People and Cane Toads and Trees, Oh My!

Posted: July 28, 2014

“What do I want to study?” is a common question for SFS students to ask themselves. In this program, students get a chance to find their true passion, or try something different from their normal area of study.  The focus of the second summer session is to work on the methodology and data collection for scientific study, so the students looked at three different topics of study and how to collect data for each of them. We devoted a week to each topic, starting at the bottom of the food chain with plants, moving next to animals and ending with people.

The students started off cataloging trees in the new growth area on site at the Center for Rainforest Studies.  We were lucky to work with a former Natural Resource Management Lecturer, S.K. Florentine, continuing his research from 10 years ago.  Back in 2001, a plot of land on our site was replanted with different types of trees ranging from fast growing pioneer species to slower growing mature species.  Then in 2006, students went back to see how the area had changed.  They looked to see what species continued growing and if there were any new trees growing in the area.  Now we get the opportunity to continue this study 13 years in the making.  Students searched the plot identifying plants and checking the canopy density and ground cover.  Ultimately, students were able to track how the forest changes and how trees affect the species growing around it.

After searching for tree species, we moved on to searching for cane toads for dissection. Students went out for three nights, hunting for these nocturnal animals.  Unfortunately, since it is currently the drier part of the year and cane toads enjoy moisture, there were few out.  But on the last day, the students lifted up a log and over 70 cane toads fell out! This fueled their enthusiasm when it was time to pick up a scalpel and cut them open.  The goal was to analyze the stomach contents and count the number of parasites found in the toad’s lungs.

Finally, we moved on to studying people.  For this portion, students surveyed local people across 5 different towns to get a snapshot of their values and thoughts on the rainforest.  This was the time to travel.  We started off close to home in a few towns on the Atherton Tablelands, from there we went to a tourist town closer to the coast, Kuranda, and lastly, out to Mission Beach.  This way, students got the chance to see how people in various parts of Far North Queensland value the rainforest.

The best part of this program is definitely the breadth of topics covered in such a short time.  With field trips and study sites visited almost daily, there is never a dull moment as we venture out and explore Australia.