JCU researchers in Cairns in quest for new plants
FROM remote mountain tops to the most rugged parts of Cape York, no area is off limits for James Cook University researchers on a mission to uncover new plant life.
As head of the Australian Tropical Herbarium, Professor Darren Crayn (pictured) leads a team of about 25 researchers on a continual quest for new plants to add to the centre's current catalogue of 160,000 flora species.
The team scours through thick rainforests, mountain tops and swamps in search of new species, before carefully documenting them at the state-of-the-art herbarium at the Smithfield campus.
The rate of discovery shows no signs of slowing down either, with scientists uncovering an average of five to 10 new species in north Queensland each year.
"There are still so much more to discover," Prof Crayn said.
"The rate we're discovering new species is actually increasing not decreasing."
Recent local finds include what is believed to be Australia's only native coffee plant found in Cape York last year and a relative of the cucumber that is also native to the Far North.
"We've discovered probably 23,000 native plant species (in Australia) but we're adding at least 200 to that total every year," he said.
"Most people think we know everything there is to know about native plants but that's not true."
Prof Crayn said the majority of discoveries were actually made within the confines of the herbarium and not out in the field.
"Most of our work is discovering new species, documenting where they occur and how common or rare they are and their role in the environment," he said.
But out of all the plant species catalogued at the herbarium, three have special prominence having been collected by Joseph Banks on Captain Cook's first voyage to Australia.
After the Endeavour ran ashore in Cooktown in 1770, Banks and his team of assistants spent about six weeks collecting and documenting the local plant life while the ship was repaired.
Prof Crayn said Banks' work at Cooktown was often overlooked in favour of the highly celebrated discoveries at Botany Bay.
Banks collected 310 new species, accounting for 55 per cent of the area's total flora, nearly three times the amount collected at Botany Bay.
"He was able to make unprecedented collections and observations from that voyage and nothing of that scale had been done before," Prof Crayn said.
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Leader: Professor Darren Crayn leads a team of about 25 researchers on a continual quest for new plants.