Honours research into the impact that a decline in bogong moth has on mountain pygmy possums

Claire Hutton is a new honours student at at La Trobe University studying with Dr Dean Heinze and Dr John Morgan. Below, Claire has written about her project and motivations for working in the alps.

My interest in the alps originates from two different aspects. Firstly, from a great appreciation for the beauty of mountains. And secondly, from the belief that the management of alpine environments should balance tourist access and the preservation of its ecosystems. My honours project focuses on two major species which rely on the perseverance of Australia’s unique montane conditions: bogong moth and mountain pygmy possum.

Bogong moth migrate in large numbers to the peaks of the Snowy Mountains and the Victorian Alps, including the Bogong High Plains and Mount Buller, every spring. This, in itself, delivers a huge influx of prey to many species, such as mountain pygmy possum. These possums need to gain sufficient weight in the space of only a few months to carry them through their winter hibernation. Traditionally, they do this by capitalising on the extensive bogong moth availability, particularly in October and November; therefore these possums are believed to be dependent on the bogong moth. Over the last two summer, however, there have been anecdotal reports indicating a crash in bogong moth population, raising concern over the impact this decline could have on mountain pygmy possum, among other species.

This study aims to determine both the abundance of bogong moth and the composition of mountain pygmy possum diet, specifically the proportion of bogong moth to other carnivorous and herbivorous prey in faecal samples. This will give insight into the degree of specialisation of these species’ predator prey relationship.

Data collection will take place through field surveys at Mount Little Higginbotham and Mount Buller across the coming snow free season. Specifically, collections will be monthly from October to February capturing the traditional peak in bogong moth alpine population in Spring and allowing for comparisons across early and late summer. Environmental moth abundance will be measured using light traps; diet composition will be assessed through scat collection from possum trapping and subsequent laboratory analysis.

This research may find that moths are not arriving in large numbers. This may reflect the recent drought or agricultural changes in their lowland breeding grounds. This may lead to a reduced proportion of bogong moth being consumed. This study will be able to determine if other arthropods are predated upon in lieu, given that alternative species are available. However, there may be significant impacts on possum health and reproduction if bogong moth cannot be substituted with species which are both available in high numbers and rich in energy.

This study will contribute to records of bogong moth populations as there is currently very limited published data. It will also highlight an additional, potential threat to mountain pygmy possum and the importance of maintaining these ecosystems for supporting the species comprising them.

– Claire Hutton


Honours student investigating the diet of sambar deer on the Bogong High Plains

Matthew Quin is an honours student currently investigating the diet of Sambar Deer on the Bogong High Plains in Victoria. Although it is recognized that introduced deer cause significant detrimental changes to natural ecosystems, the ability of Sambar deer to aid or limit native and exotic plant species through dietary foraging and endozoochory (the process of moving plant seeds via faecal matter) is still relatively unknown.

Matt is investigating Sambar deer diet through DNA metabarcoding of faecal pellets, an advancing technology used for distinguishing multiple plant species within a sample. Additionally, the role of Sambar deer as plant-seed dispersers will be assessed through glasshouse germination trials of faecal pellets, providing insight into which plant species, whether native or exotic, are capable of surviving the digestive system and prospering from the endozoochory processes of Sambar deer.

Considering threats currently faced by the Victoria Alps as a result of climate change, this project has great importance for understanding additional Sambar deer browsing effects on Bogong High Plains ecosystems, and the prospect of plant species invasion as a result of endozoochory.

Matt Quin and plants germinating from deer pellets

Student Experience: Suzie’s alpine summer studentship

As someone who has grown up surrounded by hills, beautiful views and lush native bush, I thought I knew what I was in for in terms of landscape going into this cadetship despite having spent only a few brief moments in the Australian Alps and barely at all in Summer. I anticipated the beauty, but driving up that endlessly winding road, although reminiscent of the one I grew up on, I realised I had not prepared for just how wondrously captivated I would become over the next five weeks as a cadet with the Research Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology.

