'Roos, Research, and Rare (trees)

Posted: April 25, 2013

Directed Research (DR) data collection time is coming to an end. The time for students to fully delve into analyzing and writing up findings is about to begin. This semester, I had the opportunity of assisting in data collection with two of the DR projects. It was quite an adventure joining groups in the field as they learned how to work together efficiently and refine their methods of gathering data.

A group of four students, Siggy (the faculty member guiding the student projects), and myself went to Port Douglas for two days to begin study of the Lumholtz Tree Kangaroos living in captivity there. We planned on filming the tree kangaroos, hoping to catch them in the act of “marking”, a behavior that has barely been documented or studied. These adorable, curious animals had been given names like, Lily, Josh, Quinny, and Bornu—names as different from each other as their personalities. After we assisted caretakers in cleaning the enclosures and gathering fresh “browse” (leafy branch cuttings that serve as food for the tree kangaroos), we began filming.

Once we got into the rhythm of charging cameras, switching around memory cards, and following the tree kangaroos’ every move, we started noticing some interesting and unique potential marking behaviors. We saw them walking backwards dragging their feet, rubbing leaves all over their abdomens, rubbing their cheeks with their paws, and dragging their bottoms on the leaves. At this point, we can only guess at what these behaviors mean in the tree kangaroo world, but it was pretty exciting to capture it on film for the first time in history. These fuzzy faced marsupials have forever gained a special place in my heart.

The next DR group I joined was the Primary Forest researchers. It was an adventure in itself to just find these students! I was armed with data sheets for the group, a compass, and an extremely crude grid “map” with a few lines and numbers on it. After driving deep into the rainforest, I wandered around on random unmarked, overgrown trails, following the boot prints in the mud and my intuition. As I was about to break out the compass and start bush-wacking my way due east, I heard a familiar voice in the distance. I happily surprised the group, to their exclamations of  “How did you find us!?”

We commenced hunting down staked out quadrants buried all over the hectare of forest they were studying. Tangling ourselves in spiky wait-a-whiles to count seedlings, measure trees, take photos of all the seedlings to get them identified, and calculate leaf litter amount, all while finding our way with a compass, made for a busy few days! Students showed me how to collect the data they needed, and I got to tramp around the beautiful forest that they had become so familiar with in such a short time. It was not the easiest work, especially when it poured rain all day and everyone would finish by picking handfuls of leeches off their bodies (including in their eyes!), but they persevered. I was so impressed by their hard work, upbeat attitudes, and the breathtaking beauty of the lush, remote rainforest.

On Sunday, as a break from DR work, some students and I had the opportunity to go on an exceptional adventure. We hiked deep into the Wooroonooran National Park to the base of the tallest peak in Queensland, Bartle Frere, to see a stand of some rare, endemic trees. The large Stockwellia quadrifida trees are listed as “near threatened” and only naturally grow at high altitudes in the wet tropics of north Queensland, practically in our backyard! A local community member was generous enough to guide us to these massive, magnificent trees that were only just discovered in 1971, but still remain a relative secret.

We didn’t know exactly what to expect since we couldn’t find any full photographs of the trees on the internet or in books. The trail was unmarked and the path was virtually unmaintained, with the exception of the few feet that help trample the trail every so often. After 45 minutes of hiking, we looked up in awe at the handful of enormous trees scattered throughout the area. The buttress roots were taller than we could reach, and there was a labyrinth of tunnels through the inside of the trees for us to explore. It was humbling to stand next to and inside of these 1000’s of years old trees. All in all it was an awe-inspiring, adventure-filled week, as per usual here in Queensland!