Conservation biology of banksias: insights from natural history to simulation modelling
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We have studied the ecology and conservation requirements of Banksia species in the species-rich sandplains of south-western Australia for 25 years. Loss of habitat through land-clearing has had the greatest impact on their conservation status over the last 50 years. Ascertaining optimal conditions for conservation management in bushland requires detailed knowledge of the species under consideration, including demographic attributes, fire regime, growing conditions and interactions with other species. Where populations have been fragmented, seed production per plant has also fallen. The group most vulnerable to the vagaries of fire, disease, pests, weeds and climate change are the non-sprouters, rather than the resprouters, with population extinction so far confined to non-sprouting species. Recent short-interval fires (<8 years) appear to have had little impact at the landscape scale, possibly because they are rare and patchy. Fire intervals exceeding 25 50 years can also lead to local extinction. Up to 200 viable seeds are required for parent replacement in Banksia hookeriana when growing conditions are poor (low post-fire rainfall, commercial flower harvesting) and seed banks of this size can take up to 12 years to be reached. Seed production is rarely limited by pollinators, but interannual seasonal effects and resource availability are important. Genetic diversity of the seed store is quickly restored to the level of the parents in B. hookeriana. Florivores and granivores generally reduce seed stores, although this varies markedly among species. In Banksia tricuspis, black cockatoos actually increase seed set by selectively destroying borers. Potential loss of populations through the root pathogen Phytophthora cinnamomi also challenges management, especially in the southern sandplains. Prefire dead plants are a poor source of seeds for the next generation when fire does occur. Harvesting seeds and sowing post-fire have much to commend them for critically endangered species. Bare areas caused by humans can result in ideal conditions for plant growth and seed set. However, in the case of B. hookeriana/B. prionotes, disturbance by humans has fostered hybridisation, threatening the genetic integrity of both species, whereas fine-textured soils are unsuitable for colonisation or rehabilitation. Few viable seeds become seedlings after fire, owing to post-release granivory and herbivory and unsuitable germination conditions. Seedling-competitive effects ensure that season/intensity of fire is not critical to recruitment levels, except in the presence of weeds. Water availability during summer autumn is critical and poses a problem for conservation management if the trend for declining rainfall in the region continues. Our simulation modelling for three banksias shows that the probability of co-occurrence is maximal when fire is stochastic around a mean of 13 years, and where fire-proneness and post-fire recruitment success vary in the landscape. Modelling results suggest that non-sprouting banksias could not survive the pre-European frequent-fire scenario suggested by the new grasstree technique for south-western Australia. However, we have yet to fully explore the conservation significance of long-distance dispersal of seeds, recently shown to exceed 2.5 km in B. hookeriana.
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