New Fig Species Hiding In Plain Sight at Infamous Australian Landmark

Species that are new to science are disclosed on a regular basis. Typically, if a scientist wishes to be the one to identify one, he or she must travel to a location where few people have been or discover something very little. 

However, on top of Uluru, a destination frequented by half a million people a year during non-COVID periods, Dr. Russell Barrett and Brendan Wilde discovered a completely new tree species. Uluru’s fig trees have long been a source of fascination, as they are one of the few plants capable of flourishing on the arid rock. 

For tens of thousands of years, they not only provided sustenance to Indigenous Australians, but they also planted and cultivated as uniquely valuable. The authors, on the other hand, are the first to notice that humans have been misidentifying their species. Uluru’s figs are a separate species from Ficus brachypoda, a common fig in northern Australia, having smoother, narrower, and thicker leaves. Barrett and co-authors called them Ficus desertorum (desert fig) in the journal Telopea after consultation with the local indigenous people.

New Fig Species Hiding In Plain Sight at Infamous Australian Landmark

Because the figs have various names in each local language, they called for the desert in where they grow rather than an Indigenous phrase. Barrett, of the Australian Institute of Botanical Science, stated in a statement “choosing any one of the current names might effectively eliminate others from the same degree of importance.” “For First Nations peoples in central Australia, these figs are an extremely important species for food, shelter, and spirituality. Because of their importance to the whole community, damaging these trees might be punished by death in the past,” Barrett remarked.

Barrett told IFLScience that the fruit of F. desertorum is smaller and less delicious than the more commonly known F. carica figs from the Mediterranean. They, on the other hand, appear all year following rains and are mostly prevalent between August and January, when many other edibles are sparse in the Australian desert, making them possible lifesavers. 

The unusual fig may have a large market now that its identification has been disclosed, but Barrett added that they are not currently farmed commercially. “However, many indigenous people in the region plant them for shade and fruit around their homes,” he noted.

Although Uluru is the most recognized locality for F. desertorum, it may also be found at waterholes and rocky outcrops across the central desert, including the major tourist sites Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) and Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles). “Figs are known for their lengthy roots that seek out water, and this species has nailed it,” Barrett explained. 

“Roots have been recorded following fissures in cliff walls for more than 40 meters [131 feet] in order to reach valuable water hidden deep inside the rock or far below in a lonely pool. This is how the desert fig survives in the harsh environment of Australia’s interior.” F. desertorum is now too widespread considered endangered, but Barrett points out that its numbers are limited at each location, leaving it sensitive to climate change.