After a five year hiatus due to bushfires and covid, the Alpine Ecology Course (AEC) was once again run at Falls Creek (5-10 March 2023). The AEC has been running since the late 1980s; it was developed to provide participants with a better understanding of the ecology of alpine ecosystems so that they can be better managed. Over that time, around 1000 participants have been through the program.
In 2023, 28 course participants – spanning the ACT, NSW and Victoria, from a range of roles including an outdoor education teacher, national park rangers, forest managers, ski resort workers, and a member of a traditional owner corporation – were exposed to the flora, fauna, soils, geomorphology and disturbance ecology, using the Bogong High Plains as the teaching laboratory. The week started with a welcome to country, including a smoking ceremony, by traditional custodians who then stayed with us for the remainder of the week to talk about their aspirations for the land.
Field instruction and excursions underpin participant learning, supplemented by some evening seminars. Participants were led by instructors including Neville Rosengren, who described the evolution of the mountain landscape, and introduced terms such as peri-glacial, solifluction, denudation and block streams. Keith McDougall focused on plants and vegetation survey methods. Michael Nash introduced biosecurity (through the lens of slug invasions) and championed insects as the ”unseen windmills” of the alps, while Dean Heinze and Ian Mansergh updated participants on Mountain Pygmy Possum and Bogong Moth ecology. Sam Grover focused on soils, particularly peats, assisted by Ewen Silvester who added important understanding about hydrology. John Morgan reminded participants about snow – one of the most prominent features of high mountain landscapes – and how its decline might imperil some plant communities. Dick Williams focused attention on the recent fires, and what can be learnt by considering the fire regime.
Participants learnt lots that can be taken back to their own landscapes and, importantly, made connections with their peers. This network can only help better support those in charge of alpine landscapes to ensure best-practice management is being implemented. Plans are underway to run the course again in 2024. Updates will be provided here in the Ecology Course tab. Calls for registration will be made later in 2023. Stay tuned.
Ecologists from the global Mountain Invasion Research Network (MIREN) – including members of the RCAAE (John Morgan, Keith McDougall, James Shannon) – found that the number of non-native plant species in mountainous regions around the world has increased over the last 5-10 years, and that already established species are rapidly spreading to higher elevations.
Compared to lowland ecosystems, mountains have been less invaded by non-native plant species. However, with climate warming and increasing human pressure at high elevations, this situation is changing. While upward movements of native species in mountains are well recognized and relatively well documented, long-term studies on non-native species in mountainous regions are rare. To fill the gap, a global network of researchers has been monitoring non-native species along mountain roads since 2007. Now, a first assessment of the ongoing spread of non-native plants in mountains across continents has been published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
The long-term study reveals increasing numbers of non-native plant species in high mountains.
Overall, the study found a significant increase in non-native species richness (approximately 16%) in mountains over the last 10 years. Considering that ecological processes such as the establishment of new species and range expansion often take place over long periods of time, the increase in the number of detected non-native species within a decade is surprising and alarming. However, as the trends greatly varied among the eleven regions included in the study (New South Wales and Victoria [Australia], Central and South Chile, Hawaii, India, Montana and Oregon [USA], Norway, Switzerland and Tenerife), the overall increase in species richness could only be detected by pooling observations from multiple regions, highlighting the importance of globally replicated studies to detect temporal trends within short time periods.
The upward movement of non-native species was mostly at lower and mid elevations.
The invasion of mountain ecosystems is not only marked by an increasing diversity of non-native species, but also by an upward movement of species already present when the survey started. Moving to higher altitudes and latitudes to follow their preferred temperature is a well-known escape strategy for plants in times of global climate warming. Indeed, the analysis of the upper range limit changes within the study period revealed range expansions occurring in 10 out of the 11 surveyed regions. However, as non-native species are often initially introduced in the lowlands, from where they find their way into the mountains, an upward spread can be expected even without the effect of climate warming. This corresponds with the finding that in some of the surveyed regions, change was only detectable for species occurring in the lower or middle part of the surveyed elevational gradient. Nonetheless, climate change might enhance the upward spread of already established species, emphasizing the need to monitor their movements and prevent any negative consequences in high elevation ecosystems.
