Figs are extensively used by First Nations peoples in Australia, but until recently only one species was known to botanists to grow in central Australia. Now, a new species of desert fig – Ficus desertorum – has been classified as a distinct species growing on Uluru.
“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,” says Dr Russell Barrett from the Australian Institute of Botanical Science.
“These figs are an incredibly significant species to First Nations peoples 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.
“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.”
The desert fig appears to favour elevated places as it also grows on Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) and Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles).
To come up with a name, the researchers sought consultation for the Central Land Council. The desert fig has many names in Indigenous languages, including tywerrk (Alyawarr; Anmatyerr); tjurrka (Arrente); utyeerk, utyeerke (Eastern Arrente); tywerrke (Western Arrente); ili, witjirrki, yili (Pintupi); ili (Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara); and wÿirrki (Warlpiri). The figs as a food are known as mai pulk (Yankunytjatjara).
“Indigenous names for the species each have their own contexts and significance within a language group, and the species spans several language groups,” Dr Barrett says.
“No indigenous name spans all language groups, so choosing any one of the existing names could effectively exclude others from the same degree of significance. Based on these considerations, we were respectfully asked to choose a ‘standard’ scientific name for the species.
“We then chose to call the species Ficus desertorum, as the most commonly used English name for this species is the ‘desert fig’. The name also highlights how unusual it is to find a fig in the desert.”
The species was originally noted by an honours student, Brendan Wild, who enlisted Barrett to find out more. They found that the desert fig had smoother, narrower and thicker leaves compared to other native figs and also provided shade for the western bowerbird and a wide variety of native snails.
“To recognise a new species for science is always exciting but to find one on Uluru is not something you expect in a lifetime of research,” Barrett says.
“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 the desert fig persists in the arid conditions found in the heart of Australia.”
The study was published in National Herbarium of New South Wales.
Deborah Devis is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Liberal Arts and Science (Honours) in biology and philosophy from the University of Sydney, and a PhD in plant molecular genetics from the University of Adelaide.
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