora from south-east Asia."

I like the creation of a new ecotourism industry that replaces farming and I hope that visitors to our part of the word will recognise their importance as key participants in the conservation of the lowland rainforests of the Daintree.

Prue Hewett

*Prue Hewett is one of the land managers of the Cooper Creek Wilderness a World Heritage nature refuge in the sacred heart of the Daintree Rainforest which has four advanced ecotourism accreditations under the National Ecotourism Accreditation Program and specialises in presentation of the rainforest. E-mail: walk@ccwild.com Web: www.ccwild.com

*Photos - Idiospermum seedling, Idiospermum flower - Copyright 2002 Cooper Creek Wilderness

 

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