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Rainforest Studies

Australia & New Zealand

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Understanding the Dynamics of Coastal Rainforest Ecosystems

Large areas of northeastern Queensland, Australia, were once covered in spectacular rainforests, preserving millions of years of unique evolutionary history and outstanding biodiversity. However, timber felling, farming, and development have destroyed and disrupted rainforest ecosystems and habitats with reverberating effects on endemic species, indigenous livelihoods, and water quality for locals and the vibrant Great Barrier Reef. Many of Australia’s remnant tropical forests and species are now protected under World Heritage legislation; however, the forest fragments are particularly vulnerable to threats like climate change and invasive species spread. Similar to Australia, in northern New Zealand, only fragments of the country’s ancient forests remain to house endemic fauna and flora. The program examines the dynamics of coastal rainforest ecosystems in both of these areas and works to develop rainforest conservation and restoration strategies that benefit both ecosystems and human communities.

  • Semester Programs

    Tropical Rainforest Studies


    The astonishing biodiversity of Australia’s rainforest and the country’s dynamic conservation efforts make Queensland an extraordinary laboratory for students to study rainforest management and restoration. Students gain an understanding of the dynamics of coastal rainforest ecosystems, explore downstream effects of rainforest management practices, and consider management strategies that support both biodiversity and the economic stability of local communities in the face of a changing climate.

  • Summer Programs

    Session I: Rainforest Management Studies

    Australia & New Zealand

    Large areas of northeastern Queensland, Australia, and northern New Zealand were once covered in spectacular rainforests. In New Zealand, students discover its critically endangered flora and fauna and the impacts that have led to their decline. In Australia, students take their New Zealand experiences and examine similarities and differences in political structure, co-management arrangements, land-use patterns, and biogeography.

  • Session II: Techniques for Rainforest Research


    Australia’s rainforests are faced with continual threats due to development, climate change, and invasive species, leaving fragile fragments that are often too small or isolated to sustain some species. Students explore these rainforests, examine the effects of fragmentation in highly endangered rainforest systems, and develop effective field research skills in multiple disciplines while learning about rainforest restoration and conservation.

How can the future of the Wet Tropics in a changing world be ensured?

This is the third long-term strategic research plan of The School for Field Studies Center for Rainforest Studies, located within the Wet Tropics Bioregion of Queensland, Australia. This bioregion covers less than 0.01% of the land surface of Australia, but contains 36% of Australia’s mammal species, including 30% of its marsupial species and 58% of its bat species; 50 % of Australia’s bird species; high percentages of other vertebrate and invertebrate groups and 17% of Australia’s vascular plant species. It is also an important repository for plant and animal evolution, supporting many species indicative of a range of stages in the evolution of life on earth.

For these reasons, and due to the threat of land clearing for agriculture and logging, in 1988 large parts of the Wet Tropics were listed as World Heritage areas. It adjoins, and through run-off and sedimentation directly impacts another World Heritage area, the Great Barrier Reef. While agriculture remains an important industry in this region, the presence of these two natural icons means that tourism now underpins the economy of the region.

We aim to improve the stability, sustainability, environmental awareness, and concern for natural resources in the Atherton Tablelands.        



While the World Heritage declaration has prevented further clearing of areas of rainforest listed under the declaration, a long history of resource exploitation for agriculture, grazing, logging and nearby mining has left a legacy of land degradation and threats to biodiversity. The rainforest that remains on fertile soils in the uplands and coastal lowlands is highly fragmented, exposing it to detrimental edge effects and impacts of introduced plants and animals. Extensive clearing has caused sedimentation of creeks and rivers, which along with fertilizer and effluent run-off, threatens the Great Barrier Reef. The upland areas of the Wet Tropics support many cool-adapted plants and animals, which are threatened by climate change as their habitats shrink up mountainsides. Local communities are responding to these threats by carrying out rainforest restoration; primarily along riparian areas and at higher elevations.

In its first and second 5YRPs, CRS made an important contribution towards addressing these problems by conducting research on the impacts of tropical cyclones on flora and fauna, the effects of drought, frost and weeds and their implications for rainforest management and restoration, investigating the effectiveness of rainforest restoration techniques, and by conducting basic research on important flora and fauna elements; epiphytes, cane toads, birds, tree-kangaroos and snakes.


This third 5YRP builds on this previous work by addressing the question: How can the future of the Wet Tropics in a changing world be ensured? Staff and students of SFS-CRS attempt to answer this question by engaging in research under three core components:

1. Understanding ecological and social systems;
2. Conflict, vulnerability, and change;
3. Effective response to change



This 5YRP is aimed at assisting a range of stakeholders and research partners. These include local landholders; non-government conservation organisations conducting rainforest restoration or having special interest in flora and fauna; several levels of government, particularly local and state government; regional research organisations, including universities and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

We aim to improve the stability, sustainability, environmental awareness, and concern for natural resources in the Atherton Tablelands. Our goal is to strengthen research, technical and practical collaboration between SFS-CRS and other research organisations, governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations to carry out this agenda.


