New Fig Species Hiding In Plain Sight At Infamous Australian Landmark

One of the factors that makes Uluru such a distinctive landmark is the way its sandstone gives little opportunity for erosion or plants to gain purchase, so it's testimony to the desert fig's capacities that it is among the few plants that can grow there. Image Credit: Brendan Wilde

Species new to science are announced frequently. Usually, however, if a scientist wants to be the one to name one they have to go somewhere few people have visited or find something very small. However, Dr Russell Barrett and Brendan Wilde identified a whole new tree species on top of Uluru, a site visited by half a million people a year in non-COVID times.

The fig trees of Uluru have certainly been noticed before, being one of the few things capable of growing on the forbidding sandstone. They not only supplied food to Indigenous Australians for tens of thousands of years but were also planted and nurtured as distinctively precious. However, the authors are the first to realize people have been getting their species wrong.

Instead of belonging to Ficus brachypoda, a fig common in northern Australia, the figs of Uluru are their own species with smoother, narrower, and thicker leaves. After consulting with the first nations of the area Barrett and co-authors named them Ficus desertorum (desert fig) in the journal Telopea

The leaves of the desert fig look more like a eucalypt than the familiar commercial fig, but the fruits are more familiar, other than having a much longer season. Image Credit: Russell Barrett

The figs were named after the desert in which they grow, rather than choosing an Indigenous word, because they have different names in each local language. “Choosing any one of the existing names could effectively exclude others from the same degree of significance,” Barrett, of the Australian Institute of Botanical Science, said in a statement

“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,” Barrett added. 

Barrett told IFLScience F. desertorum's fruit is smaller and not as sweet as the familiar F. carica figs originating around the Mediterranean. On the other hand, they can appear all year round after rains and are preset most of the time from August to January, when many other foods are scarce in the Australian desert, making them potential lifesavers. Now that its identity has been revealed there may be quite a market for the distinctive fig, but Barrett added they are not currently grown commercially. “However, many people Indigenous to the area plant them around their houses for shade and fruit,” he said.

Although Uluru is the most famous site at which F. desertorum grows, they are also found at other locations in the central desert at waterholes and rocky outcrops, including the major tourist attractions Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) and Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles).

“Figs are famous for their long roots which seek out water, and this species has perfected that art,” Barrett said. “Roots have been reported following cracks in cliff walls for over 40 meters [131 feet] 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.”

F. desertorum currently thrives over too large an area to be considered endangered, but Barrett noted its populations at each location are small, making it vulnerable to a changing climate.


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