Last week in Australia I was introduced to the stinger tree or gympie-gympie (Dendrocnyde moroides) , which is common in rainforests after a cyclone or other disturbance. It is a relative of the common nettle and doesn't look that bad, but is much more vicious. The pain from even a minor sting is intense and can hurt for a year afterwards. I was sorely tempted to give myself a "light" sting just to know what it felt like. Surely a light touch from any plant can't be that nasty? Judging by this video, I am very glad I didn't. Is this the nastiest plant in the world? And why would a plant end up being so overdesigned to subject such overwhelming pain?
After the excellent ATBC conference in Cairns, I spent a few days exploring the long term rainforest research plots of the Queensland Wet Tropics, scoping out a field campaign we will conduct here next year to collect plant traits, as we have done in Peru and Brazil on the CHAMBASA and BACABA field campaigns.
Australia's tropical rainforests cover a relatively small area (2 million hectares) but are rich in endemic species (species not found anywhere else). Half of the area is protected World Heritage status, and seems much better protected than most tropical rainforests I have seen. They are also amazing in the number of very ancient plant families (ferns, cycads, conifers, and ancient angiosperm families) that proliferate here, giving them the moniker of "the world's oldest rainforests". A quarter of the species are found only in the Australian rainforests, and most others only in the Australia-New Guinea biogeographical region. I was guided around by Matt Bradford of CSIRO, and Lucas Cernusak of James Cook University in Cairns, who will collaborate in next year's project.
Yadvinder Malhi is an ecosytem ecologist and Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University