The Research Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology recently supported a nomination to list ‘Maisie’s Plots’ as Sites of State cultural significance due to the important role they have played in the science of alpine ecology. The Heritage Council of Victoria has now included ‘Maisie’s Plots’ in the Victorian Heritage Register pursuant to the Heritage Act 2017. ‘Maisie’s Plots’ are two non-contiguous areas of land about 1 km apart that have been used for long-term ecological monitoring and experiments since the 1940s. The Rocky Valley Plots were first sampled in 1945, and the Pretty Valley Plots in 1947; they have been sampled every 5-10 years ever since. The next sampling occurs in January 2023.
About Maisie Fawcett, and the history of her high country research
Stella Grace Maisie Fawcett (later Mrs Maisie Carr; 1912-1988) was a botanist and ecologist born in Melbourne.
Fawcett’s High Country studies commenced in 1941 – during the Second World War! In 1940 the Soil Conservation Act established Victoria’s new Soil Conservation Board (SCB). At the time the members of the Board were very concerned about condition of the Hume Catchment, particularly the high plains, much of which had been burnt in 1939, and which was used extensively for free-range cattle grazing. Today the damaging impact of cattle grazing on the ecology of the High Country, including patterns of soil erosion, is well understood. But in the early-mid twentieth century, there was little scientific evidence to conclusively demonstrate this. More research was needed to protect water catchment areas and dams so that siltation did not become an expensive problem for government water projects.
The SCB instigated an investigation into soil erosion and ecology of the High Country in 1941 in collaboration with Professor John Turner, Head of the School of Botany at the University of Melbourne. He selected eroded areas near Omeo in the Hume catchment area for research. He needed a skilled ecologist to undertake the fieldwork. At this time, the High Country was a remote and rugged part of Victoria: some areas were only accessible on horseback and communication by telephone was limited. Given these difficult conditions, it was initially thought that a man was best suited to the job of conducting the research.
It was wartime, however, and male ecologists were in short supply. The SCB arranged with Professor Turner for Maisie to undertake an ecological survey of Hume Catchment. At the time Maisie was a post-graduate student, but Prof. Turner convinced the Board that she could capably undertake the work. This was initially via a research grant to the Botany School, but in 1944 Maisie was appointed as the first research officer of the Soil Conservation Board. She extended her activities to cover all the High Country in the Hume Catchment, including the Bogong High Plains.
From September 1941, Fawcett moved to Omeo. As part of her pasture regeneration studies, she had large areas fenced to exclude stock on the steep eroded slopes of Mt Mesley and Mt Livingstone. In these exclosures she recorded vegetation changes and also stream flow and siltation rates. Fawcett travelled extensively on foot and horseback across the hilly Hume Catchment area becoming familiar with the Alpine environment and its particular ecology. Being a city-bred woman, a scientist, a representative of the University and the SCB was not easy in a rural community. Fawcett overcame entrenched conservative attitudes, wartime shortages, physical exhaustion and challenging terrain and weather conditions.
During her time at Omeo, Fawcett became aware that soil erosion in the Bogong High Plains to the northwest of Omeo could potentially threaten the Hume Catchment, including and the new Kiewa hydro-electric scheme which had been under construction since 1938. In 1944 Maisie accompanied members of Board to assess obvious deterioration of grazing values and incidence of erosion on the Bogong High Plains. On Maisie’s recommendation, and at the request of the SCB, the State Electricity Commission (SEC) fenced the Rocky Valley and, later, the Pretty Valley experimental monitoring sites on the Bogong High Plains. This arrangement (i.e. two study areas) was necessary so that soil and vegetation measurements could be made over the full range of plant associations on the Bogong High Plains.
Rocky Valley Plots
The large fenced exclosure at Rocky Valley was established in 1944-45. The exclosure included the headwaters of a first order stream and its associated peatland vegetation, and various other vegetation types such as heathlands and herbfields. The fence excluded cattle, and the nearby unfenced control areas allowed cattle to graze freely. Within the exclosure, 500 m2 permanent sample plots with permanently marked transect lines were established in open heathland, closed heathland and herbfield. Similar sample plots-with-transects were established within comparable vegetation types in the unfenced, control area.
Pretty Valley Plots
In 1946 Fawcett selected land for sites on the edge of Pretty Valley (a grassland area). The exclosure was fenced in 1946 to exclude cattle, along with an unfenced control area in which cattle could graze. The Pretty Valley plots were established because the type of grassland present there was not well-represented at Rocky Valley. Permanently-marked transects were established in the exclosure and the adjacent unfenced area.