The remarkable beauty of the alps added a sense of magic to my entire experience. From long days collecting data for fascinating projects, to shared meals at sunset with some of the most intriguing and quirky (in the best way) people I’ve ever met, to stomping around looking for very discreetly marked plots and weeding Hypochaeris. It was truly extraordinary and influential for me and I am so grateful to have had this opportunity.

I was inspired by every person I met, their passion, knowledge and love for what they do combined with their openness and desire to share that with anyone keen to listen created such a positive environment to learn in. I learnt so many things this summer that it wouldn’t be possible to include them all, but I think one of the most valuable things I learnt was to always ask questions, regardless of whether you’ve asked the same thing 20 times before… usually a bizarre species name. I also learnt the importance of being adaptable when a study design wasn’t suitable or wasn’t going to plan and how crucial a good data sheet can be. This I learnt the hard way, ruling page after page and trying to follow pages crammed with tiny numbers without getting lost.

Another incredible thing I learned was what it is really like to be a researcher, something that I have always been interested in but honestly never thought I would have the opportunity to do. This was really eye opening for me. I always thought that I would love it, and boy was I right. The interactions, intelligence, dedication and genuine fun I observed from this lifestyle was infectious. As a mature age student who swayed from course to course in the past and really struggled with knowing what I wanted to do, this cadetship brought me a sense of clarity and direction that I hadn’t experience before. Although as expected, there were times when I was thoroughly exhausted and even went a little crazy, I quickly realised that this was a quality I shared with my alpine community.

I worked on several different projects, most of which were part of long-term ecological research studies concerned with different aspects of how the alps are changing over time. Some of the main projects being surveys of snow-patches, significant wetlands, populations of invasive weeds and rare species. While data entry and collection are ongoing and analysis is yet to be done, I am enthralled to see what the data we collected tells about the processes happening in this environment, and to get back out there and do whatever I can to help protect this captivating place.

See you soon alps!

– Suzie Moss

Surveying invasive species at Mt Hotham

Suzie surveying the effect of the invasive Ox-Eye Daisy on native flora in subalpine vegetation at Mt Hotham

Snowfence re-visitation studies


RCAAE members John Morgan and Susanna Venn recently re-sampled the world’s oldest snowfence experiment at Old Man Range, South Island in New Zealand. Established in 1959 by Sir Professor Alan Mark (University of Otago), the snowfence structure changes the extent and duration of snowcover on a small area of windswept cushionfield. Over time, species composition has changed, as well as species cover. The cushionfield has re-assembled into a snowpatch community dominated by herbs that are rare in the broader cushionfield landscape.  While the accumulation of snow is counter the prediction for many alpine areas (such as Australia – where loss of snowcover is predicted to occur over the coming century), this experiment beautifully illustrates the importance of growing season length and moisture on the distribution of alpine plants. In the Australian context, the loss of snow is likely to lead to the range contraction of species that are restricted to such areas.

Susanna and John will analyse the changes in species composition over time using a plant functional trait approach. What is it about plants – their height, specific leaf area, leaf nitrogen – that allows them to increase in late-lying snowbanks compared to the exposed cushionfields. They will then compare the findings of the Old Man Range snowfence experiment with changes they have been observing at Niwot Ridge in Colorado, USA where a similar experiment has been running since 1994.


You can read more about the changes in vegetation at the Old Man Range at:

Mark et al. (2015) Ecological responses to 52 years of experimental snow manipulation in high-alpine cushionfield, Old Man Range, south-central New Zealand. Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research 47, 751-772.


Protecting the past by ensuring its future

A deer-proof fence has recently been erected by Parks Victoria around Maisie’s Rocky Valley Plot on the Bogong High Plains.

One of the oldest ecological monitoring sites in Australia will now be protected into the future. “Maisie’s Plots”, on the Bogong High Plains in the Alpine National Park, were established in 1944 by pioneering ecologist Maisie Fawcett to study the impacts of cattle grazing on alpine wetlands and rangelands. By constructing a low fence, cows could be excluded and their impacts assessed. This was done over six decades by a small army of scientists, students and volunteers. In 2005, the cows were removed and the fence removed. But a new threat emerged – Sambar Deer.

