Biodiversity publications archive

Refugia for biological diversity in arid and semi-arid Australia

Biodiversity Series, Paper No. 4
S.R. Morton, J. Short and R.D. Barker, with an Appendix by G.F. Griffin and G. Pearce
Biodiversity Unit
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, 1995

12. Refugia in the Northern Territory (continued)

12.9. Reference number NT9

Refuge area: Western MacDonnell Ranges

Biogeographic region: MacDonnell Ranges

Type of refuge: Gorges/mountain ranges

Lat./Long. 23°10’ to 24°20’S / 131° to 134°E

Quality of refuge: Extremely significant (9)

Area (km²): >10,000

Chief refuge value

A complex of gorges and mountain ranges providing habitat for numerous endemic and relict plant species, for some threatened species of plants and animals, and probably for many invertebrate species.

General description

A suite of ranges of diverse geological origin running roughly west from Alice Springs for 200 km. The Ranges contain many high ridgetops with unusual flora and fauna; they also include steep, south-facing gorges which frequently support moist environments, as well as permanent waters in broader gorges. The presence of relict species has long been known1, 2, 3, 4.

ANZECC-listed species

The black-footed rock-wallaby Petrogale lateralis (V)5. The central rock-rat Zyzomys pedunculatus (E) may no longer exist6. There are unconfirmed records of malleefowl Leipoa ocellata (E) from a number of localities in central Australia, including near Hermannsburg7. The cabbage palm Livistona mariae (V) is found only in Palm Valley8. Ricinocarpos gloria-medii, “Glory-of-the-centre” (V), is known from five populations9. A daisy, Olearia macdonnellensis (V), occurs at Serpentine Gorge and at Ellery Big Hole10. The cycad Macrozamia macdonnellii (V) occurs in scattered pockets throughout the area10.

Regional endemics and relict species

The only endemic vertebrate appears to be a blind snake Ramphotyphlops centralis11. The earthworm Acanthodrilus eremius is probably relictual12. Camaenid land-snails have radiated to an extraordinary extent in the MacDonnell Ranges, with many of the species apparently being confined to tiny ranges13. The following species are endemic to the Western MacDonnells: Granulomelon arcigerens (only from Glen Helen Gorge), Sinumelon bednalli (immediately to the east of Alice Springs), S. expositum (Western MacDonnells generally), Basedowena squamulosa (only from Palm Valley and Areyonga), Semotrachia euzyga (immediate vicinity of Alice Springs), S. caupona (immediate vicinity of Alice Springs), S. runutjirbana (Simpsons Gap), S. filixiana (Fenn Gap), S. winneckeana (Spencer Gorge and Ellery Creek Big Hole), S. elleryi (Serpentine Gorge, Ellery Creek Big Hole and the Ellery-Finke junction), S. esau (Finke River, Palm Valley and Palmer River), and Divellomelon hillieri (Palm Valley).

