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Kings lomatia

Current status

[Photo of King's lomatia by A. Gray.]

Kings Lomatia (Lomatia tasmanica) is listed as endangered under the Threatened Species Protection Act 1995 and as critically endangered under the Federal Act.

Why is it endangered?

Kings lomatia is endangered because it only occurs naturally in one small area in the world. The total wild plant population is around 500 individuals all restricted to one disease and fire prone area. Kings lomatia occurs as a single population in Tasmania's remote southwest within the Wilderness World Heritage Area.

It is a Tasmanian endemic, first recorded by miner and naturalist, Deny King in 1937 at New Harbour but this population seems to have since disappeared. During the 1960's Deny sent specimens of the plant to the Tasmanian Herbarium to be identified and so it became known to science. Its common name "Kings lomatia" is in honour of the man who discovered it.

Why are these plants unable to sexually reproduce?

Although this plant does produce flowers it has never produced fruit or seed. The reason for this is that the plant is a triploid. This means it has three sets of chromosomes instead of the normal two. This renders the plant sterile. Other Tasmanian species, L. tinctoria and L. polymorpha are diploid (two sets of chromosomes), as are other species of the genus and the subfamily to which it belongs.

The only way it can reproduce itself is by vegetative means. It simply clones itself. When it gets old and falls down, it puts out new suckers and grows up again. It is still theoretically the same plant.

In fact latest research has shown that Kings lomatia is all one single clone. There is no genetic diversity within the population. This means that all the individual Kings lomatia plants are genetically identical.

The oldest plant clone in the world!

Amazingly, this plant clone has been around for at least 43,600 years. At Melaleuca Inlet some Pleistocene fossils of Lomatia leaves were found that appear to be L. tasmanica. Radio-carbon dating gave a minimum age of 43,600 years for the layer in which the leaf fossil was found.

As the fossil leaf is identical in cell structure and shape to the leaf of modern day Kings lomatia, it is considered that the fossil leaf must have been triploid also (otherwise it would not be identical). As triploidy is very rare in nature it is unlikely that triploidy could occur twice in the same species. If the 43,600 year old fossil was in fact triploid then it too would only have been able to reproduce by cloning. This would make Kings lomatia the oldest known clone in the world. Prior to this discovery, the oldest reported clone was a North American huckleberry, Gaylussacia brachycerium.

Individual plants probably live for only 300 years (based on growth ring counts). However the plant has been vegetatively reproducing itself for 43,600 years.

What's being done?

The extreme rarity of the plant, its inability to reproduce sexually and its lack of genetic diversity suggest the plant is nearing a natural extinction. Threats such as frequent firing and the root-rot fungus Phytophthora cinnamomi increase the likelihood of this ancient plant's extinction in the short-term, despite being securely reserved within the South-west National Park, part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. Fire and disease management planning will be essential for its long-term survival.

Action prescribed by the recovery plan is underway and include attempts to propogate this species so that new populations can be established. An intensive propogation program is required to restore the plant to a long-term viable level. Plants have been successfully propogated and maintained at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Garden.

View Distribution Map

Recommended further reading

Lynch A. J. J. 1991. Lomatia tasmanica Flora Recovery Plan. Parks and Wildlife Service, Tasmania.