Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy
School of Science
Eddie van Etten
Fragmentation of natural vegetation is currently one of the largest threats to biodiversity. Within the southwest Australia global biodiversity hotspot, the Swan Coastal Plain was historically cleared for agriculture and forestry and is now experiencing extensive land clearing for urbanisation. The wavy-leaved smokebush Conospermum undulatum is a rare species endemic to the Swan Coastal Plain, and its future persistence is threatened by urban expansion.
Throughout this research, I investigated the pollination ecology of this species and found a specific association between C. undulatum and native bees for pollination. I also demonstrated that C. undulatum has evolved pollen with resistance to the usually negative effect of ant secretions on pollen grains, with ants providing effective pollination services to this threatened species. Native pollinators were drastically reduced in small populations, and urbanisation limited the movement of pollen across built-up areas surrounding remnant bushland. This lack of both pollinators and inter-population pollen flow is severely limiting the production of healthy seeds in smaller populations.
I then performed molecular investigations combined with an ecological characterisation of the recently fragmented distribution range of C. undulatum to quantify the genetic structure and levels of genetic diversity across the entire distribution of the species. Despite the current intense fragmentation, I found levels of genetic diversity similar across populations and a weak spatial genetic structure. Since habitat fragmentation is recent and many adult plants are likely to be several decades old, they mainly reflect pre-fragmentation conditions. Therefore, the detailed characterization of fragmentation over time has shown how the low levels of genetic fixation can be attributed to pervasive gene flow through the pre-fragmented landscape, which mostly influenced the current adult cohort.
Early signals of the negative effects of habitat fragmentation were found during my study of contemporary gene flow through the paternity assignment of seedlings sampled at the end of the 2017 flowering season. Although gametes of C. undulatum could flow unimpeded through large expanses of unfragmented bushland, inter-population pollen flow was non-existent between fragments surrounded by built-up areas. This study supports the need for an understanding of contemporary mating patterns to detect early signals of gene flow failure in fragmented remnants.
Lastly, I found evidence for hybridisation occurring at the edge of the distribution of C. undulatum between this rare and threatened plant and two other related species. This adds to the threats posed by habitat fragmentation to the conservation of C. undulatum.
My research highlighted the importance of native pollinators for plants that coevolved with them and adds to the limited research on the effect of habitat fragmentation on native plants that rely exclusively on native insects for pollination. Such pollinators appeared unable to maintain an adequate inter- population pollen flow in heavily fragmented landscapes. Therefore, the often negative effects of habitat fragmentation can be exacerbated in small and isolated populations of plants that rely on species-specific pollinators for sexual reproduction. Outcomes of my research will inform recovery plans to enhance the future persistence of C. undulatum over the long term.
Delnevo, N. (2020). Conospermum undulatum: insights into population genetics and pollination ecology of a threatened species. https://ro.ecu.edu.au/theses/2398
Available for download on Tuesday, March 28, 2023