Why the Daintree Rainforest is so special

By Steve Wilson

Many people visit this region every year from Australia and all around the world. They drive around or take a tour and see a lot of trees, plants, beautiful scenery and if they are very lucky They may even see an iconic animal such as a cassowary, crocodile or maybe even a tree kangaroo. But the shear majesty of the place is often lost due to how complex and inaccessible most of it is. There is a lot more here than meets the eye or can be seen in just a day or two. You have to be here throughout every season to really understand the place and even that can take years. Also most or all of the cultural importance of this place to the first Australians is often neglected or ignored. How they even managed to survive and thrive in a place where so many of the plant species are so toxic to human consumption is a testament to their amazing resilience and knowledge. Some tree species may only flower every twenty-five years or so which means even the locals that have been here a long time have not seen everything this place has to offer. New species are constantly being discovered or rediscovered and there is still much to learn about this ancient land with direct connections to Gondwanan times. It is believed that the Daintree Rainforest is 135 to 180 million years old. This makes it much older than the Amazon jungle perhaps by 50 million years or more and the oldest low land tropical rainforest or jungle in the world.

To this day this place only exists as a relic rainforest because of a good kind hearted decision that was announced on the ninth of December 1988 the year it received protection and World Heritage listing. From a government that could actually appreciate what we had and the importance of keeping it preserved. Even that decision was only made due to the passionate efforts of a rag tag group of visiting and local environmentalists that just would not give up on trying to protect something they appreciated and loved for themselves and future generations. In fact, if the State powers that be of the day back then had gotten their way the main trees here now would probably be oil palms and the whole place would be developed. As they for the most part viewed this place as nothing more than just mongrel scrub to be cleared, developed and exploited.

Luckily that was not to be the fate of the Daintree rainforest and it survives to this day as both a place of wonder and an environmental success story. It is also a natural catalogue of ancient plant and animal species some of which are no longer found anywhere else on earth. There are over 3000 recognised plant species here and 395 of these are listed as rare or endangered.  65% of Australian fern species are found in the Daintree rainforest they are truly primitive plants next evolutionary step up from mosses that were the next evolutionary stage after algae, existing for over 200 million years and being the first true land plants. As well as being home to so many species of plants the Daintree Rainforest also contains within its boundaries 1200 types of insects from all species. Some of which are rare and endemic to the region, like the Peppermint Stick Insect. It boasts 28% of Australian frog species including the beautiful White Lipped Green Tree Frog that can grow to about a foot long 30cm making it the biggest frog in Australia and its found here. It also holds 40% of our bird species including seasonal visitors from New Guinea like the Torresian pigeons and the strikingly beautiful Buff Breasted Paradise Kingfisher with its elegant long white tail feathers. It can be found in the wetter months nesting in ground level termite mounds. All this in an area of only 1200 square kilometres (463 square miles) roughly a tenth of the size of Sydney.

One great example of this ancient rare flora is the enigmatic Ribbonwood tree AKA the Green Dinosaur a tree species from a bygone age that has miraculously survived until today. Representing one of the early species of (angiosperms) or flowering plants that were around looking just like they do today when dinosaurs ruled the earth. This species was instrumental in recognising the importance of what can be found here and the need to protect it.

Who knows what cures for diseases or new ingredients for cooking or innovations to the cosmetic industry lie waiting to be discovered in the plant species that flourish here in the Daintree Rainforest. Many of the medical breakthroughs of our time were discovered in rainforests. Not to mention that the rainforest itself is vitally important to the reef. Acting as a filter to slow down and clean the runoff from the torrential rains during the wet season on the land from depositing too much silt on the inshore reefs and smothering them. Thus allowing algae to grow and cover the corals. Stopping the (zooxanthellae) symbiotic algae within the corals tissue that give them their beautiful colours from being able to receive sunlight allowing them to photosynthesize and feed the coral polyps and assist in removing their waste. This chokes the reef and is a major cause of coral bleaching.

Another often overlooked point is that the rainforest actually makes its own rain. Warm humid air rises from the understory through the canopy to form clouds that rain back down on to the rainforest and create its own weather system. This can be easily observed especially in the summer months as vapour trails of condensation rise through the rainforest canopy to the sky. It is a truly beautiful sight to see the actual formation of clouds in this manner. Unfortunately, the results of too much land clearing and tree removal in other parts of the continent have aided in prolonging droughts causing erosion problems and allowing salt to rise to the top soil making forest regeneration or even farming difficult if not impossible.

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