Research & Grants


Our research centres around the question how plants and entire ecosystems cope with changes in environmental conditions and with climate extremes like drought or heat stress. We investigate plant performance under environmental stress and this allows us to predict which plant species will be best suited to survive and thrive in a future climate in forests, revegetation projects or urban areas.

Ecophysiology and plant adaptation
The response of plants to environmental conditions will determine their chance of survival. In this research area we study the mechanisms that plants employ to adjust and adapt to environmental stresses, especially drought and heat stress. We study plants along environmental gradients and under stressful conditions to determine how they survive and why they fail. We study plant responses on a whole plant level and relate expression of plant functional traits to mechanisms and processes. We study to what degree plants can actively respond to a change in environmental conditions and to what degree their response is genetically determined. Our research identifies the variety of mechanisms that enable plants to grow and thrive in their environment

Applied ecophysiology
Selection of plant species that can thrive and survive in future climates is a challenge. In this research area we develop and test novel approaches for plant selection in future forests, revegetation, and urban areas. We determine plant performance based on ecophysiological parameters and traits and test plant performance in challenging conditions. We work in native forests, areas of revegetation and reforeststation, in urban forests and novel ecosystems such as green roofs or woody meadows. Our research identifies plant species, provenances or cultivars that are best adapted to a future climate.

Ecosystem ecology
We investigate how entire ecosystems respond to changes in environmental conditions and how the cycling of carbon, nitrogen and water is influenced by climate. We measure how much carbon is absorbed by ecosystems and quantify, how climate variation influences ecosystem growth and the uptake or release of greenhouse gases. Key study areas are the Wombat Forest and the Whroo Nature Conservation Reserve in Victoria, where we operate eddy covariance flux towers and automated greenhouse gas measurement systems. Our research leads to a better understanding of the impact that climate and climate change has on key ecosystem processes. 

Recent grants

Climate adapted trees for resilient agricultural landscapes
Trees are an integral part of Australian farmland and provide a multitude of benefits, including shelter for livestock and biodiversity and conservation. However, selection of the right trees in a changing climate is challenging. Many regions experience tree drought mortality indicating that local provenances are maladapted. This project will investigate a novel approach for tree selection for future climates. It will test the hypothesis that trees from future climate analogue locations are better adapted for future climates. The project will complement an existing common garden trial in Victoria and investigate if tree provenances of yellow box and grey box from hotter and drier locations are also more drought tolerant. This information is critically important for the selection of pre-adapted trees that will make agricultural landscapes more climate resilient. The project will increase capacity and share knowledge by evaluating strategies for NRM that innovate tree selection. (with Rhys Browning, Garry McDonald and Matt Appleby from Bush Heritage Australia) funded by the Department of Agriculture Future Drought Fund

Tree-mediated methane fluxes: A new frontier in the global carbon cycle
Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas. Recent evidence suggests that tree-mediated fluxes may be a significant, but overlooked source of methane to the atmosphere. This project aims to quantify the magnitude and drivers of tree-mediated methane fluxes from Australia’s dominant forest types. Innovatively, we will using a novel combination of empirical field based measurements, gas tracer experiments, microbial analysis and modelling methods. Expected outcomes are a mechanistic understanding of tree-mediated methane fluxes, helping to constrain regional, national and global methane budgets. The results of this study will help inform publicly funded greenhouse gas abatement strategies, ensuring a maximal return on investment. (with Damien Maher, Nicholas Ashboldt, Scott Johnston, Philipp Nauer, Eleonora Chiri and Anne Griebel) Funded by the Australian Research Council

TERN Ecosystem Processes
TERN’s Ecosystem Processes platform monitors the environment at a high level of detail at a small number of representative sites. This is done through intensive field stations which combine instrumented or sensor measurements with classical field surveys and remote sensing activities at the sites located in significant Australian biomes, spanning a wide range of environmental conditions.
Experimental plots at the Wombat SuperSite in regional Victoria with rainfall reduction treatments are being used to study the effect of rainfall reduction and drought on the carbon and greenhouse gas cycles. These experimental approaches will allow a better understanding of the processes that control the carbon and greenhouse gas balance in the dry eucalypt forest systems in Australia. Therefore, researchers will be able to make a prediction of how changes in our climate will influence the carbon exchange processes in forests, and the vulnerabilities of these forests with regard to their carbon balance.
Funded by NCRIS

