Deakin University's Plant Research Group has joined forces with Parks Victoria in a research project led by Dr Jim Rookes aimed at maintaining biodiversity in the Brisbane Ranges National Park.
The project goes under the formal name of “Analysis of Phytophthora cinnamoni decontamination procedures in the Brisbane Ranges National Park”.
The 7,700 hectares of the Brisbane Ranges National Park are home to Victoria’s richest wildflower habitat as well as the state’s highest density of koalas.
The bird populations include Peregrine falcons, powerful owls and rainbow birds.
Phytophthora cinnamomi is a soil-borne plant pathogen that is widespread in Australia and kills most native plant species that it comes into contact with.
It was first discovered in the Brisbane Ranges National Park in 1969.
Since then, considerable efforts have been put into managing the disease in the park including the design, construction and implementation of boot wash stations.
However, until this project, there hadn’t been any co-ordinated approach to assessing the effectiveness of these stations.
“We’ve been working with Parks Victoria on a number of projects over a number of years,” Dr Rookes said.
“With this project, which is a formalisation of our relationship and which has been funded by Parks Victoria, their staff will work alongside our researchers to ascertain the best ways to mitigate the spread of Phytophthora cinnamomi in the Brisbane Ranges.
“The biggest problem with this pathogen is that once it is present in a natural ecosystem we have no effective way of eradicating it.
“Careful management to control its spread is our best approach to reducing its impact.”
The park covers low mountain ranges dissected by rocky gullies and bushwalking is the best way to get close to all its natural attractions.
But inadvertently - and sometimes otherwise - bushwalkers can also aid the distribution of Phytophthora cinnamomi which spreads by producing motile spores – spores that have the power to swim spontaneously.
These travel in soil and water from plant root to plant root and they can happily get around, too, on the boots of bushwalkers.
“The first thing we want to know is whether the existing boot wash facilities are being used effectively, that people are following the instructions to wash their boots as they walk through the park,” Dr Rookes said.
“In some cases, it might even be a case of finding out if they are being used at all by some users and working out what can be done about that.
“There are more than 600 species of plants in the Brisbane Ranges National Park so it’s a biodiversity hot spot that needs to be protected.
“It is pretty important that whatever we end up finding from this project, that we improve the way we combat Phytophthora cinnamomi.”
As well as investigating how effective current control strategies are, Dr Rookes and his colleagues will also be looking at how they can further reduce the spread of the pathogen using alternate methods.
One of those methods might be the use of organic mulch and others substrates (the surface a plant or animal lives upon) spread over infected areas or tracks to limit the spread of the pathogen in the park.
Whatever the outcomes, there is no doubt a considerable amount of passion as well as scientific expertise is going into this project.
Dr Rookes is very much Geelong boy made good - the Brisbane Ranges part of his extended backyard as he grew up in Herne Hill.
He got his first degree and PhD in his home town before successfully undertaking post-doctoral studies at the University of Queensland.
“I was doing some interesting work in molecular biology in the plant area at UQ,” he said.
“Then an opportunity came up to return to Deakin to work with my former supervisor, Professor David Cahill, and to put into practice some of the things I had learned at UQ on a number of projects.
“But I guess there was also the ‘coming home’ factor that was pretty attractive as well.”