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Australian researcher faces eye of the storm for science

Press Release – Ecological Society of Australia

An Australian ecologist whose scientific site was destroyed by a severe cyclone has used the experience to document important new research into how forests recover.
Thursday 19 April 2018

Australian researcher faces eye of the storm for science

An Australian ecologist whose scientific site was destroyed by a severe cyclone has used the experience to document important new research into how forests recover.

After 12 months of field work, Dr Annette Scanlon was caught in the most intense tropical cyclone to hit Fiji since 1972. Category-4 Cyclone Tomas destroyed her hut, but Dr Scanlon continued her research for another 12 months to obtain before and after observations of forest plants.

‘It was a unique opportunity, as if we ordered a cyclone under experimental conditions,’ said Dr Scanlon, a Lecturer in Environmental Science at the University of South Australia. ‘There have been very few studies of forest resources before and after cyclones, and no papers have done this type of comparison.’

She says her research was initially into the capacity of forests to support bats, which are vital for seed dispersal and pollination. ‘Then the cyclone hit, so we looked at this relationship in pre- and post-cyclone conditions.’

‘We couldn’t get back to the field sites for about a week because huge trees had come down, there had been lots of flooding and damage to the area, and the hut where I was staying was severely damaged. It took a lot of work to retrace my steps to the field sites, but eventually we found them and kept the research going.’

The storm’s silver lining was that Dr Scanlon and her team have now been able to publish findings that show that the ability of forests to withstand cyclonic storms depends on the richness of their plant species. Her team examined more than 3,000 individual forest plants from almost 200 different species.

‘The good news is that despite frequent and immense disturbances in some areas, no animal extinction around the world is associated with any cyclone,’ she said. ‘Intact forests with a diverse flora support a variety of strategies for coping. For some species, flowering was triggered by the cyclone. For others, the pollination rate increased after the cyclone because of less competition with more palatable, but susceptible species, such as lilly pillies.’

She said understanding the resilience of forests to cyclones is important in light of climate change increasing their intensity.

‘Big cyclonic events are coming through the Pacific region, and these are predicted to increase. You’d expect forests to bounce back from cyclones, as they have a long evolutionary history of exposure to these events. But as people convert forests to degraded, less species-rich environments increasingly affected by invasive species and other impacts, they have less chance of survival. Undisturbed forests have greater species richness, which means more types of plants with a greater diversity of survival strategies than you find in disturbed forests.’

Such information is important for conservation management. ‘Understanding how forests behave in cyclones or other extreme weather events, understanding how they cope with these increasing pressures that we’re seeing, shows we need to prioritise the protection of undisturbed forests, and restore disturbed forests. Forests provide a refuge for species such as bats that are important for the environment, they provide economic and human health benefits such as medicinal plants, and in Fiji people have strong relationships to the forests.’

The paper, ‘Response of primary and secondary rainforest flowers and fruits to a cyclone, and implications for plant-servicing bats’, appeared in the journal Global Change Biology (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.14103/full).
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