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Proteaceae study to span 100 million years

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A Curtin University researcher has received a $310,000 Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Project grant to investigate Proteaceae adaptation to fire over the past 100 million years.

Dr Tianhua He, Senior Researcher in Curtin’s Department of Environment and Agriculture, said the three-year study would map the phylogenetic (family) tree of more than 655 species and explore the role of fire in their evolution.

“We are investigating the timeline of the Proteaceae family, calibrating information against fossil records to estimate when each species evolved and map the evolution with corresponding environmental conditions,” Dr He said.

“We can make estimates of past oxygen levels, carbon dioxide levels and temperature from sources such as ocean floor deposits. We can then use models to determine the likelihood of fires occurring.

“If fire-related functional traits appeared in periods with high fire probabilities, we can view fire as a selective force, which supports our hypothesis that fire is essential to maintain biodiversity today.”

Dr He said the study would trace Proteaceae species evolution from their origins on the ancient supercontinent Gondwana to their spread among new islands and continents with varying soil nutrients, climates and fire regimes. These include Australia, New Caledonia, South Africa and Madagascar.

By delving into the deep past, Dr He hopes to resolve a debate about the role of fire in modern ecosystems and help inform current fire management.

Dr He said the debate arose a couple of years ago when a group of WA ecologists published a paper claiming there was little evidence to support fire-adapted plant traits. He said while scientists around the world have provided evidence to refute this claim, more was needed from WA, a region characterised by unique biodiversity and frequent fire.

“At the moment, we have some evidence that many WA plants need fire to survive, but we have to establish that it is a general characteristic of Australian flora in fire-prone environments and not just that a few species happen to have this characteristic,” Dr He said.

Dr He is collaborating with Emeritus Professor Byron Lamont and Dr Katherine Downes of Curtin, Professor Richard Cowling in South Africa and Dr Peter Weston in NSW for the study.

Dr Tianhua He, Department of Environment and Agriculture, Curtin University
Tel: 08 9266 7005 Email:

Rob Payne, Public Relations, Curtin University
Tel: 08 9266 4241, Email:

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