An initiative of Earthwatch Institute

Start monitoring pines in Tasmania

To support the addition of Pencil Pine. King Billy Pine and Fagus to ClimateWatch, Program Manager Rich Weatherill met with Jennie Whinam (Senior Ecologist - Biodiversity Monitoring Section) and Nick Fitzgerald (Project Officer - Vegetation Conservation) from Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water & Environment to learn about the Tasmanian Climate Change Monitoring Program and why these species are good ClimateWatch indicators.

 Jennie records measurements
Jennie Whinam records measurements as Nick Fitzgerald calls them out. (Photo by Rich Weatherill)

1.What discoveries have been made so far about the effect on climate change on Pines?
Research at UTas has shown that Athrotaxis are sensitive to drought and function best at cooler temperatures. So we would expect them to show signs of stress and declining health
2. What specific methods and technologies are you using to monitor Pines?
We are establishing long-term monitoring sites where researchers will return every ten years or so to observe changes in the health of individual trees. Also at these sites there will be permanent photo-points to provide a photographic time series which will record changes in the vegetation.

Nick Fitzgerald takes photos
Nick Fitzgerald photographs a Pencil Pine at Mt. Field (Photo by Rich Weatherill)
3. How can the discoveries be put to use right now and in the future? 
We can identify sites which may require more in depth studies. This work is also informing the Parks and Wildlife Services Bushfire Risk Assessment planning. In the long-term it will inform adaptive management strategies and the identification of climate change refugia for vulnerable species.
4. Are there any Pine species populations that are deeply threatened by climate change at the moment?
We would expect populations at the range limits of the species to be most threatened by climate change. For example, the most northern-eastern population of pencil pines is at Pine Lake on the Central Plateau, where the pines have previously suffered a dieback event.   But until we complete the baseline monitoring we don’t know.
5.What are some signs people should be looking for when monitoring Pines on their own time?
Recently dead and dying pines are the most obvious things. Unhealthy pines have a lot of brown foliage and may have several dead branches, although a small amount of brown foliage quite often occurs in healthy trees.  If you have photo collections over time, these will be incredibly useful. We also want to know about healthy trees. Production of cones, especially if there are large quantities and the presence of seedlings (young pines under around 1 m tall).

Jennie highlights an unhealthy King Billy Pine
Jennie Whinam highlights an unhealthy King Billy Pine. (Photo by Rich Weatherill)
6.How are the citizen scientist efforts going to assist you with your research?
Citizen scientists will expand the range of locations for which we have data, provide ongoing observations in between our major survey efforts and alert us to things like seedling recruitment or dieback events.
7.What are some future research projects that you have in mind? 
Similar monitoring programs for other endemic plants, eg  fagus, Huon pine.
Establishing monitoring sites for sensitive alpine vegetation communities, eg. snow patch vegetation.
8. Is there anything you have already found/or suspects is changing in the environment? 
It appears that the mast seeding cycle of Athrotaxis has changed. Recruitment of Athrotaxis varies greatly between different regions.
There has been significant thinning in pencil pine foliage (as trees drop phyllodes/leaves as they are under climate stress)
9. Is there any interesting history with this particular place? Why is it significant to be looking at Mt. Field?   
Mt. Field is one of the only places where all of the Tasmanian montane conifers occur. Many of these species have ancient Gondwanan origins and now only survive in Tasmania’s mountains.
10. What kinds of animals or species rely on the pines for food or habitat etc? 
Pencil pine moth – confined to places where pencil pine occurs, caterpillars feed on the pine.
Skeleton filmy fern – grows as an epiphyte almost exclusively on Pencil Pine and King Billy Pine.
other epiphytes – mosses, Prionotes.
The pines provide shelter and food for animals in places where few other trees grow.
11. What could happen if they die out due to Climate Change? 
Loss of unique vegetation communities, eg montane rainforest.
Extinction of other species, eg pencil pine moth (only occurs on pencil pines), skeleton filmy fern.
Nick and Jennie look at Survey site
Nick Fitzgerald and Jennie Whinam walking to the survey site. (Photo by Rich Weatherill)