New species can be right in front of us – a new fig species from Uluru
Figs are one of the world's most recognisable trees, with their greatest diversity in tropical rainforests. So how did a fig come to be in the arid interior of Australia?
Until recently, a single widespread fig species, Ficus brachypoda, was recognised across northern and central Australia. New research has shown that the central Australian populations in fact represent a distinct species.
A fig tree, with large, dark green leaves and a dense canopy, stands out in stark contrast against its arid, red environment, so where would a new species of fig hide in central Australia? The answer is, on Uluru, Kata Tjuta, and Karlu Karlu to name just a few of the many significant landmarks that are home to these figs.
A sprawling Ficus desertorum 'tree' spreading over bare rock on Uluru. Photo: Brendan Wilde.
These figs are an incredibly significant species to indigenous people in central Australia, for food, shelter, and spirituality. Damaging these trees could be punishable by death historically, such is their significance to the whole community.
Animals too find food and shelter under these trees, particularly the Western Bowerbird, and a wide variety of native snails.
Calling these often scrambling shrubs ‘trees’ is perhaps generous, as most branches stay within a metre of the ground, but an individual often sprawls for 10 metres or more, and they can be described as trees that hug the protection of the rocky outcrops they grow on.
Figs are famous for their long roots which seek out water, and this species has perfected that art. Roots have been reported following cracks in cliff walls for over 40 metres to reach precious water which might be hiding deep within the rock, or far below in a secluded pool. This is how this species persists in the arid conditions found in the heart of Australia.
Discovery of a new species
Having grown up in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, I was familiar with a good number of tropical fig trees, but had questioned whether Ficus brachypoda could really be so widespread, given it was also very variable in morphology.
When Brendan Wilde approached me, a man with a passion for Australian native figs, and expressed his own doubts about species limits, it was time to dig deeper. Careful study of collections held in herbaria across Australia, and with reference to historical specimens held in European herbaria, showed that the central Australian populations were indeed morphologically distinct from more northern or western populations.
The Desert Fig (Ficus desertorum) has a distinctive thick leaves that reduce water loss. Photo: Russell Barrett.
While there are a large number of indigenous names for the fig, we established that there was no existing scientific name. So, what to call it?
Our first thought was to acknowledge the long history of indigenous history and significance of this species. We approached the Central Australian Land Council to ask the traditional custodians of the lands this species grows on if an indigenous name would be appropriate.
While a variety of names were suggested for their consideration, the meaning and importance of a name in indigenous culture has its own significance to consider. One name we thought might be appropriate is generally viewed as a geographical name by Westerners, but it is also a living family name, so it was not appropriate to apply to a plant.
Similarly, indigenous names for the species each have their own contexts and significance within a language group, and the species spans several language groups. No indigenous name spans all language groups, so choosing any one of the existing names would effectively exclude others from the same degree of significance. Based on these considerations, we were respectfully asked to choose a ‘standard’ name for the species.
We then chose to call the species Ficus desertorum, as the most common English name is the 'desert fig'. The name also highlights how unusual it is to find a fig in the desert.
Close-up images of the leaves and fruit of the Desert Fig. Photos: Russell Barrett.
The new species was described in the journal of the National Herbarium of New South Wales, Telopea which is freely accessible: Wilde BC, Barrett RL (2021) Hidden in plain sight: Ficus desertorum (Moraceae), a new species of rock fig from central Australia. Telopea 24: 283–301. PDF
We hope the description of this species with a new scientific name will enhance its protection in such an arid environment. While the species is quite widespread, and not currently threatened, it is only found in small populations, so shifts in climate, or localised impacts such as hot fires, could impact the species in the near future.