Friday, 20 August 2010

INTERVIEW: Ellen Hickman, Brush with Gondwana

Environmental consultant and botanical artist Ellen Hickman discusses biodiversity in WA

The southwest of Australia is one of the top 34 biodiversity hotspots of the world. It occupies a roughly triangular area on the southwestern tip of Western Australia, approximately 48.9 million hectares (489,944 km2) stretching between Shark Bay in the northwest to Esperance in the southeast, with a narrow strip along the southeastern coast to the border between Western Australia and South Australia. This is one of the oldest and most diverse landscapes in the world. Its major vegetation types range from the northern sandplain heaths to the Swan coastal plains and wetlands, the tall forests to the woodlands and weathered granites of the Wheatbelt and the mallee and heaths of the south coast. Vegetation types are often present within mosaics of plant communities that vary considerably over relatively short distances.

This area supports 7,380 plant taxa (6,759 species) with almost half (3,620 species) endemic to the area, and an unusually high diversity of species within the Proteaceae and Myrtaceae families. It is also believed that there are a number of plant species yet to be discovered. Many of these plants are rare and endangered, giving this region the highest concentration of rare and endangered species on the Australian continent.

While this region is recognised as a global biodiversity hotspot on the basis of the number and natural diversity of its vascular plants, it also has a rich and varied fauna. Seven species of mammals, 13 species of birds, 34 species of reptiles and 28 species of frogs are endemic to the region. Invertebrates and fungi are relatively poorly known but it is likely that high levels of endemism are also present.

The protection of these natural assets and the ecological integrity of this region are vital as a basis for sustainable development. I work as an environmental consultant and botanical artist in this rich area. The aims of these two diverse careers are essentially the same - my desire to promote the conservation of the natural assets of this area. Through my environmental assessments I inform my clients of the assets in need of conservation on lands under consideration for development. Also, while in the field I am discovering plenty of subjects for my artworks. And my artworks in exhibitions and publications, including both scientific and children’s publications, reach a wider audience to continue this education process.

My major project ‘on the drawing board’ at the moment is to illustrate the members of the plant family Haemorodraceae, which includes the Kangaroo Paws, for a definitive text. The Haemodoraceae has 111 species from 15 genera, with 7 genera occurring in Australia (the majority of these are in the Southwest of Australia) and the other 8 genera are found overseas in South Africa, North, Central and South America. I have undertaken study tours to South Africa and North America in the last 4 years and I have just completed a Winston Churchill Fellowship study tour to Cuba, Brazil and Guyana to complete studies for the overseas members of the family. Information on the overseas relatives of this family will lead to a greater understanding of the Australian members, and enlighten us on the adaptations as a result of differing environmental constraints. This in turn will lead to developments in the area of conservation of an important component of the southwest Australian landscape, especially in the light of climate change

Brush with Gondwana is available here

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