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Rainforest Studies

Australia & New Zealand

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Understanding the Dynamics of Rainforest Ecosystems

Rainforest ecosystems are a “hot spot” for fauna and floral biodiversity, and provide humans with clean air, water, food, and medicines. Still, thousands of acres disappear each day. Large areas of northeastern Queensland, Australia, were once covered in spectacular rainforests, preserving millions of years of evolutionary history. Timber felling, farming, and development have destroyed and disrupted rainforest ecosystems and habitats in both countries. Many of Australia’s tropical forests and species are now protected under World Heritage legislation; however, they are faced with continual threats due to climate change and invasive species. Similar to Australia, in northern New Zealand, only fragments of the country’s ancient forests remain to house the endemic fauna and flora.

  • Semester Programs

    Tropical Rainforest Studies


    Little is known about rainforest ecosystem dynamics and the ability to restore a rainforest once it has been cleared. With our Australia and New Zealand study abroad programs, we aim to further the understanding of the dynamics of rainforest ecosystems, including the potential impact of global climate change. Our goal is to develop rainforest restoration and management strategies that benefit both ecosystems and human communities, and that can serve as a model for conserving other rainforests.

  • 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 Australia’s tropical 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 second five year research plan (5YRP) 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 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 restoration of rainforest and vegetation along riparian areas. In its first 5YRP, the Center made an important contribution towards addressing these problems by conducting research on impacts of tropical cyclones on flora and fauna, investigating the effectiveness of restoration techniques, and by conducting basic research on birds, epiphytes and weeds.


This second 5YRP builds on this previous work by addressing the question: What is the future of Wet Tropics rainforest in a changing environmental and economic world? Staff and students attempt to answer this question by engaging in research under six components:

1. Rainforest components and processes, with focus on natural disturbance: investigations on aspects of rainforest dynamics;
2. Anthropogenic disturbances, including fragmentation; examination of the impacts of human-induced disturbances on less studied fauna and flora;
3. Corridors and restoration sites; testing the effectiveness of and exploring new options for rainforest restoration, including in the riparian environment;
4. Invasive species in the rainforest environment; documenting the threat of introduced flora and fauna;
5. Climate change: documenting and attempting to predict impacts of climate change to flora, fauna and communities; and
6. Social, economic and policy factors affecting tropical rainforest conservation and restoration, documenting and recommending improvement of the ways that humans conserve and restore rainforest.


These projects are aimed at a range of stakeholders in the region. These include local landholders; non-government conservation organizations conducting rainforest restoration or having special interest in flora and fauna; several levels of government, particularly local and state government; and regional research organizations, including universities and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.

The delivery of The SFS Center for Rainforest Studies research results to these stakeholders and collaboration on implementation of improved strategies for restoration should help agencies at local, state and national levels to protect, conserve, manage and monitor the natural resources, the exploitation of them, and ecosystem health of the Atherton Tablelands. We aim to improve the stability, sustainability, environmental awareness, and concern for natural resources in the Atherton Tablelands. Our goal is to strengthen the technical collaboration between the Center and 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 SFS Centre for Rainforest Studies has been closely tied to the community of the Atherton Tablelands for 23 years, providing a unique opportunity for enhanced student engagement, extensive technical collaboration, and local economic benefit. Many of the Center’s staff members are from the region and bring their wealth of knowledge on local culture, lifestyle, and local issues. Staff and students make a valuable contribution to the local economy in a variety of ways, from attending the monthly farmer’s market to frequenting the local bakeries and cafes, which rely on local food production.

SFS students and staff add to the social fabric of the community by attending rugby games, festivals, and rodeos. Students have ongoing cultural exchange opportunities via host family outings and overnights as well as community gatherings at the Center. Additionally, students engage in community service alongside local restoration organizations like Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands (TREAT) and Landcare.

The ongoing collaboration with local researchers, non-profit organizations, and government authorities provides a venue for technical reciprocity. The Center’s Five Year Research Plan (5YRP) is developed with the academic community, particularly James Cook University, and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO). The Center’s staff is deeply integrated with the Wet Tropics Management Authority, working together for the preservation and adaptation of the World Heritage-listed rainforests of Far North Queensland. Specific collaborations with these organizations include:

  • Long-term monitoring and evaluation for rainforest species/restoration
  • Carbon sequestrating
  • Climate change modeling and mapping
  • The culminating activity of each semester is a community education night during which students showcase their research initiatives