Cephalofovea pavimenta, Mt Canobolas Velvet Worm endemic to the Canobolas volcanic complex

Feature Article | Secret Treasures of Mt Canobolas

Mount Canobolas is giving up its secrets.

Who knew it had so many? I’ve been exploring parts of ‘The Mountain’ for over forty years and it’s only recently I came to understand how little we really know about it, and what a fascinating story it has to tell.

Mount Canobolas is the iconic backdrop to the City of Orange, a sentinel visible from 50 km away in many directions. But Mount Canobolas is much more than a bush covered high point in the landscape. We now know it has long been a nursery for the evolution of new flora and fauna species and a refuge for threatened biodiversity.

What makes Mt Canobolas so special?

Mount Canobolas is an 11 million year old former volcano that originally reached about 1000 m above its surrounds forming an inselberg, or land-locked island of high altitude habitat. Today at 1,397 m, the summit of Mt Canobolas is still about 500 m above the surrounding plateau. Much of the Mt Canobolas State Conservation Area (SCA) is above 1000 m in altitude, has a much colder climate than the lowlands and supports an isolated ecosystem of high montane and sub-alpine vegetation. The isolation of Mt Canobolas from other peaks on the Great Dividing Range to the east has allowed the evolution of new life forms, similar to the evolution of different species of Darwin’s Finches and Giant Tortoises on the isolated volcanic islands of the Galapagos Archipelago.

Discovery of the Mountain’s Secrets

It is only in the last 20 years that Mt Canobolas has started to give up its secrets in earnest, although there were earlier clues uncovered by pioneering botanists like JH Maiden, NSW Government Botanist and Director of the Sydney Botanic Gardens at the turn of the 20th Century, and WE (Bill) Giles, keen local amateur botanist and forestry worker. Maiden identified the distinctiveness of the Vulnerable Canobolas Candlebark in 1917 and Giles discovered the Critically Endangered Canobolas Mintbush in the 1940s. It was not until 1991 that the Canobolas Candlebark was named scientifically and the Canobolas Mintbush was formally named only in 2015.

One unique invertebrate, the Mount Canobolas Velvet Worm, was described in 1995. Velvet worms are living fossils, with likely ancestors dating back 500 m years to the Cambrian period in the fossil record.

Research in the SCA accelerated in the 21st Century with the sudden realisation that Mt Canobolas was home to much unique biodiversity. Professor Jack Elix and Dr Patrick McCarthy from the Australian National University described four new endemic species of lichens from the mountain in 2014 and 2016, and discovered two others known from the mountain and only one other place in Australia. Mt Canobolas is a nationally significant hotspot of lichen diversity.

David Jones, formerly of the CSIRO Centre for Biodiversity Research and Australia’s leading orchid expert, described two new endemic orchid species, the Pink Spider Orchid and the Canobolas Leek Orchid, from Mt Canobolas in 2019. Professor Jeremy Bruhl of the University of New England and his students have identified four new flowering plant species, a Starbush, an Urn Heath, a Bulbine Lily and a Phebalium, that will be formally described in coming years.

So far, we know of at least 13, and possibly 15, endemic species that occur on Mt Canobolas and nowhere else.

How many more?

The exploration of the Mt Canobolas’s biodiversity is in its infancy. Most of its flora and fauna has yet to be studied in detail. Accordingly, it is highly likely that other unique endemic species are present and it is impossible to guess how many.

Threats

Large areas of the reserve have not been surveyed in detail in the right conditions to be sure that important biodiversity would not be affected by development. Until we know the full extent of endemism on Mt Canobolas it is unwise to permit any further development in the SCA or in naturally vegetated areas in the surrounds. The reality is that any development of the SCA for mountain biking tracks and supporting infrastructure may pose serious risks to undiscovered populations of rare and endemic species. In addition, many rare species on Mt Canobolas have very small population sizes and are at high risk of extinction. If the recent research on Mt Canobolas tells us anything, it is that we still know very little about our iconic mountain.

This post appeared as an article in the June 17-23 edition of Orange City Life. See the original at: https://issuu.com/cwpn/docs/oclife20210617sml

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