A rare plant found in northern Australia has amazed scientists by cloning itself to survive great environmental upheaval. Thousands of years ago the solitary shrub was separated from its relatives in another part of Australia by rising sea levels but has developed a remarkable ability to sprout copies of itself through genetic mutation.
Researchers at Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens say this resilient plant could show how nature might cope with climate change.
About 7,000 years ago a single Erythroxylum shrub in the Northern Territory became isolated from its cousins further east on Cape York in Queensland when melting glaciers created the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Unable to sexually reproduce and facing a lonely future, this small plant has managed to survive by creating copies of itself. It has sprouted about 350 separate shoots that are linked by a network of roots in what scientists say is a drastic response to extreme environmental change.
The findings have been published following a year-long study.
Dr. Maurizio Rossetto, from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, says the plant has shown extraordinary adaptability.
"To maintain levels of genetic diversity this particular individual started to accumulate mutations," he said. "So, as it was re-sprouting through the ground and it forms a number of isolated shoots still all interconnected underground, those shoots started to accumulate mutations. So, although it is one genetic individual, we have identified at least a dozen mutations. But finding empirical evidence of this happening now has been very difficult and probably it is one of the first times that this has been done."
Just how the Erythroxylum shrub has been able to mutate genes is unclear. This botanic wonder is a rather unassuming specimen. It barely reaches a height of 30 centimeters and produces inconspicuous white flowers.
Its ability, though, to repopulate a small area all on its own is giving researchers in Australia great hope that plants will be far more durable in the face of long-term climatic change than they've thought in the past.
Researchers warn, however, that the Erythroxylum's natural resilience does not make the plant less vulnerable to man's interference with the environment, including land clearing or the pressure from harmful introduced species of flora and fauna.
Sydney's Botanic Gardens is an important scientific center where vulnerable and unusual species are collected and protected.