Fawcett’s investigations and findings were not always welcome. She criticised the cattlemen’s frequent burning of vegetation. That said, Maisie slowly and consistently won the respect of cattlemen, of SCB members and others by speaking not only from her love for the High Country, but from the clear, uncluttered evidence that the land itself was revealing. In 1949 Fawcett became a lecturer in systematic botany and ecology at the University of Melbourne and continued her research at the Alpine plots. Fawcett’s findings – that summer grazing was detrimental to the sustenance of native vegetation and encouraged soil erosion – were published in 1959, co-written with Professor Turner, in the Australian Journal of Botany. Her classical observations of shrub ecology were published in 1962 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria. The Rocky Valley and Pretty Valley plots have been monitored ever since. The compelling evidence provided by these long-term, longitudinal studies, and Maisie’s ecological insights, contributed to the controls on grazing that commenced in the 1940s, further restrictions on grazing in the 1980s following the establishment of the Bogong National Park, and the cessation of all licenced grazing in the Victorian Alpine Park in 2005.
Maisie’s Plots are thought by many within the scientific community to be one of the foundations of Australian ecology. The plots at Rocky Valley and Pretty Valley were among the first such exclosures in Australia. They are one of the longest running ecological experiments in Australia. They are amongst the longest continual grassland monitoring projects in the world. Prior to the 1940s there had been only a handful of exclosure projects in Australia. When most of Australia’s few ecologists were male, Maisie Fawcett undertook ground-breaking ecological research into plant-environment relationships that revealed unequivocally the damaging effects of cattle on the vegetation and soils of major Australian water-catchments. Maisie Fawcett was a gifted scientist and pioneering ecologist who grasped opportunities that took her to the forefront of her field. ‘Maisie’s Plots’ contributed to early, foundational scientific assessments of the significance of the Australian Alps and land-use therein. The vegetation in and around the plots continue to be studied by new generations of scientists and are yielding new information about the ecology of the Australian Alps.
In the summer of 2021-2022, RCAAE members Keith McDougall and Neville Walsh led the fourth survey of roadside weeds in Kosciuszko as part of the global MIREN-initiative. In Victoria, a similar resurvey of roadsides was undertaken by RCAAE members John Morgan, James Shannon, Zac Walker and Alex Blackburn-Smith.
The following text written by Keith McDougall discusses the highlights from the Kosciuszko surveys. More information on the MIREN surveys can be found at https://www.mountaininvasions.org/
Genevieve Wright, Neville Walsh and I set out in early December to commence the resurvey of MIREN road transects. This was the fourth survey of the permanently marked plots, the first being in 2006 – 07, four years after the largest wildfire in living memory in the park. The potential perils of the survey were many – for instance, the park is home to four of the 10 deadliest snakes in the world. However, apart from the effects of increasing age in the steep terrain (the mean age of the surveyors was 61), our biggest fear was anaphylaxis, for Neville from a genus of native daisies called Cassinia and for me from the ferocious Jack Jumper Ant, which in the four surveys has stung me twice, both at site AT7. We survived.
You would think that after three surveys of the same transects over 10 years, there would be nothing left to discover in subsequent surveys, but that was not the case, and our discoveries again highlight the value of this sort of work. Kosciuszko National Park was certainly different this time and so botanical surprises were not entirely unexpected. Firstly, a decade long drought had broken in February 2020. Plants that had gone to ground (as seed) during the dry years may have had an opportunity to flourish, as might species that like disturbance from fire. A wildfire since our last survey, mostly on New Year’s Day 2020, may not have burnt as much of the park as the one in January 2003 but it burnt with a speed and ferocity never seen before. Some direct effects of the fire were immediately evident. Part of one road plot had been submerged in a landslide (the result of a subsequent deluge of rain on the fire scarred soils) and part of one plot in natural vegetation had been washed away, leaving a ditch half a metre deep.
The dead stems of 2 m tall Conyza sumatrensis (an annual non-native daisy) were a feature of many burnt natural vegetation plots – it was rarely recorded in previous surveys but its seeds were clearly present and ready to take advantage of disturbance. We recorded Trachymene composita in our plots for the first time. It is a curious biannual native herb, which appears after fire and can grow to 2.5 m tall. After a couple of years, it disappears again until the next fire, which may not be for many decades. We were especially concerned for the MIREN mascot plant, Poa mireniana, a species discovered in the 2011 – 12 survey. All of its populations were burnt and it had grown in areas with the most severe fire. However, it was great to see that it had recovered well and increased in cover.
