January 27, 2021

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Environmental Report / Captain Cook reported finding coconuts in Australia

5 min read
Evidence that coconut palms were present in tropical Queensland before Captain Cook's journey.
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ANDRE LEU


⟼ James Cook found coconuts on the beaches around Cooktown and Lizard Island

⟼ Evidence that coconut palms were present in Australia before 1770

In his diary entry on the August 14, 1770, as he was sailing north from Lizard Island, Captain James Cook reported that they had found coconuts there, in the Endeavor River and other places. He wrote: “I had forgot to mention in its proper place that not only of these Islands but in severl places on the Sea beach in and about Endeavour River we found Bamboos, Cocoa-nutts, the Seeds of Plants, and Pummick Stones …”

Because they hadn’t found coconut palms or bamboo plants growing on the coast they assumed that they and other seeds they had found had drifted in from islands to the east of Australia.

Cooks’s report confirms that there were coconuts on several places along the coast which shows that they have the ability to float into coastal areas, germinate and grow into palm trees. Researchers have found unique wild-type Australian coconut palms on Lizard Island that they believe have resulted from early natural drift. The same researchers also reported wild-type coconut palms around Cooktown. Cook’s report of coconuts on Lizard Island, in and around the Endeavour River region confirm that they were drifting there prior to 1770.

Just because Cook and Joseph Banks did not find coconut palms, does not mean that they were not growing in Australia. They found bamboo washed up along beaches and because they didn’t find any bamboo plants, they assumed these had come from other regions. There are two species of bamboos that are native to the rainforests of north eastern Australia: Neololeba atra and Mullerochloa moreheadiana. Neololeba atra is a widespread species that occurs in the Philippines, Sulawesi and Maluku Islands in Indonesia, New Guinea and in Australia at Iron Range, McIlwraith Range and the upper regions of the Normanby River and Woobadda Creek in the greater Daintree-Bloomfield region. Mullerochloa moreheadiana is unique monotypic genus — a genus with only one species — found only in the rainforests of north east Queensland. The genus Mullerochloa was named in honor of Len Muller, a bamboo expert in Mirriwinni who sent flowers of this bamboo to a taxonomist, who discovered that this was not just a new species, it was a new genus.

Cook also mentioned that they found seeds of plants washed up on the beaches that they did not think came from Australia. The majority of seeds that we can find on our beaches in Queensland come from native plants that grow along the coast, rivers and estuaries of Queensland.


Like coconuts many of these plants are widespread Indo-Pacific species due to their ability to float on water across oceans and germinate when they are washed ashore. Most of the coastal  species including the mangroves found in Queensland are Indo-Pacific. This means that they can be found throughout our region from the Indian Ocean coasts of Madagascar, Africa, India and Myanmar through to the Pacific coasts of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, southern China, Philippines, the Pacific Island countries and the tropical countries of the Americas such as Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia and Ecuador. There are hundreds of species of plants and many species of animals that are native to northern Australia that are found in various regions of the Indo-Pacific. Species from Asia, Africa and the Americas have been coming to northern Australia for millions of years. It defies logic that coconuts, one best adapted species for crossing seas and colonising new areas somehow colonised the whole of the tropical Indo-Pacific region and missed Australia, apart from the Torres Straits. Cook’s diary certainly shows that they didn’t miss Australia. He found coconuts in multiple places showing that the nuts were not uncommon and that they could regularly germinate and grow along the whole tropical Queensland coast.

Obviously, coconuts palms did not dominate the coastal ecosystems in mainland Australia. This is generally the case with coconuts in areas where they are not cultivated. Coconuts are pioneer species with a relatively short life span, for a tree, of 70 years. The young plants need full sun to grow to full size and will not grow to maturity under a canopy. There are many areas in Asia such as much of the Andaman coast of Thailand where coconuts are quite rare, apart from the areas where they are cultivated, as they cannot compete in relatively undisturbed native eco-systems.   Many animals species feed on coconuts reducing the number of nuts that can germinate and grow into trees. In Australia, White Tail rats feed on the nuts, reducing their numbers. Coconuts need fresh water and do not have tap roots. They are salt tolerant like most coastal plants however they are not mangroves and cannot live in salt water. In most of coastal northern Australian, because they do not have tap roots, coconuts cannot access deep water tables in the dry season like most trees species can. These would have been some of the reasons coconut palms were not widespread in the tropics of Queensland.

Another reason why coconut palms were not common, based on the reports of multiple researchers, is due to indigenous people eating them as nuts and as palm hearts. There are two palms, Corypha utan and Hydriastele ramsayi that were eaten for palm hearts and were rare in Australia, however now that they are no longer harvested they are becoming locally common. Corypha utan is a widespread species found in India, South East Asia, Indonesia, Philippines, PNG, Cape York, Queensland  and the Top End of the Northern Territory in Australia. It was a rare palm in Australia, however now because it is rarely harvested for palm heart it is common in its local areas. Hydriastele ramsayi was so rareit was considered to be extinct at one time. It only grows a few places in the Top End of the NT however it is now locally common and not endangered, because it is rarely harvested for palm hearts. The same thing has happened with coconuts. Now that they are rarely harvested for palm hearts or for the nuts they are becoming locally common in some areas.

The fears that they will invade and dominate the coastal ecosystems are not evidence based. The evidence throughout the Indo-Pacific is that they are pioneer species and over time, like most pioneer species, as the coastal ecosystems are allowed to naturally regenerate into primary ecosystems they will become a minor species. There are many places in the Indo-Pacific, where primary coastal ecosystems are relatively undisturbed and coconuts are quite rare.

On another note, those of us who research and collect coconuts have varieties that are unique to Australia. It concerns us that an active campaign to eradicate coconuts is endangering unique Australian coconut genetics, potentially causing the extinction of these native plants. We need to manage, catalogue and care for our Australian coconuts, not destroy them.


REFERENCES & FURTHER READING
http://southseas.nla.gov.au/journals/cook/17700814.html


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