Student Experience: Iris’ Alpine Studentship

by Iris Hickman, RCAAE summer student 2020/21

My interest into alpine ecology began at university, when one of the subjects I was taking at La Trobe University (BOT2PDE) delved into the factors influencing the distribution of alpine flora and the inter-relationship between species distributions and the environment. I found these interactions and the unique alpine communities it produced fascinating. However, I was shocked to learn that it was heavily threatened by climate change, anthropogenic activities, invasive species, and changes in fire regimes. Learning about the experiments that researchers conducted to investigate these threats in my lectures intrigued me, and I sort to learn more about the alps through the eyes of an ecologist. This led me to volunteer with RCAAE researchers in summer 2020 to learn about the work they conduct in the Victorian alps. There I assisted the 2019/2020 student, Nina Kerr. This fieldwork ended up being one of my most memorable volunteer experiences and ultimately led to me applying for the 2021 alpine studentship.

Iris Hickman looking out at Mt Feathertop and the Razorback

The 2021 studentship was adventure-packed right from the beginning and began with me taking on a seed dispersal project. This involved reconstructing seed traps from a previous researcher (Lauren Szmalko) and hiking them out to eight sites across the Bogong High Plains. I then monitored them regularly throughout the flowering season to collect data on how alpine wind dispersed plants disperse throughout the landscape. I became excellent at identifying wind-dispersed alpine seeds! I also assisted with monitoring rare and threatened flora, including the cute hemiparasite Euphrasia scabra, which very small population was severely affected by the 2019-2020 fires. I helped collected data on species range shifts, changes in phenology, soil surveys, fine-scale tundra patterns, among other things. Some of the data I helped collect contributed to one of the longest running ecology projects in Australia. I helped reconstruct these transects using hand drawn maps with landmarks instead of GPS points, it was like a treasure hunt!

Recording cute alpine plants along a transect

We hiked up several mountains to survey sites, including Victoria’s highest mountain Mount Bogong, and explored different systems, including snow-patches and significant wetlands. I met with other alpine researchers and liaised with Parks Victoria and the Falls Creek Environmental Officer. It was a great networking experience, and I really enjoyed the sense of community that we all shared working in the alps. I was also lucky enough to be able to do side trips to the Eastern Alps where we camped out in remote montane forests and woodlands in the Cobberas. On these trips I assisted in post-fire monitoring and horse damage assessments with Dr James Shannon for Parks Victoria. I experienced first-hand the devastating damage caused by pigs and horses. However, I was able to gain insight into what most of the Australia alpine region typically consists of, which includes the most beautiful Eucalypts with milky white bark, such as E. pauciflora, E. delegatensis and E. dalrympleana.

Our daily afternoon stop after fieldwork, where we enjoyed the fantastic view of the Cobberas range, and our favourite mountain, The Pilot.
Lunch under snowgums after fieldwork

I also had time to myself to go camping and hiking to explore the walking trails of the Bogong High Plains. Fortunately, we experienced one of the best flowering years, due to the La Niña. The seas of Craspedia species were breath taking.. I was captivated by the beauty of the Australian alpine landscape, diversity of plants, the rarity and specialisation, and their ability to cope with extreme weather.

Seas of Craspedia gracilis flowering
Weekend off to camp under the stars at Mt Fainter

The experience with RCAAE gave me insight into what it was like as a researcher and led me to begin a mini-research project on the influences of elevation on the functional traits of high mountain shrubs. The studentship not only allowed me to deepen my knowledge in plant ecology, vegetation monitoring and field-based research but also allowed me to contribute to the conservation and long-term monitoring of one of Australia’s most vulnerable ecosystems. The experience was greatly influential on me, and I am grateful to have had this experience. Now, I am enrolled to complete my Honours in 2022 on a Mountain Summit Ecology project.