The School for Field Studies (SFS) Tropical Rainforest Studies study abroad program in Queensland, Australia, provides exciting opportunities for students to study and work hands-on in rainforest management and restoration in the country’s tropical rainforest
Through the field work exercises and my Directed Research project, I was finally able to be a part of the research instead of just entering data and assisting from the sideline. Being able to walk through the Australian rainforest and see what I had been learning about in the classroom gave me a deeper connection with the area then I could have ever believed to be possible.
— Melissa Stine, University of California, San Diego, Fall '13
For thousands of years, the tropical rainforests of Far North Queensland, Australia, have been home to Aboriginal groups that play a vital role in co-managing the World Heritage Wet Tropics. The forests also are home to numerous plants, birds, and marsupials found nowhere else in the world. Daintree National Park, where the rainforest-covered mountains meet the coast, is home to some of the oldest living plants on Earth. Giant strangler figs, abundant vines and epiphytes, large pythons, colorful parrots, the giant cassowary, bandicoots, and tree kangaroos fill the Wet Tropics forests with color, sound, and complexity.
Northeastern Queensland’s ancient rainforests preserve millions of years of evolutionary history, though unfortunately, these repositories have been greatly affected by habitat loss, fragmentation, and climate change. Northern Australia once supported extensive rainforests, but logging, mining, and agricultural production over the past two centuries have destroyed and degraded rainforest habitats, disrupting the patterns and processes that keep these forests vibrant. Today, over much of the area, only fragments of the original forests remain.
Global climate change is very likely contributing to accelerating the loss of plant and animal species as well. The potentially devastating effect of climate change is playing out in the rainforests of Far North Queensland, where climate models predict a significant rise in local temperatures over the next century. The world-renowned Wet Tropics are often viewed as the “canary in the coal mine,” as a threat of this magnitude could possibly result in the loss of more than half of all Australian bird species and endemic mammals.
Australia continues to be a global front-runner in recognizing the significance of ecosystem services and restoration ecology practices to maintain and ensure healthy rainforests. The country has halted rainforest destruction, established effective protected areas, and is confronting the threat of forest species loss from climate change more proactively than most tropical countries. Still, the integrity and survival of these ancient, unique, and majestic rainforests hinge upon developing management solutions that consider large-scale and localized impacts on biodiversity, including global climate change, while also providing conditions for economic and social sustainability for local communities.
The program curriculum and research agenda address a critical local and regional environmental problem—loss and fragmentation of once extensive rainforests—and examine environmental policies related to the issue on local and national levels. SFS staff and students, in collaboration with local landholders and stakeholder organizations, focus on enhancing the condition of tropical rainforests, as well as determining how to regenerate and restore the rainforest on the Atherton Tablelands.Students learn field research techniques as they collect data on:
- Potential responses to global climate change
- Habitat use and animal behaviors
- Resilience to cyclonic events, land-use
- Local resident involvement in restoration projects
- Cost-effective and ecologically beneficial methods of restoration
FIELD RESEARCH, LECTURES, AND EXERCISES
- Camp in the Outback and explore Chillagoe's caves, rock formations, remnant dry rainforests, and eucalypt savannah
- Excursion to Cape Tribulation and Daintree National Park: walk through lowland rainforests, giant sedges with peppermint stick insects, mangrove forests, and palm forests; traverse the Daintree River, famous for its crocodiles; visit the canopy tower at the Daintree Environment Centre; sample and examine an array of forest types across the landscape
- Lend a hand at the TREAT (Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands Inc.) nursery
- Learn about the geology and historical geography of the Atherton Tablelands
- Assess local residents’ and tourists’ attitudes toward nature and restoration
- Assess seedling recruitment of restored tropical rainforest at revegetation sites
- Examine growth and mortality of tropical rainforest species
- Sample plant functional traits and their effect on drought, frost, and cyclone resistance
- Examine fauna in endangered plant communities
- Develop field research skills including: GIS; rainforest management strategies; seedling propagation; social science research methods; data recording and analysis; research design; restoration techniques; and climate modeling
SAMPLE DIRECTED RESEARCH PROJECTS
- Using plant functional traits to predict drought and cyclone resistance
- Climate modeling and rainforest corridor plantings and restoration
- Examining patterns of colonization of restored rainforest by vertebrates
- Using scats and scratch marks to investigate habitat use by tree kangaroos
- Determining carbon sequestration values of rainforest restoration
- Evaluating policy instruments that are used to tackle environmental problems
- Assessing nature-based tourism and its role in the Wet Tropics
- Studying long-term effects and recovery of forest from selective logging
The Atherton Tablelands and Wet Tropics have been home to the Center for Rainforest Studies for over 25 years. SFS is an active and engaged partner with many community organizations including TREAT (Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands Inc.), Landcare, and Tablelands National Park Volunteers. Our research provides solid 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.
Perhaps of greatest importance, by participating in restoration projects side-by-side with citizen volunteers, students come to understand rainforest ecosystems and management from a local perspective. Our students forge strong connections with residents who are passionate and knowledgeable about environmental stewardship.
SFS students get 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, such as lawn bowling with Aussies
- Meeting with Aboriginal elders to learn more about their culture and efforts to reclaim their role in land management
The Center lies on the edge of the Atherton Tablelands in the heart of the traditional land of the Yidinji people. Protected World Heritage forests and farmland surround the rolling hills covered in tropical foliage. Student cabins are nestled within the rainforest, which comprises 97 percent of the property’s 153 acres. The site is alive with the sounds of the rainforest, and sightings of tropical birds, bandicoots, pademelons, musky rat kangaroos, amethystine pythons, and other unique rainforest species are common. Students share eight-person cabins with separate shower and bathroom blocks. The main building of the field station houses the classroom, dining area, and a common room.