This time, it really is THE END

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It’s been an amazing three years in which I have dedicated a lot of time and effort into completing my Masters. The outcome: a small piece of paper with the University, my Name, the Degree, a Distinction! and the Date. Something to go straight to the pool room I guess.

And so I bid adieu; my Masters is over and the time spent at The University of Melbourne now only a fond memory…


And what are the implications?


The models created in my research suggest increased seedling elevations and densities are influenced by fire. Dendrochronological studies indicate that large fires in Victorian alpine environments have occurred every 50 – 100 years over the past 400 years. However, under climate change scenarios modeled to the year 2100, fire weather in south-eastern Australia has been predicted to become more frequent and more severe. As fire frequencies increase, the models predict that treeline elevation and density changes will quicken.

However, optimal tree ages that influence seedling establishment as calculated as part of my research were found to be between 24 and 42 years of age. If climate change subsequently reduces fire frequencies to less than (for example) every 20 years, then seedling numbers may actually fall. Repeat burn times that outpace Eucalyptus pauciflora reaching their optimal reproductive maturity age may subsequently have dramatic effects on the Victorian treeline.

The treeline ecotone changes predicted by my research have significant land management implications that should be considered. In particular, the Victorian treeline physiognomy is modeled to become denser under increasing fire frequency due to climate change. Researchers predict that there is a strong relationship between the density of a forest, and the ecosystem services it provides. Increased tree density has been shown to negatively impact habitat quality resulting in trees that are less suitable for food resources, foraging areas, and shelter.

These denser treelines have been shown to be more susceptible to wildfire due to providing additional fuel loads and imposing increased water stress. Fire management in the Australian Alps is recognised as an important strategy to promote natural diversity of the treeline ecotone by application of ecologically suitable fire regimes. Forest management techniques such as tree thinning has also shown to be beneficial to the long term forest structure by reducing fire risk whilst simultaneously improving forest ecosystem services and habitat quality.

Under increased fire frequency and severity scenarios, future changes to the treeline ecotone predicted by my research will require dedicated management to address habitat concerns and wildfire control to ensure alpine conservation is maintained.

So what do these results all mean?


The results of this research suggest that macro level influences are predominantly responsible for seedling establishment at the Victorian treeline following wildfire rather than micro level influences. The level of competition, the age and density of the trees, and low levels of litter are all significant factors that promote seedling recruitment and numbers. This finding supports field evidence gathered that suggests Eucalyptus pauciflora is not particularly physiologically limited at the treeline.

Treelines that are controlled by climatic influences such as low temperatures and shortened growing seasons have generally been shown to harbour trees that are much shorter than at slightly lower elevations. Pinis cembra have registered heights decreased by  40%  over the last 100m to the treeline, whilst it is suggested that trees growing at their climatic limit should not be able to grow much taller than 2-3m. Some transects surveyed in this research did in fact exhibit trees with krumholtz-like characteristics, however many also comprised much larger trees. This vast tree height difference between transects implies that micro level influences are not especially responsible for tree growth at the Victorian treeline.

Furthermore, research of treelines in the Kosciusko National Park in New South Wales concluded that there was no decrease in tree survival in artificially planted seedlings above the treeline. Saplings planted 200m above the treeline reached reproductive maturity suggesting that tolerance limits of Eucalyptus pauciflora extend beyond the current treeline. My research supports these findings, with seedlings found persisting in quadrats well above the treeline over ten years post wildfire.


My research suggests that seedling establishment is occurring above the treeline, however probability of occurrence and overall numbers are limited. Therefore, rapid treeline movement is not predicted at the Victorian treeline after infrequent wildfire. Eucalyptus pauciflora is regarded as having poor seed dispersal mechanisms that affects the distance from the tree that seedlings can germinate. Studies at Mt. Hotham showed that encroachment past the treeline was confined to areas of less than 5m from trees, and within overhanging tree cover.

