Coral lichen - a scientific first

No. 8

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Cladia retipora was the first Australian lichen to be described in a scientific publication. The specimen was collected from Tasmania in 1792 by Jacques-Julien de Labillardière, the naturalist on Bruni d'Entrecasteaux's expedition of 1791–94. In 1806, Labillardière published the second volume of Novae Hollandiae Plantarum Specimen, including a short description and illustration of this species (Labillardière classified it as an alga, and named it Baeomyces reteporus; it was later classified as a lichen).

Cladia retipora can be found in many places in eastern Australia, as well as in New Zealand and New Caledonia. Lichens (actually a fungus and an alga existing symbiotically) are slow-growing, but they can survive in harsh conditions: in the dry, it becomes hard and brittle – like bleached coral – while in the wet it absorbs water, becoming soft and spongy.

Labillardière's Novae Hollandiae Plantarum Specimen provided the most comprehensive flora of Australia published to that time, and was based largely upon his Tasmanian collection. He had two extended visits to south-eastern Tasmania, being the first European to explore inland beyond the immediate coastline. He proved himself a sensitive and close observer, describing the leatherwood, blue gum and celery top pine, as well as the fauna and indigenous peoples he encountered.

It is remarkable that Labillardière was able to publish anything at all, as the French expedition occured in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, and ended abruptly when d'Entrecasteaux, his ships, crew and all their on-board goods were seized by the Dutch in Java. The thousands of plant specimens were later taken by the British, and it was only through his friendship with Sir Joseph Banks that Labillardière was able to have his specimens returned. Even though Banks knew the collection contained a bounty of specimens new to science, he returned them unexamined, believing that science should rise above political differences.

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