New Fern Could Fight Alzheimer's

A botanist's relentless search of north Queensland's rainforests has paid off with the rediscovery of a fern species that could help in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease.

On a rainy day in January this year, James Cook University researcher Ashley Field fell over in amazement when he looked up into the rainforest canopy to see the fern that was believed to be extinct.

Mr Field and his wife Holly had been systematically hunting for the blue tassel fern (Huperzia dalhousieana) for two years on expeditions into the rainforest lasting up to two weeks.

"I knew what it was straight away," said Mr Field, a PhD student in Townsville.

"We'd been following lots of leads and came to an area where we were walking waist deep in water in pouring rain and found it.

"I was ecstatic. I was wobbly at the knees, we had just about lost heart when we came across it."

Holly Field, who also has a degree in botany, said her husband fell over when he saw the fern, overwhelmed that his long search for it had finally paid off.

"It would be a bit like seeing a dodo or something else that you thought was extinct, and there it is," she said.

The bluish-grey epiphyte grows at the tops of rainforest trees and was last recorded 26 years ago.

It was widely believed to be extinct, with forest clearance seen as a major factor in its demise.

Its rediscovery could lead to medicinal benefits.

In China, another member of the species is cultivated to extract the compound Huperzine, believed to help in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease.

Mr Field said a major pharmaceutical company had contacted him about the potential production of Huperzine from Queensland's nine rare species of tassel fern.

That potential had yet to be investigated, he said, but as a step towards that he was determined to focus his research on conserving the ferns.

In the meantime he was keeping the locality of the blue tassel ferns secret, knowing collectors would be keen to take them from the wild.

He likens the need for secrecy to that surrounding the Wollemi Pine found near Sydney 10 years ago, after only being known from the fossil record.

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