New discoveries were also made on transects that were not burnt in 2020. Two highly invasive non-native grasses, Nassella trichotoma and Eragrostis curvula were recorded in road plots of Kosciuszko Road for the first time. The single plant of Nassella was removed and park staff will try to remove the Eragrostis, which was sadly too abundant for us to tackle. Both of those species were already known in the park (from lower elevations) but we also recorded two non-native species that had not been recorded in or near the park before: Plantago coronopus and Xanthium spinosum. The populations we found appear to be the highest recorded in Australia (with the Plantago usually found near the coast). We pulled out all of the Xanthium plants (carefully – it is a vicious species). It was an excellent example of how non-native plants can jump to a mountain site rather than move slowly along the road. The roadside verge where it was growing had recently been reshaped with imported gravel, clearly from a lowland area containing Xanthium seed.
Juvenile Xanthium spinosum plant growing in imported gravel on a road verge in Kosciuszko National Park
Our most important find was in an unburnt native vegetation plot, where we located a small population of the critically endangered orchid, Pterostylis oreophila. This was the first new record in almost 20 years and brings the number of extant populations in New South Wales to three.
A flower of the critically endangered orchid Pterostylis oreophila
A new paper published in the Journal of Ecology finds that alpine plants display relatively little variation within their species. This paper, lead by Christen Rixen from the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF in Davos, Switzerland, is a collaborative effort between scientists in Australia, New Zealand and China, and includes RCAAE researchers John Morgan, Susanna Venn and Adrienne Nicotra. This finding that species display little variation could put them at a disadvantage when it comes to climate change, as more variable generalists growing at lower elevations could respond faster and better and push out the specialists.
Climate change affects plants: warmer or wetter summers, for example, could enable them to grow faster and reproduce more successfully. While this may seem like a good thing, the reality is more complex and the implications are far from clear. That’s because not all plant species are equally adept at exploiting such changes to their growing conditions. Experts fear that generalists and common species will benefit most and so displace rare species and specialists adapted to inhospitable habitats (see also Plants are conquering Europe’s summits at an ever faster rate).
In the study, the researchers examined ‘traits’ in 66 plant species. These are characteristics that can vary among individuals of the same species, such as the plant’s height. Such traits also perform important functions in the natural world. For example, taller specimens benefit from more sunlight and produce more biomass.
The researchers suspect that plant species with a high level of trait variation are generally better able to respond to changes in their environment since whatever form the change takes, some specimens will already be adapted to cope with it.
Rixen and his colleagues examined seven selected traits for each plant species (including height, leaf area and whether the plant produces flowers) as well as the distribution of the species along elevational gradients on mountains in China, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland. The analyses paint a consistent picture in all the regions investigated:
Plant species that prefer to grow at lower elevations display great trait variation.
Plant species found at all elevations also exhibit great trait variation.
Species that favour very high elevations show little trait variation.
So, if variation is indeed a key factor for rapid and successful adaptation to climate change, then alpine specialists run the risk of falling behind and being squeezed out by more ubiquitous species and generalists.
Christian Rixen and his colleagues are continuing their research with long-term observations of alpine flora in Switzerland and worldwide. However, as well as observational studies, complex experiments are needed to find out whether their basic hypothesis is really correct. In a few years’ time, the results will show whether high trait variation is indeed a success factor for adapting to climate change.