To protect the scientific heritage of Maisie’s Plots, and continue to study the impact of large ungulates on alpine ecosystems, Parks Victoria has just completed the construction of a new, taller fence designed to withstand the rigours of the alpine environment. At 2 m high, and designed to exclude deer and feral horses, Maisie’s Plots will now continue to be one of the best reference sites in Australia for assessing long-term change in natural ecosystems.

To secure the scientific and environmental integrity of this important site, a purpose designed and built deer exclusion fence was erected. The fence includes an innovative design to allow sections to be dropped in winter to avoid damage by snow. Erecting the fence posed many challenges, not the least of which was how to minimise environmental damage. All materials were carried into the site by hand, and the use of other machinery limited to low impact hand-held devices.

“The new fence ensures that the important legacy of Maisie’s work is preserved” said Dr John Morgan, from La Trobe University’s Research Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology. “But more importantly, it offers an important reference site to continue to monitor change. Alpine ecosystems look like they will be exposed to more fire in the future, warmer temperatures and large exotic animals like deer. Just how this impacts on important alpine plants and animals can be assessed by building on Maisie’s nationally important work”.

The fence was built by Parks Victoria with the support of La Trobe University’s Research Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology, and funding from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.


Research, rain and rare plants: Courtney’s alpine summer studentship experience

This past summer I was lucky enough to undertake a studentship through the RCAAE. For six weeks I lived with another student cadet in Falls Creek and we assisted with fieldwork under the supervision of academics working within the research centre. The studentship allowed me to gain exposure to the realities of field work and research – this of course included data entry!

The data entry was accompanied by exciting opportunities too, which allowed me to experience many remote areas of the Alpine National Park. This included surveying the demography of an endangered species of rock caraway (Oreomyrrhis brevipes) on windy basalt outcrops. Completing altitudinal transects on the steep Mt McKay, seeing a whole span of flora that exists in Bogong High Plains from true alpine peak to montane forests in one day. It was great to participate in some work that gave me insights into how researchers and land managers cooperate to manage invasive species when we hiked from Mount Hotham to Falls Creek surveying for the terrible ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare). We also spent a several days collecting data from permanent transects which have been surveyed for almost 40 years.

There were also times when things didn’t go quite to plan, whether that was the lively weather of the alps, mishaps with 4WDs or trying to alter a sampling method in the field after realising it wasn’t the right fit. Adapting to the unexpected was one of the skills I developed, when on a day whilst working alone, a very thick fog blew in. Without the familiar mountains or trees to orient myself and had to blindly follow my GPS back to the car! And while working on a study which looked at the effects of warming on shrub phenology I attempted to stay focused despite having ants crawling all over my hands and legs while I crouched on the ground counting flowers of alpine mint bush (Prostanthera cuneata). Later I learnt that I could have avoided the ants by working earlier in the day, as they are a lot less active in the morning.

It was great to meet and hear stories of the people and researchers who are so committed to conservation and increasing scientific knowledge in the Victorian Alps. I learnt a huge amount both working in the field and through my interactions with researchers from different universities and abroad. The experience I gained from the studentship will be invaluable going forward. I am glad to have been able to contribute a small part to long-term research and conservation in such a special landscape of Australia.

– Courtney Taylor

Surveying basalt outcrops for rare and endangered species

Surveying basalt outcrops for rare and endangered species

RCAAE ecologists highlight decline in high country Bogong Moths

RCAAE ecologists have, as part of their long-term monitoring, raised the alarm about the potential decline in Bogong Moths in the high country and it’s potential to negatively affect the critically endangered Burramys (Mountain Pygmy Possum).

Declines of this nature, of a common species, are likely due to drought in the moths breeding grounds. This highlights the need for better understanding of the ecology of Bogong Moths, especially in lowland landscape where they live and breed, and a better network of observation stations in the alps to understand temporal dynamics.

Watch this space for a citizen science initiative.

