Australian Journal of Botany Australian Journal of Botany Society
Southern hemisphere botanical ecosystems
RESEARCH ARTICLE (Open Access)

Using vital statistics and core-habitat maps to manage critically endangered orchids in the Western Australian wheatbelt

Mark C. Brundrett

School of Plant Biology, Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, University of Western Australia, Crawley, WA 6009, Australia; and Department of Parks and Wildlife, Swan Region, Locked Bag 104, Bentley Delivery Centre, WA 6983, Australia. Email: mark.brundrett@dpaw.wa.gov.au, mark.brundrett@uwa.edu.au

Australian Journal of Botany 64(1) 51-64 https://doi.org/10.1071/BT15087
Submitted: 8 April 2015  Accepted: 26 November 2015   Published: 12 February 2016

Abstract

Vital-statistics data concerning population viability were gathered for four of the rarest orchids in Western Australia using surveys to define population sizes and habitat areas and annual measurements of plant demographics. These orchids were Caladenia melanema, C. graniticola, C. williamsiae and Drakaea isolata from the wheatbelt of Western Australia. This agricultural area has a Mediterranean climate with unreliable rainfall, and is >80% cleared of native vegetation. Surveys with 10–30 volunteers increased population-size estimates by up to 10 times and provided spatial data to define core habitat areas. These areas included most of the individuals of a species, but were only 2–10 ha in size. Within these areas, orchids were often highly aggregated in patches a few metres wide, potentially resulting in a high degree of intraspecific competition. Vital statistics were obtained using 4-m wide and 30–50-m-long transects to measure rates of emergence, flowering, grazing and seed-set for each orchid. Plants emerging at the same position in different years were considered to be the same individual, but most emerged in new positions. Many plants emerged just once in 4 years, and 2–3 years of dormancy was common. Emergence frequencies were used to provide estimates of population sizes that were two or three times larger than suggested by data from a single year. Seed production was typically very low. Grazing by kangaroos and rabbits was most severe for C. melanema, but was greatly reduced by fencing. Severe drought prevented flowering of C. graniticola in the driest year, whereas other species were more resilient. These orchids are likely to persist as long as there are some years where rainfall is sufficient for flowering and seed set followed by a year with adequate rain for seed germination. Populations of all these orchids were stable or increasing, but they are still at high risk of extinction because of the impacts of increasing soil salinity or fire on their habitats. These species are unlikely to spread elsewhere in the highly cleared and fragmented wheatbelt. Intervention by hand-pollination, grazing protection and translocation to new locations is required to mitigate these risks. Results were summarised in vital statistics report cards with thresholds set to inform conservation management for these species. Core habitat maps and vital-statistics report cards should also be valuable new tools for terrestrial-orchid conservation in other biomes.

Additional keywords: demographics, orchid conservation, pollination, rare flora, seed set.


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