Applications for PhD scholarships (via La Trobe University) are now available. If you are keen to study in the Australian Alps with one of our Researchers, then visit the University scholarship webpage for applications for any project, allocated on the basis of merit. These scholarships are available for domestic students only and should be developed with a prospective supervisor:
Up to three Dennis McDermott scholarships will be awarded to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders
Please contact Assoc Prof John Morgan (J.Morgan@latrobe.edu.au) should you require further information on these opportunities. Please note: applicants from domestic students for PhD scholarships are due 31st October 2021.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Mountain regions worldwide are the water-towers of the Earth. The Australian Alps produce over half of river flows in the Murray-Darling Basin which contain > 45% of Australia’s irrigated production (which is valued at more than $10B per annum). In addition, reliable winter snowfalls contribute >65% of the annual precipitation of the region, and the mountains host more than 2.5M visitors annually, with three quarters of tourists visiting the snowfields in winter, contributing roughly $960M annually in revenue for Victoria alone. Spring snowmelt into high country aqueducts and dams represents Australia’s largest energy store in the form of hydroelectricity. These local and regional economies can only exist because of a climate that produces regular snowfalls, and a mostly intact, adapted and resilient alpine environment. The alpine environment regulates water flows, controls soil erosion and provides habitat for many endangered and threatened plant and animal species. Indeed, the ecosystems of the Australian Alps are one of 11 Australian centres of plant diversity, one of 187 global biodiversity hotspots and they even include a RAMSAR listed site, Blue Lake, in Kosciuszko National Park. Alpine ecosystems – from bogs and fens to snowpatches – and some of their unique species (like Australia’s only hibernating alpine animal, the Mountain Pygmy Possum) rely on snow for protection from frosts and strong winds, for insulating soils, providing a steady water supply and as a cue for phenological events. Some species, like Snow Algae, even rely entirely on late melting snowpack as a habitat substrate.
It’s difficult to imagine the Australian Alps without snow. But predictable snowfalls and lasting snowpack are already dwindling, and a projected 30-70% decline in annual maximum snow depth relative to 1990 levels by 2050 (under a low-emissions scenario) seems likely. The ability of the Australian alpine environment to function properly without reliable snowcover and a lasting snowpack is unknown. Surprisingly, studies of snow ecology in Australia are few, and we do not have a good understanding of how, where or when snowpack interacts with vegetation or drives soil water content across the alpine landscape and, in turn, how this affects alpine plant growth in the months following snowmelt. But thankfully, that’s about to change.
Led by Dr Susanna Venn and Dr Adam Miller (Deakin University), with collaborators at the Australian National University, RMIT University and the Research Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology, La Trobe University, a new research project funded by the Australian Research Council and partners (alpine ski resorts, alpine nurseries, Parks Victoria and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne) will investigate how the Australian Alps will fare with declines in snowcover. Titled “Mountain champions: building resilience into alpine environments for a low-snow future”, the Research Group will assess whether alpine species have the regeneration and adaptive capacity to thrive under new climates, as well determining their tolerances to the extreme temperatures they will face in the future. The research also aims to determine which areas of the alpine landscape are most at-risk of collapse without snow. The project kicks off in 2021 (with post-graduate student and volunteer opportunities) and we look forward to working with our partners to help better understand “ice ecology” and to map a brighter future for our snow-covered ecosystems. Stay tuned for updates.
Zali Jestrimski, a La Trobe University Student, on her undergraduate research project investigating Dingoes in the Victorian High Country.
When Dr John Morgan suggested an undergrad research project on dingoes in the alps, I was thrilled. The idea was to use trail cameras at the Mt Hotham Alpine Resort – which had been set up to monitor foxes, cats and deer – to try and quantify the number of dingoes in the area. There was also the added bonus of assessing whether areas with dingoes had fewer feral animals. Dingoes have been a passion of mine for some time, and I know quite a lot about their behaviour from my time as a volunteer at a dingo sanctuary in Melbourne. But it was also apparent to me that we know relatively little about dingoes in the alps, and I was keen to improve that knowledge.
There is a misconception that there are no pure dingoes left in the Victorian high country. However, genetic studies prove otherwise and it was not surprising that the trail cameras at Mt Hotham have detected the species in the vicinity of the resort.
For my research project, I wanted to study the activity patterns of dingoes near Mt Hotham as there was nothing known about this. Where were they? When did they move about the landscape? In addition, studies elsewhere have shown that dingoes likely suppress cat and fox numbers, and may even affect the behaviour of Sambar deer. Could I observe fewer ferals where dingoes were present? While my study is a small one, and much more work needs to be done, I think I found some very interesting patterns.
In the vicinity of Mt Hotham, there were several dingoes observed over a two year period using the trail cameras to document their occupancy, including young ones. This suggests that dingoes are resident and breeding there. I found that there were less cats in locations with dingoes – although it’s hard to know if one is directly responsible for the other. I observed that dingoes do overlap with both foxes and deer but that the ferals tend to be active at different times to that of the dingoes. Are they avoiding the dingoes?
I hope this research is the start of an improved understanding of dingoes in the alps, as well as the role they play in this ecosystem. You can read about my work in The Victorian Naturalist 137: 96-104.