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Botanist Wins Prestigious Nature Conservancy Award to Work on Grass Trees

Australia's mysterious native Xanthorrhoea genus to receive increased attention.

Melbourne, Australia | September 23, 2012

Botanist Todd McLay has won the 2012 prestigious Australian Conservation Taxonomy Award to delve further into the mysteries of the iconic Xanthorrhoea genus – or, Australia’s native grass trees.

The Nature Conservancy and The Thomas Foundation launched the award last year to foster research by young scientists into important taxonomic works with significant implications for conservation in Australia.

Dr James Fitzsimons, director of conservation with The Nature Conservancy, said the $10,000 award would be used to “interpret the evolutionary history of the grass tree with a view to underpinning conservation in the global biodiversity hotspot of Western Australia.”

“The last major look at the Xanthorrhoea family was in 1986 for the Flora of Australia, and it showed a level of uncertainty about some aspects of the grass tree. We urgently need to learn more about its biological make-up in order to better protect it.”

Mr McLay, a postgraduate student at the University of Melbourne, will assess and revise the species-level taxonomy of Xanthorrhoea in Western Australia and attempt to identify potentially undescribed species.

Two species of Xanthorrhoea – thortonii and nana are found in the Great Western Woodlands, the world’s largest intact temperate woodland. These species are biogeographically distinct from other recognised species of grass trees that grow in the subregions of western Australia.

“Knowing what species exist and their ecological requirements are essential elements of conservation and we are confident that Mr McLay, with his passion for plants, will help provide more answers,” Dr Fitzsimons said.

The Australian Conservation Taxonomy Award was presented to Mr McLay at the Australasian Systematic Botany Society conference. The award is administered by the Australasian Systematic Botany Society.

The Thomas Foundation was established in 1998 by David Thomas and his wife, Barbara. The conservation of biodiversity has always been part of the Foundation’s focus. The Foundation adopts a strategic planning approach to its grant making and considers its grants to be investments in forming social capital. The Foundation’s mission is “Arresting the decline of biodiversity in Australia and encouraging others to do likewise.”

The Nature Conservancy in Australia has, since 2000, worked with Indigenous groups and other partners to support conservation efforts across more than 120 million hectares of Australia's lands and waters. We helped to secure 29 high priority additions to the National Reserve System, including some of the largest private protected areas in Australia. The Nature Conservancy has also assisted Indigenous groups with the protection of 13 million hectares of Indigenous Protected Areas across northern and central Australia, and we’re working to conserve the Great Western Woodlands, the world’s largest intact temperate woodland. 

The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at

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Penny Underwood
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