Distribution, habitat preferences and population sizes of two threatened tree ferns, Cyathea cunninghamii and Cyathea x marcescens, in south-eastern Australia

Ross J. Peacock, Alison Downing, Patrick Brownsey, David Cameron

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    The distribution, population sizes and habitat preferences of the rare tree ferns Cyathea cunninghamii Hook.f. (Slender Tree Fern) and F1 hybrid Cyathea x marcescens N.A.Wakef. (Skirted Tree Fern) in south-eastern Australia are described, together with the extension of the known distribution range of Cyathea cunninghamii from eastern Victoria into south-eastern New South Wales. Floristic and ecological data, encompassing most of the known habitat types, vegetation associations and population sizes, were collected across 120 locations. Additional information was sought from literature reviews, herbarium collections and field surveys of extant populations. Cyathea cunninghamii is widespread, with the majority of populations occurring in Tasmania and Victoria, one population in south-eastern NSW and a disjunct population in south-eastern Queensland; Cyathea x marcescens is confined to south and eastern Victoria and south and north eastern Tasmania. Both taxa occur on King Island in Bass Strait. Both taxa have a near coastal distribution with most populations occurring in sub-coastal hinterland and escarpment forests with a median altitude of 288 m. Hierarchical cluster analysis of floristic data across the species' geographic range identified six vegetation communities ranging from rainforest to damp sclerophyll forest. Their micro-habitat preferences were consistently identified as steeply incised gullies of minor headwater streams of coastal and sub-coastal ranges with a plentiful moisture regime and geomorphic protection from extreme stream flow events, flooding and bank scouring. Sporophyte recruitment was associated with exposed soil of stream banks and edges of constructed walking tracks. Population sizes of both taxa are small with the majority of populations consisting of less than five adult individuals, with total populations of Cyathea cunninghamii and Cyathea x marcescens estimated at 919 and 221 mature individuals respectively. Population extinctions in Victoria and Tasmania have primarily been associated with outlier populations in regions subject to agricultural land clearance, habitat modification and changes to fire regimes in crown forests. Nonanthropogenic mortality was associated with land slips, tree falls and stream bank scouring by flood water. Conservation of the hybrid Cyathea x marcescens necessitates the preservation of habitats where both Cyathea cunninghamii and Cyathea australis occur in close proximity to substrates suitable for spore germination. In future, molecular techniques may prove useful for field identification of juvenile stages, facilitating selection of progeny of Cyathea cunninghamii and Cyathea x marcescens for cultivation and re-introduction to sites of previous or possible future extinctions.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1-24
    Number of pages24
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 2013


    • Tree fern
    • Cyathea australis
    • Cyathea cunninghamii
    • Cyathea x marcescens
    • threatened species
    • Australia
    • hybrids
    • Cyatheaceae


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