Resilient and adaptable urban landscapes: natural shrublands as templates for low-input woody meadows
Cities around the world are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in urban green spaces. This project aims to improve the quality of low input public landscapes and make our cities more liveable. Typical low maintenance plantings have low diversity, visual appeal and function. This project expects to develop a novel low-cost and resilient approach to urban greening by utilising Australian shrublands as templates for woody meadows. Through interdisciplinary research and collaborations with eight Partner Organisations, the expected outcomes include knowledge and skill sharing for widespread adoption of resilient, management-friendly woody meadows to enhance and expand urban green spaces in Australia and around the world.
(with Claire Farrell, James Hitchmough and John Rayner)
Funded by the Australian Research Council and nine industry partners

Temperature sensitivity of soil respiration and its components
About half the carbon taken up by forests is returned to the atmosphere via soil respiration. This project aims to characterize and quantify how microbes and roots in soils depend on temperature and substrate supply, addressing a knowledge gap that limits our ability to quantify and predict carbon fluxes from forest ecosystems globally. This project will resolve the roles of environmental drivers of soil respiration across Australian temperate evergreen forests; integrate mechanistic understanding of differing plant and microbial responses to temperature within a common modelling framework; and evaluate the implications of this new knowledge in predictions of climate change impacts on terrestrial C cycling.
Our research will demonstrate how temperate evergreen Australian forests in NSW, VIC and TAS could buffer against climate change. We will improve predictions of how forests can serve as major carbon sequestration sinks and how these sinks will be impacted by increasing temperatures and droughts. Our findings will inform climate change adaptation plans for land managers and the forestry industry by improving predictions of climate drivers on carbon cycling.
(with Elise Pendall, Mark Tjoelker, Eva van Gorsel, Vanessa Haverd and Eric Davidson)
Funded by the Australian Research Council

Innovative rapid assessment of sugars in plant tissue
Non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) like sucrose or starch are an important energy store in plants, as well as an indicator of potential plant productivity balance (source-sink) and various biotic and abiotic stresses. This project proposes to test a novel method of measuring NSC in plant tissue by applying mid-infrared spectroscopy (MIRS) technologies. This fast and cost effective method to date has not been validated for NSC analysis in an experimental context. The project will provide a robust evaluation of an innovative new method that can potentially revolutionise the use of NSC as a diagnostic tool in horticultural and plant science research.
(with Dario Stefanelli)
Funded by the Innovation Seed Fund for Horticulture Development

Species traits, substrates and stormwater grates: improving the health of urban trees by using polluted stormwater as a resource
This project uses plant traits to select existing and novel tree species for glasshouse studies to quantify the uptake of stormwater and polluting nutrients as well as drought tolerance in stormwater street tree systems. In collaboration with water industry and tree nursery industry partners and a syndicate of local councils we will install passive stormwater street tree systems into existing suburbs and new greenfield developments in Melbourne. Models will be used to design and predict the performance of these stormwater street tree systems, and the glasshouse/field research outputs used to refine the leading industry and government relevant urban catchment model.
The best tree species and substrates will be determined experimentally to develop street tree stormwater systems to maximise water use, nutrient uptake and drought resilience. Government, water industry and developers will receive guidelines and models to design and manage healthy street tree systems for stormwater benefits throughout Australian cities.
(with Steve Livesley, Tim Fletcher, Chris Szota, Anthony Katchenko, Peter Morison, Darren Coughlan).
Funded by the Australian Research Council, NGIA, Melbourne Water, City West Water