* Indicates SFS student, ^ indicates SFS intern or SAM

Berry^, Z. C., K. Wevill* and T. J. Curran 2011. The invasive weed Lantana camara increases fire risk in dry rainforest byaltering fuel beds. Weed Research15: 525-533.

Boxall*, G. A., J.J. Sandberg* and F.J. Kroon. 2002. Population structure, movement and habitat preferences of the purple-spotted gudgeon, Mogurnda adspersa. Marine and Freshwater Research 53: 909-917.

Cummings, J. 2006. Evaluating vascular epiphyte abundance and distribution patterns in critically endangered rainforest. Australasian Plant Conservation 14: 14-16.

Cummings, J., M. Martin^, and A. Rogers*. 2006. Quantifying the abundance of four large epiphytic fern species in remnant complex notophyll vine forest on the Atherton Tableland, North Queensland, Australia. Cunninghamia 9: 521-527.

Cummings, J., N. Reid, I. Davies, and C. Grant. 2005. Adaptive restoration of sand mined areas for biological conservation. Journal of Applied Ecology 42: 160-170.

Curran, T.J., Reid^, E.M. and Skorik*, C. 2010. Effects of a severe frost on riparian rainforest restoration in the Australian wet tropics: species foliage retention and the role of plant height and forest shelter. Restoration Ecology 18(4):408-413.

Curran, T.J., Clarke, P.J. and Bruhl, J.J. 2008. A broad typology of dry rainforests on the western slopes of New South Wales. Cunninghamia 10(3): 381-405.

Curran, T.J., Clarke, P.J. and Warwick, N.W.M. 2009. Water relations of woody plants on contrasting soils during drought: does edaphic compensation account for dry rainforest distribution? Australian Journal of Botany 57(8): 629-639. (doi: 10.1071/BT09128)

Curran, T., L. Gersbach*, W. Edwards, and A. Krockenberger. 2008. Wood density predicts plant damage and vegetative recovery rates caused by cyclone disturbance in tropical rainforest tree species in North Queensland, Australia. Austral Ecology 33: 442-450.

Curran, T. J., R. J. Brown^, E. Edwards*, K. Hopkins*, C. Kelley*, E. McCarthy*, E. Pounds*, R. Solan*, and J. Wolf*. 2008. Plant functional traits explain interspecific differences in immediate cyclone damage to trees of an endangered rainforest community in north Queensland. Austral Ecology 33: 451-461.

Deines^, J. M., J. J. Hellmann, and T.J. Curran. 2011. Traits associated with drought survival in three Australian tropical rainforest seedlings. Australian Journal of Botany 59: 620-628.

Fill^, J. M., A. B. Freeman, G. Story, and T.J. Curran. 2013. "Predation on a cryptic rainforest rodent (Pogonomys sp.) by a carpet python (Morelia spilota)." Australian Mammalogy online

Fill^, J. M., P. McBride*, A. J. Powell*, L. K. Shanahan*, J. R. Stark*, A. B. Freeman and T. J. Curran. 2012. Diet of Amethystine (Morelia kinghorni) and Carpet Pythons (Morelia spilota) in North Queensland, Australia. Herpetological Review 43(1): 30-34.

Florentine, S. K. 2008. Species persistence and natural recruitment after 14 years in a restoration planting on ex-rainforest land in north-east Queensland. Ecological Management & Restoration 9: 217-221.

Florentine, S. K., M. Craig, and M. E. Westbrooke. 2003. Flowering, fruiting, germination and seed dispersal of the newly emerging weed Solanum mauritianum Scop. (Solanaceae) in the wet tropics of north Queensland. Plant Protection Quarterly 18: 116-120.

Florentine, S. K., and M. E. Westbrooke. 2003. Allelopathic potential of the newly emerging weed Solanum mauritianum Scop. (Solanaceae) in the wet tropics of north-east Queensland. Plant Protection Quarterly 18: 23-25.

—. 2004a. Evaluation of alternative approaches to rainforest restoration on abandoned pasturelands in tropical North Queensland, Australia. Land Degradation and Development 15: 1-13.

—. 2004b. Restoration on abandoned tropical pasturelands-do we know enough? Journal for Nature Conservation 12: 85-94.

Freeman, A. N. D. 2003. The distribution of Beach Stone-curlews and their response to disturbance on far north Queensland's Wet Tropical Coast. Emu 103: 369-372.

—. 2004. Constraints to community groups monitoring plants and animals in rainforest revegetation sites on the Atherton Tablelands of far north Queensland. Ecological Management and Restoration 5: 199-204.

