A Rare plant that technically may not exist

Eucalyptus litoralis is a small, rather crooked tree with rough, fissured bark on the trunk and finer bark on the branches which peels off in narrow strips.  It is one of the major trees of woodlands near the coastal town of Anglesea, south-west of Melbourne, in low-nutrient, sandy soils where the understory is comprised of small-leafed shrubs, coarse grasses, sedges and herbs.  The species is clearly rare and although the vegetation within which it grows is relatively undisturbed, and is now within a state conservation reserve, its security was for some time under question because it was not considered to be a distinct species.

Eucalyptus litoralis - Otway Grey-gum : Vulnerable in Victoria : Found only in Victoria
Eucalyptus litoralis
© Paul Gullan/Viridans Images 

The Otway Grey-gum (we will use its common name as the scientific nomenclature varies in this discussion) is part of one of the most outstanding examples of how taxonomic disagreements can cause great problems for conservation planning.  In 1996 it was listed by the then Department of Natural Resources and Environment (NRE) as rare in Victoria.  It had no formal scientific name at the time so it was labeled as Eucalyptus aff. alaticaulis (Anglesea).  Many botanists, including those within NRE, regarded it as a coastal form of Eucalyptus alaticaulis (Grampians Grey-gum) and there was an expectation that taxonomic research would determine it to be a new subspecies or variety.

There was a dilemma for NRE, however, as the recently published Flora of Victoria did not recognise either of these plants as distinct species. The Otway Grey-gum was regarded as a local variant of the widespread Eucalyptus goniocalyx (Long-leaf Box) while the Grampians Grey-gum was regarded as a dwarf form of Eucalyptus cypellocarpa (Mountain Grey-gum), an equally common eucalypt.  To make matters more difficult the Otway Grey-gum was nominated for listing under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act (FFG) but was rejected on the grounds, amongst others, that it did not constitute a recognised species or subspecies under the Act.

The logical consequence of these discrepancies would mean that NRE could either remove the two species from its list, or disagree with the Flora treatment and maintain them.  Either way the disagreement may have been one of merely academic interest if it were not for a major conservation argument centred on populations of the Otway Grey-gum near the Anglesea.  In this area a local landowner wanted to subdivide a single 250 hectare block of bushland into dozens of much smaller housing blocks.  An environmental study, carried out on behalf of the landowner, revealed that his land held some of the largest stands (if not the largest) of Otway Grey-gum in Victoria and that the subdivision would severely compromise its long-term survival. This became the trigger to a battle for control of the land use which went on for nearly ten years and involved numerous scientists, naturalists, local landowners, the federal Minister for Conservation, the Premier of Victoria and, of course, lawyers.

Those that argued in favour of the land development pointed to the rejection of the Otway Grey-gum as a species (or subspecies) in its own right by the two most authoritative agencies in the state - the Herbarium and the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) to the FFG.  Those that were against the subdivision, while respectful of the two authorities, maintained that their argument was flawed and that were were sound taxonomic and ecological reasons for recognising the Otway Grey-gum as distinct - and hence rare.

In the end the subdivision did not go ahead as planned, although it was not abandoned completely, and most of the land was rezoned as the Mount Ingoldsby Reserve.  After several informal name changes, the Otway Grey-gum was finally described as Eucalyptus litoralis, a name (and identity) which is now accepted by both the Herbarium and the current Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), and its conservation status has been raised to vulnerable.  Along the way the Herbarium also recognised Eucalyptus alaticaulis as a distinct species - itself listed as rare.  The Otway Grey-gum has not been reconsidered for listing under the FFG nor has it been listed under the Commonwealth EPBC Act.

© Paul Gullan, Viridans Biological Databases