TERN SuperSite – Victorian Dry Eucalypt Supersite
The Australian SuperSite Network (SuperSites) seeks to understand how key ecosystems will respond to future environmental change by setting up a nationally consistent network of multidisciplinary and intensive ecosystem observatories.
Each SuperSite is located in a significant Australian biome and the network spans a wide range of environmental conditions. The SuperSite network collects detailed data sets on flora, fauna and biophysical processes from each SuperSite. The SuperSite network is part of the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network, an Australian Government initiative to collect, store, manage and share scientific data about Australian ecosystems.
The Victorian Dry Eucalypt Supersite consists of two core nodes, located at Whroo in north-east Victoria (near Shepparton) and Wombat State Forest (near Ballarat), and a series of 3-4 high quality satellite sites that will provide the basis for scaling measurements from point to landscape to catchment. This new regional SuperSite builds on existing infrastructure, long term study sites, biodiversity and other monitoring sites. It includes investment in new observation platforms in key locations, extending across a range of land covers and uses. Both nodes host flux towers as part of TERN’s OzFlux network.
(with Jason Beringer, UWA)
Funded by the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network

Integrated understanding of multiple forest values for adaptive forest management
The grant is part of the Integrated Forest Ecosystem Research (iFER) program that I co-ordinate. In the program we investigate how changes in climatic conditions and disturbance regimes (like increased fire) impact on the different values that forests provide (like biodiversity, water, carbon etc) and how it influences the vulnerability and resilience of forests. The Integration project tries to bring the research from the different projects together and provide distinct recommendations for forest management
Funded by the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries

Methane uptake of forest soils
This project will provide a detailed understanding of capacity of soils in Australia to sequester the greenhouse gas methane. It will identify the main factors and processes controlling methane uptake in soils and improve predictive models will allow us to predict methane uptake in the future. (with Steve Livesley, Joe von Fischer and Benedikt Fest)
Funded by the Australian Research Council

Are nitrification inhibitors an economical choice to reduce N2O emissions under real farm scenarios?
This project will trial the use of nitrogen fertilizer amended with the nitrification inhibitor 3,4-dimethyl pyrazole phosphate (DMPP) as a method to directly reduce on-farm nitrous oxide emissions, and determine if increased costs associated with its application are balanced by yield increases across two different farming systems (dairy pasture, broadacre cropping) in North East Victoria. (with Brad Kirk, Zoe Ryan and Benedikt Fest)
Funded by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Impacts of deforestation and afforestation on greenhouse gas emissions, and carbon and water resources in the Daly River catchment, north Australia
Over the last decade, north Australia have been viewed as a potentially exploitable resource, given issues of salinisation, soil acidification, overallocation of water resources and rainfall declines in south Australian agricultural regions. Improved pastures and plantation forestry are two land uses that may expand in the NT. Clearing of savanna vegetation would be required, with implications for greenhouse gas emissions, soil health, water resources and dry season environmental flows. This project will track greenhouse emissions and water use from uncleared and cleared savanna that has been converted to pasture and timber plantations, providing critical understanding of the environmental implication of such land use change in savanna. (with Lindsay Hutley, Jason Beringer, Steve Livesley & Guy Boggs)
Funded by the Australian Research Council & Department of Climate Change, NT Department of Business and Employment, NT Department of Natural Resources Environment, the Arts and Sport, NT Department of Regional Development, Primary Industries, Fisheries and Resources

OzFlux – Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network
OzFlux is a network of towers around Australia that continuously measures the exchanges (flux) of carbon dioxide, water vapour and energy between the terrestrial ecosystem and atmosphere. This network of towers is the OzFlux Facility of TERN and is also part of a global network of over 400 flux towers, most of which are located in the northern hemisphere. The OzFlux Facility is a national partnership with significant contributions from universities and research agencies around the country. This funding is supporting the Wombat Flux tower in the Wombat Forest, 110 km west of Melbourne, near the town of Daylesford.
Funded by the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network

Green roofs – improving urban environments in a changing climate
Green roofs are an emerging climate change adaptation technology that is widespread in Europe and North America, but rare and untested in Australia. Our research will significantly progress the Australian green roof industry by overcoming barriers to their implementation. This will lead to multiple environmental, economic and health benefits at a variety of scales. Benefits for individual buildings include greater energy efficiency, increased roof life and the attenuation of noise. Environmental benefits include biodiversity habitat, reduced volume and improved quality of stormwater flows and cooling of the urban environment. This will further reduce energy use and greenhouse emissions, while reducing human health risks during heat waves. (with Nick Williams, Kath Williams & Claire Farrell)
Funded by the Australian Research Council, Melbourne Water, Department of Environment and Primary Industries, City of Melbourne, Committee for Melbourne

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