Additionally, studies after the 2003 alpine fires in Kosciuszko National Park concluded that poor uphill seed dispersal was the reason why very few seedlings were located past the treeline, despite an abundance of seed at, and below the treeline.  Results from my research support the theory that Eucalyptus pauciflora has particularly poor uphill seed dispersion as demonstrated by the low seedling probability predictions for elevations above the treeline.

However, model probabilities were determined by including seedlings that were located significant distances above the treeline that were quite obviously a direct result of being close to outpost trees located adjacent to the transect boundary. This suggests that seedling establishment probabilities are even more tightly coupled to the distance from trees than the model may otherwise imply. This is not to say the model probabilities are incorrect, instead it must be recognised that the predicted probabilities are also influenced across their entire elevational range by outpost trees.

One theory of how Australian treelines may significantly increase in elevation is if outpost trees above the treeline can mature into stands from which downslope backfilling may occur. My research suggests that increased seedling establishment probabilities are associated with distance from the treeline (or trees), coupled with the time since last wildfire. As outlined above, outpost trees have already been associated with seedling establishment high above the treeline. It can therefore be envisaged that future fires that stimulate additional seedlings may encourage backfilling from these stands, resulting in a repositioning of future treelines.


Previous population age structure investigations of stands of Eucalyptus pauciflora has revealed that three large recruitments over the last 100 years had affected the woodland density structure. At least two of these pulses were suggested to be due to fire, which resulted in conversion of open woodland ecotones into dense mallee-like regrowth. The result of my research also proposes that fire enables a landscape conducive for increased seedling numbers in the sub alpine zone. However, this can only be facilitated in conjunction with the enabling factors of low competition and litter.

Recent studies of sub alpine Eucalyptus pauciflora at Mt. Buffalo have also associated a trend towards increased tree densities with increased fire frequencies. The study demonstrated that open forest structures were slowly being replaced by a crowded stand structure which was being driven by persistent fire. The models created by my research supports this premise, demonstrating that more frequent fires (for example, 20 year recurrence) would significantly increase the number of seedlings, leading to increased density and consequently probable forest structure change.


My research identifies litter and competition as the two main factors driving changes at the treeline after a fire disturbance. The effect of plant litter on seedling germination has been shown to have an overall negative effect on seedling establishment. This effect has also been reported in Australian alpine areas where leaf litter from trees and shrubs shaded and smothered the growth of seedlings. The models created in my research substantiate these findings by identifying that larger amounts of litter lead to reduced seedling probabilities.

Competition is acknowledged as a driving influence in shaping plant communities. Various studies have shown that seedling establishment near treelines may be dependent on the level of surrounding competition. Studies have shown that minimum separation distances between tussock grasses and seedlings were required for Eucalyptus pauciflora to flourish, with resource competition driving seedling mortality.

The field surveys I conducted showed that few seedlings were found in quadrats dominated by single elements, such as dense shrub or grass. The models created in my research recognise locations that display the greatest heterogeneity positively influence seedling establishment. My research therefore identifies alpine landscapes that display high levels of ecotone evenness allow for greatest seedling establishment.

Graduation Day

Three years of hard work was rewarded on Saturday with my graduation from The University of Melbourne. A beautiful warm day greeted us for the late afternoon ceremony as I arrived around 2pm to perform the graduand registration and regalia collection. I was graduating with a Masters which meant I was adorned with a trencher and black gown with hood of black silk, lined with olive green signifying the faculty of Science. Photos with the family were next before we were all ushered into Wilson Hall and seated for the 4pm starting time. I was seated in the third row, and so had a fabulous view of all the proceedings.

