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Environment Minister Matt Kean recently announced the nearly $1.2 million in research grants for eucalypt dieback, one of the state’s most damaging ecological issues.

“If you’ve noticed pale-grey tree skeletons in the landscape – such as those along Kosciuszko Road on the Monaro Plain between Cooma and Jindabyne – that’s dieback,” Mr Kean said.

“These sick and skeletal trees are increasingly emerging across our state’s landscape, and we don’t know exactly why. Dieback has killed millions of trees over a relatively short timeframe, damaging ecosystems and decreasing biodiversity. It’s occurred across New South Wales, from near Bourke to the New England Tablelands, North Coast, Sydney’s hinterland and down to the Snowy Mountains.”

By engaging some of the country’s best scientific minds, Mr Kean said he is hoping ways will be found to remedy the current dieback areas and prevent future outbreaks.

The six grantees in collaborations, led by universities and the CSIRO, have each been awarded up to $200,000 in funding.

Drought, insects, soil microbes and climate change are all thought to contribute to dieback, but without further research, it’s difficult to address.

Dieback occurs when eucalypt trees lose leaves and die. It can happen to trees on their own, in groups, or in natural bushland. First noticed in small patches in the 1940s, dieback has increased significantly since around 2006.

A total of $1,197,911 million in grants was awarded to research collaborations at the Australian National University, the CSIRO, University of New England, Macquarie University and Western Sydney University.

The Australian National University was awarded $200,00, and will look at environmental drivers, landscape determinants and control of Snowgum dieback in the alpine region.

Leading Snowgum dieback research in Kosciuszko National Park is  research is senior lecturer Dr Matthew Brookhouse at the ANU, Fenner School of Environment and Society. 

Following reports of isolated tree deaths throughout Kosciuszko National Park in 2008, sub-alpine forests in the Australian Alps are now in widespread decline. The dieback is widespread throughout the alpine region and extends through to the Victorian alps and has been observed at Mount Buller and Mount Franklin, and all of the Brindabella Range above 1600m.

This phenomenon, known as Snowgum dieback, is associated with infestation by native longicorn beetle larvae that mine the outer bark and below the bark of the trees (the xylem and inner phloem), disrupting the function of the trees and ability to take up water and sugars (hydraulic function and carbohydrate flow).

Dr Brookhouse said dieback of the iconic and beautiful Snowgum forests is diminishing the ecological, hydrological and cultural values of the Australian Alps. 

“There are three components to the research; mapping and remote sensing analysis, tree ring dating to confirm where dieback has occurred, the timing, location and reconstructing the trees’ response to drought. And the third element  is the insects and whether their survival is due to bark moisture content,” Dr Brookhouse said.

Dr Brookhouse is also interested in finding out when the beetles are active and what attracts them to particular trees.

“We can look at whether the insects are sensitive to the chemistry of the tree and possibly look at a pheromone bait or predatory insects.”

He said the insects appear to start high in the tree crown and move downwards.

“The tree attempts to recover and sends out epicormic growth. Insects continue to move down and follow the growth and the tree are left to respond again and again. The insects progressively starve the tree,” Dr Brookhouse said.

Using a multi-disciplinary approach including dendrochronology, remote sensing, soil science and entomology ANU will deliver sophisticated insights to the causes and patterns of snow gum dieback in the Australian Alps and address uncertainties surrounding its current extent and likely future spread. 

Knowledge gained through the project will offer pathways to plan for and respond to dieback by identifying opportunities to slow its spread, and assist efforts aimed at protecting and restoring affected stands to protect an irreplaceable part of Australia’s natural heritage.

Other researchers, working with Dr Brookhouse include Professor Adrienne Nicotra (RSB), Distinguished Professor Graham Farquhar, Professor Saul Cunningham, Professor Patrick Meir, Ms Jessica Ward-Jones and Dr Marta Yebra.

Dr Brookhouse acknowledged the support and involvement of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Services, Department of Primary Industries and Environment and Thredbo Alpine and Perisher Ski Resorts.

Leading Snowgum dieback research in Kosciuszko National Park is senior lecturer Dr Matthew Brookhouse at the Australian National University, Fenner School of Environment and Society. Dr Brookhouse is pictured undertaking tree coring work to build an understanding of tree stress over time in Snowgums.

Thousands of dead trees showing widespread death of the iconic Snowgums in the alpine region above 1600m.

  • Issue #78
    June 2021
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