Freeman, A., and A. Freeman. 2009. Habitat use in a large rainforest python (Morelia kinghorni) in the Wet Tropics of North Queensland, Australia. Herpetological Conservation and Biology 4: 252-260.

—. 2007. Giants in the rainforest: a radio telemetry study of the amethystine python in North Queensland, Australia. Iguana 14: 215-221.

Freeman, A. N. D., A. B. Freeman and S. Burchill (2009). Bird use of revegetation sites along a creek connecting rainforest remnants. Emu 109: 331-338.

Freeman, A. N. D., K. Pias*, and M. F. Vinson^. 2008. The impact of Tropical Cyclone Larry on bird communities in fragments of the endangered rainforest Type b. Austral Ecology 33: 532-540.

Freeman, A. N. D., and L. S. Seabrook. 2006. Increase in riparian vegetation along Peterson Creek, North Queensland. Ecological Management & Restoration 7: 63-65.

Freeman, A. N. D., and M. F. Vinson^. 2008. The effect of Tropical Cyclone Larry on tooth-billed bowerbird Scenopoeetes Dentirostris court attendance and decoration. Austral Ecology 33: 570-572.

Garnett, S. T., J. R. Clarkson, A. Felton, G. N. Harrington, and A. N. D. Freeman. 2005. Habitat and diet of the star finch (Neochmia ruficauda clarescens) in the early wet season at Princess Charlott Bay, Cape York Peninsula, Australia. Emu 105: 81-85.

Heise-Pavlov, S., J. Hueppe, and R. Pott. 2008. Revisiting factors affecting deciduousness in tropical rainforest at a study site in coastal lowland rainforest in NE Australia. Phytocoenologia 38: 213-219.

Heise-Pavlov, S. R., S. L. Jackrel*, and S. Meeks*. 2011. Conservation of a rare arboreal mammal: habitat preferences of the Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroo, Dendrolagus lumholtzi. Australian Mammalogy 33: 5-15.

Heise-Pavlov, S. R. and L. J. Longway*. 2011. Diet and dietary selectivity of Cane Toads (Rhinella marina) in restoration sites: a case study in Far North Queensland, Australia. Ecological Management & Restoration 12(3): 230-233.

Heise-Pavlov, S. R., & Meade*, R. D. 2012. Improving reliability of scat counts for abundance and distribution estimations of Lumholtz's Tree-kangaroo (Dendrolagus lumholtzi) in its rainforest habitats. Pacific Conservation Biology, 18:153-163.

Hunt, C. 2008. Economy and ecology of emerging markets and credits for bio-sequestered carbon on private land in tropical Australia. Ecological Economics 66: 309-318.

King*, J. R., A. N. Andersen, and A. D. Cutter*. 1998. Ants as bioindicators of habitat disturbance: validation of the functional group model for Australia's humid tropics. Biodiversity and Conservation 7: 1627-1638.

Laurance, W., and T. J. Curran. 2008. Impacts of wind disturbance on fragmented tropical rainforest: A review and synthesis. Austral Ecology 33: 390-408.

Rasiah, V., S. K. Florentine, B. L. Williams, and M. E. Westbrooke. 2004. The impact of deforestation and pasture abandonment on soil properties in the wet tropics of Australia. Geoderma 120: 35-45.

Vinson^, M. F., and A. N. D. Freeman. 2006. Tooth-billed bowerburds established in a lek in Acacia regrowth forest. Sunbird 36.

Waugh, S. M., P. F. Doherty, A. N. D. Freeman, L. Adams, G. C. Woods, J. A. Bartle, and G. K. Hedley. 2006. Demography of Westland Petrels (Procellaria westlandica), 1995-2003. Emu 106: 219-226.

The Atherton Tablelands and Wet Tropics have been home to The SFS Center for Rainforest Studies for more than 25 years. SFS is an active and engaged partner with many community organizations including TREAT, Landcare, Tablelands National Park Volunteers, and Tree Kangaroo and Mammal Group. Our research provides scientific data and has direct policy implications for local decision makers. It also creates important linkages between our Center and the diverse stakeholders involved in rainforest restoration and management and the development of sustainable communities and industries.

Our students forge strong connections with residents who are passionate and knowledgeable about environmental stewardship. Participating in restoration projects alongside citizen volunteers, students come to understand rainforest ecosystems and management from a local perspective.

SFS students and staff add significantly to the social fabric of the community by getting involved in community volunteer projects and social activities such as:

  • Helping local conservation groups and communities plant rainforest trees
  • Participating in community fauna surveys
  • Attending special lectures on wildlife in conjunction with local conservation groups
  • Hosting community dinners and participating in short homestays
  • Attending bush dances and community festivals, visiting the Malanda theatre, and socializing at the local pubs and sporting competitions
  • Engaging with Aboriginal elders to learn more about their culture and efforts to reclaim their role in land management