Mistletoe is more than just an excuse to kiss your crush over the holidays, it’s a tool that botanists at Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) are using to determine the health of habitats and ecosystems at Mt Gibson Wildlife Sanctuary in the WA Wheatbelt.
Although famously known as the Christmas kissing ornament, mistletoe is found in several countries around the world including Australia. Due to its green and red pop culture image, the plant is often unrecognised in the Aussie bush, where locals can (and most likely have) unknowingly come across up to 80 species from two families (Loranthaceae and Viscaceae).
Mistletoe is often described as a ‘parasite’ as it digs itself into the vascular system of trees in order to survive and grow. Despite this seemingly parasitic relationship, botanists say the relationship is actually often symbiotic because the mistletoe will share resources, attract pollinators such as insects and birds and act as good nesting and food resources for birds and possums.
Beyond the benefits it delivers to other living creatures, the presence of mistletoe is also a good indicator of the health of habitat and ecosystems according to Rigel Jensen, Australian Wildlife Conservancy Botanist. He explained that an even and generous dispersal of the plant suggests favourable weather conditions and well managed fire patterns in the area.
“Fire plays an important role in the evolution and function of Australian landscapes and it has done so for tens of thousands of years,” said Rigel. “However, when poorly managed it can cause more harm than good to the ecosystem.”
AWC’s fire management strategy for Mt Gibson Wildlife Sanctuary aims to prevent extensive, intense wildlife which can alter the structure and integrity of the woodlands. Firebreaks have been installed to protect the feral predator-free area and to break up the property in the event of a wildfire.
“One way to determine the success of a fire program is by regularly surveying the presence of mistletoe. Although a persistent species, mistletoe is unable to survive intense fires so a shortage of mistletoe can suggest a poor fire management program,” Rigel added.
“AWC’s National Science Team conducted its first mistletoe survey at Mt Gibson Wildlife Sanctuary this year, as an additional means of monitoring the ecosystem health within the safe haven and the effectiveness of our fire management strategies.”
Following the inaugural survey, Rigel described mistletoe at Mt Gibson Wildlife Sanctuary as healthy despite its sporadic dispersion. He believes the plant’s patchy nature to be consistent with mistletoe distribution in the local area.
Beyond ecosystem and fire, Rigel and his team will also use mistletoe to monitor the population growth of the recently reintroduced Brushtail Possum which feeds on the plant.
“Forty-nine Brushtail Possums were released inside and outside the feral predator-free fenced area at Mt Gibson in May this year. This species is known to browse on mistletoes, so we’ll be able to use mistletoe as an indication of possum numbers as well as monitor their impact on these plants in the coming years,” added Rigel.