Our dry continent has a secret worth saving

Passionate plant ecologist Associate Professor Rod Fensham of the School of Biological Sciences discusses his work on artesian springs - isolated oases in Australia’s semi-arid desert lands.

It’s likely you learned about the Great Artesian Basin at school - the largest and deepest artesian basin in the world - and the only reliable fresh water source through much of inland Australia.

Unless you are an outback farmer, you probably haven’t thought much about it since – but it’s something important that is now under threat of being lost forever.

This amazing resource underlies almost a quarter of Australia, stretching over 1.7 million square kilometres across four states, with almost two thirds in Queensland.

Extint springs at Sunny Plains.

Within the basin are a number of artesian springs that appear as tiny little wetlands, rarely more than a hectare, sometimes only as big as a puddle.

They are home to weird and wonderful creatures including snails, crustacea, plants and fish that have evolved to live in these special places, occurring nowhere else on the planet. They are also under threat.

I’ve been interested in these springs for almost 20 years, and although I’m a botanist, my research interests have widened to include their hydrological function, conservation, optimum management and biogeographic history.

In Queensland, artesian springs are clustered in groups at the edge of regional centres such as Boulia, Julia Creek, Richmond, Aramac, Muttaburra, Roma, Taroom, Eulo, Cunnamulla and Bedourie.

There are two types of springs - those drawn down through the rocks by gravity, and those forced up by pressure. The second type are known as discharge springs. They’re of most concern as half are now inactive, as water pressure levels continues to drop due to 150 years of water extraction since European settlement.

People have tapped water for pastoral use, but most of the water from these bores evaporated under the hot sun. In the past few decades the Federal and State governments have been involved in capping the old bores to address the waste. 

More controversially, large amounts of artesian water are being extracted for mining and coal seam gas operations. 

Finding the springs

Artesian springs are obviously enormously significant for people.  Aboriginal people would have used them as stepping stones for getting around and sources of permanent water. The springs have been largely forgotten to history over the past 100 years, so the job for our research team was to find them.

Rod Fensham.

In the School of Biological Sciences, we study maps of early Queensland to look at what early surveyors found and whether these features are still there today. 19th Century surveyors left this beautiful legacy of hand-drawn maps that are of great interest to us because they marked the resources they saw, including landscape features that haven’t been recorded by anyone else. 

Sometimes the only record of springs is these old maps which guide us in the scrub to find them.

Finding flora

We get really excited when we find springs that are intact, with flora they’ve always had.

In the 1860s, scientists discovered a beautiful little plant, the salt pipewort (Eriocaulon carsonii) and, until our work, was the only plant we knew was specialised to artesian springs. 

I had the opportunity to showcase some of our recent discoveries of Australia’s extraordinary artesian flora in Gardening Australia.

These included a pipewort (Eriocaulon species) which is obviously a close relative, but has white on the cluster of flowers on the stem, known as inflorescence. This species is yet to be formally described and named scientifically.

There’s also a giant version, which is rare, and known to exist only at one spring. The pigs eat this plant, so we’re a little bit concerned about it, but it has been named, and it’s called Eriocaulon aloensis. It’s named after aloe, a succulent which gardeners will know.

Eriocaulon aloensis.

One of our newest discoveries is Isotomoa (isotoma sp).  It’s a tiny little flower but no less perfect because of its size. It’s also awaiting a name. 

A rare plant only known from one spring is unrelated to all the other species in the springs.  It’s called Peplidium (peplidium sp), but we had to grow it in pots before its tiny but perfect flowers were revealed.

I don’t do this work alone. I’ve got the pleasure of working with a young crew of people who are passionate in the same way I am and they’re just amazing. I can’t describe how good they are.

Peplidium (peplidium sp),

It’s an absolute thrill to find something no one else has discovered before - a brand new species.  

When you find something you love you should cherish it and you should nurture it and look after that love.

One of my loves is a love of plants, so that’s become a working goal to understand and defend them and ensure they are preserved for the future.

The carnivorous plant Utricularia fenshamii, named after Rod in recognition of his contribution to the ecology and conservation of spring wetlands.
Last updated:
11 May 2016