One group of plants appears to have been isolated for long periods and so have speciated; another group consists of species which occur in the most mesic areas of the Ranges and have much larger sister populations in coastal or near-coastal areas of Australia; finally, there are species with disjunct populations but which are not restricted to sheltered areas of the Ranges4. The species are listed here under the one category because we cannot separate them into endemics, relicts, and significant species as we would wish; further, the list incorporates species found in the East MacDonnells (section 12.10) and the George Gill Range (section 12.11): Acacia calcicola; Adiantum capillus-veneris; Adiantum hispidulum; Agrostis avenacea; Alectryon oleifolius; Anacampseros australiana; Arthropodium strictum; Baumea arthrophylla; Bulboschoenus caldwellii; Bothriochloa bladhii; Bulbostylis pyriformis; Caesia chlorantha; Calotis cuneifolia; Carex fascicularis; Centipeda cunninghamii; Chenopodium desertorum ssp. anidiophyllum; Christella dentata; Chthonocephalus pseudevax; Clematis microphylla; Convolvulus remotus; Corynotheca licrota; Cratystylis sp.; Cyclosorus interruptus; Cymbopogon refractus; Cynanchum pedunculatum; Cynoglossum australe; Cyperus exaltatus; Cyperus laevigatus; Cyperus polystachyos; Dendrophthoe odontocalyx; Dicranopteris linearis; Diplachne parviflora; Dipteracanthus australasicus ssp. australasicus; Doodia caudata; Einadia nutans ssp. nutans; Elatine gratioloides; Eleocharis geniculata; Eleocharis pusilla; Eleocharis setifolia; Eragrostis sterilis; Eragrostis lacunaria; Eriocaulon cinereum; Eucalyptus orbifolia; Eucalyptus thozetiana; Euchiton sphaericus; Ficus platypoda var. minor; Fimbristytis eremophila; Fimbristylis rara; Fimbristylis sieberiana; Flueggia virosa; Gnaphalium sphaericum; Goodenia grandiflora; Gossypium sturtianum; Grevillea albiflora; Hibiscus sturtii var. sturtii; Histiopteris incisa; Imperata cylindrica; Iphigenia indica; Isoëtes muelleri; Juncus aridicola; Juncus continuus; Juncus kraussii; Leucopogon sonderensis; Lindsaea ensifolia; Livistonia mariae; Lomandra patens; Maireana brevifolia; Maireana pentatropis; Maireana sedifolia; Mirbelia ramulosa; Najas marina; Nephrolepis arida; Nymphoides indica; Olearia xerophila; Ophioglossum lusitanicum; Ottelia ovalifolia; Oxalis radicosa; Pachycornia triandra; Pandorea doratoxylon; Persicaria decipiens; Persicaria lapathifolia; Pityrodia loricata; Plagiobothrys plurisepalus; Plumbago zeylandica; Poranthera microphylla; Poranthera triandra; Prostanthera striatiflora; Psilotum nudum; Pteris tremula; Radyera farragei; Rhagodia parabolica; Rhodanthe laevis; Schizachyrium pseudeulalia; Schoenus falcatus; Sclerolaena bicornis; Solanum ferocissimum; Solanum petrophilum; Spartothamnella puberula; Stemodia viscosa; Stipa scabra ssp. scabra; Stipa trichophylla; Swainsona colutoides; Swainsona disjuncta; Tinospora smilacea; Trema tomentosa; Tricoryne elatior; Triglochin hexagona; Velleia glabrata; Vernonia cinerea; Wurmbea centralis; Zornia chaetophora; Zornia muriculata. This list is compelling evidence of the extent to which the MacDonnell Ranges possess an extraordinary flora4.

Other significant species

Brushtail possums Trichosurus vulpecula were originally widespread in central Australia but have declined to rarity; the species is now known only from seven sites (along creek systems near to the ranges or with gorges in the ranges) in the Western MacDonnell Ranges and two outside them14. A distinctive form of the frog Litoria caerulea is confined in the MacDonnell Ranges to major, permanent rockholes in the ranges where it survives in cracks and crevices of rock faces adjacent to the water5. Many species of reptiles reach their range limits in the West MacDonnells5. Bird species of regional significance include the peregrine falcon Falco peregrinus, bush thick-knee Burhinus grallarius, spinifex bird Eremiornis carteri and redthroat Sericornis brunneus5. Ten species of fish occur. All but one species are widespread; however, the Finke River hardyhead Craterocephalus centralis is restricted to the Finke River basin, and the permanent waterholes of the Gorges are probably the major source from which repopulation downstream occurs after dry periods15. The aquatic invertebrate communities are also likely to be of high conservation significance.

Key threats

Exotic vertebrates – horses, rabbits, foxes and cats – and plants – couch grass, buffel grass, and tamarisk. Grazing stock can damage refuge areas. Tourist impacts are likely to increase as visitation escalates. Finally, fire management is essential for relict species.

Land tenure

Western MacDonnells National Park, Finke Gorge National Park, pastoral leases, Aboriginal land.

Key references

1. Keast (1959)

2. Chippendale (1963)

3. Maconochie (1981)

4. Latz (1995)

5. Gibson and Cole (1993)

6. Wurst (1990)

7. Kimber (1985)

8. Latz (1975)

9. Soos et al. (1987)

10. Gibson et al. (1992)

11. Cogger (1992)

12. Yen (1995)

13. Solem (1993)

14. Kerle et al. (1992)

15. Michaelis (1985)