Read more:


New Paper: Using leaf traits as barometers of change

leaftraitsScanned images that illustrate the diversity of leaves sampled in this study from 27 grassland sites. These very leaves were collected from sites located in Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, United States and Switzerland and brought together in this collage.

For decades, scientists have searched for a set of simple, easily measured traits that could be used to predict how plants respond to environmental change at any site around the world. These traits have been referred to as the ‘holy grail’ because they could serve as a standardized instrument, a biological barometer, to predict the effects of global change on the earth’s ecosystems.

In a recent Nature Ecology and Evolution paper, co-authored by RCAAE member Dr John Morgan and including data from the Australian Bogong alpine grassland site, we measured how some of these commonly used leaf traits respond to two of the most prevalent global changes, increased nutrient loading and altered grazing rates, across a set of 27 grasslands sites in four countries. These sites are part of a globally replicated experiment, the Nutrient Network, being conducted at over 100 sites around the world.

 Leaf nutrient concentrations (i.e. percent nitrogen phosphorus and potassium) increased in fertilized plots, which is consistent with ecological theory. However, this result is at odds with a well-known theory in agriculture called the growth-dilution effect which predicts the increased growth of the plants will outpace nutrient accumulation in the tissue. Contrary to existing ecological theory and expectations from physiological ecology, specific leaf area (SLA), perhaps the most widely-used leaf trait, did not show a consistent response to nutrient addition. We found no consistent changes in any of the leaf traits, which is contrary to expectations from plant-defense theory.

Why are leaf traits so important to plant ecologists?

The environment in which plants grow and the organisms that eat them can sculpt their features or ‘traits’ including the area, weight, and thickness of their leaves, the number of seeds they produce, the height they reach, and the amount and type of roots they grow. These traits, in turn, can determine the effectiveness of each species – and the combination of species in a location – in capturing energy from the sun or nutrients from the soil.

Ecologists use changes in leaf traits to compare plant growth strategies and subsequently infer how ecosystems function. Despite the high diversity of species globally, it is reasonable to expect that there may be consistent trait responses because all plants have much in common including their reliance on three essential resources, light, water and elemental nutrients, which sustain common functions of growth, reproduction, defense, and storage.

Plant ecologists use traits to discover commonalities, but leaf traits are also used more practically to understand the impacts of disturbance and for rebuilding plant communities in restoration efforts. The practical application of leaf traits to infer ‘function’ has been ongoing for decades without a global experimental test of whether leaf traits actually respond in a predictable way to short-term perturbations. Our experimental test helps to isolate cause from correlation in the relationship between plant function and plant traits. Leaf nutrient concentrations are useful as barometers of short-term nutrient enrichment, but not SLA. SLA still has its uses, a measure commonly used to distinguish plant defense-competition tradeoffs. It might be that SLA is less plastic and thus a complete species replacement is needed over the longer term in response to the treatments to detect a change.

The full paper led by Jenn Firn, Leaf nutrients, not specific leaf area, are consistent indicators of elevated nutrient inputs, can be found at http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41559-018-0790-1


RCAAE submission to the parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s faunal extinction crisis

The RCAAE welcomes this inquiry into Australia’s faunal extinction crisis and has made a submission highlighting the need to invest in long-term monitoring to track the status of threatened species populations. Such an investment is needed to inform appropriate management and ensure the persistence of Australia’s threatened species, such as the Burramys (mountain pygmy possum) and Guthega Skink.

Monitoring, performed over long time periods, is necessary to detect changes in population abundance, identify key threats and causes of decline, and to undertake effective adaptive management to reverse species decline. Almost nowhere else is this better illustrated than in the Australian Alps where long-term monitoring and management of threatened species has been undertaken for decades.

Chronic under-funding threatens the capacity to continue monitoring threatened species and undertake required management actions. A new Federal funding initiative is urgently needed in Australia to ensure that current long-term monitoring for threatened species is maintained, and to enable such monitoring activities to be expanded.

The full RCAAE submission can be found here.
All submissions made to the parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s faunal extinction crisis are accessible here.


The nationally endangered Mountain pygmy possum (Burramys parvus).