The occasional address was given by Prof David Jamieson, one of the chief physicians in all of Australia. He started by recounting his early physics work, and how it had inspired him to pursue the life of Galileo. He was fascinated with how an unknown star first observed by the astronomer may have infact been the planet Neptune. Dr. Jamieson has been studying Galileo’s notebooks and found some interesting, buried notations, suggesting Galileo – then working with a crude, early telescope he crafted himself – was onto something big. Galileo was observing the four large moons of Jupiter in the years 1612 and 1613. Over several nights, he also recorded in his notebook the position of a nearby star that is not in any modern catalogues – infact, Dr. Jamieson believes it was Neptune. So off to Italy he went, to look thru Galileo’s notebooks and journals, looking for further evidence. Alas, none was found. But this search for inquiry and truth is indicative of that which we as scientists (I suppose I can now say I’m an engineer and scientist!) must strive for. In these uncertain times of fake news, we must by inquisitive of what we read, and demand rigour of answers. It is up to us as new graduands to uphold these values.

Finally it was our turn at 10 seconds of fame. One by one, the hundred or so Bachelor degrees, Master degrees and Doctorates were called up one by one to be greeted by the chancellor and given our certificate of achievements. I had received a Masters with Distinction – only the top 5% of recipients are awarded this, and I was one of only five awarded during my ceremony. Not too shabby if I say so myself! Being a Masters students means ‘doffing’ your hat to the chancellor, receiving your award and a brief congratulations, doffing your hat to the dean, and exiting down the stairs. The only problem is that the hat sits somewhat higher on your head than a normal cap, and so it takes a couple of goes to doff (putting two fingers on the peak) the hat correctly.

A tremendous musical interlude was performed with the whole hall reverberating to the sounds of Italian opera before the Valedictory speech was given before the procession led us all out into the warm afternoon. We walked over to the Botany building where I had spent a lot of my three years, and took some photos out the front. Finally, as customary, we walked around to the Old Quad underneath the famed vaulted rooves and took some last photos amongst the famous sandstone buildings. My University of Melbourne days have come to an end.

Postera Crescam Laude.

To read more about Galileo and Neptune, see:

The End

I can’t believe today is my last day of classes here at The University of Melbourne. Three years have slipped by, countless words written, and a lot of knowledge gained. My Masters of Environmental Science is almost complete. It was a sad moment exiting the campus as a student for the last time, I walked around, looked at the buildings, trying to see something that I may have overlooked. It was raining, quite hard, and I found myself in front of my favourite building, and the faculty of Botany which I have spent most of my time in. Three years had come full circle. It was time to leave.

Graduate seminar at the half way point

As part of the Graduate Seminar subject, all students take a turn in running a class. You also get to choose what topic you are going to present. That means there is a widely varying range of topics that we are being exposed to. So far we have looked at: The role for nuclear energy in biodiversity conservation, safety assessment of GM plants, next generation monitoring using environmental dna, human population reduction and environmental problems, antibiotic resistance and environmental contaminants and restoration and ecosystem services and biodiversity. Wow – what an eclectic bunch of environmental issues to cover. Then last week, we had my favorite two topics to date: Bias in the media, and Uncertainty in science.

The first paper we looked at demonstrated that US prestige-press coverage of global warming from 1988 to 2002 contributed to a significant divergence of popular discourse from scientific discourse. This failed discursive translation resulted from an accumulation of tactical media responses and practices guided by widely accepted journalistic norms. Through content analysis of US prestige press (New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal) the paper focused on the norm of balanced reporting, and showed that the prestige press’s adherence to balance actually leads to biased coverage of both anthropogenic contributions to global warming and resultant action.

Next we looked at how uncertainty is pervasive in ecology where the difficulties of dealing with sources of uncertainty are exacerbated by variation in the system itself. Attempts at classifying uncertainty in ecology have, for the most part, focused exclusively on epistemic uncertainty. In the paper, uncertainty was classified into two main categories: epistemic uncertainty (uncertainty in determinate facts) and linguistic uncertainty (uncertainty in language). In particular, the authors demonstrated the importance of recognizing the effect of linguistic uncertainty, by developing a clear understanding of the various types of uncertainty, how they arise and how they might best be dealt with.