Dr Susan Laurance is happiest tramping through old-growth rainforests, though increasingly these are rare and endangered places. So she is more likely to be studying areas experiencing a much heavier human tread, in forests fragmented and denuded by invasive development such as road building and logging. The ecological responses of rainforest flora and fauna to such disturbances are at the heart of her work.
Undeniably there have been many changes in north Queensland rainforests since Dr Laurance last worked here and definitely since her childhood when the Edge Hill forest in Cairns was her playground and cassowaries roamed her backyard. Returning to north Queensland after 14 years overseas to take up the position of Leader in Rainforest Ecology at JCU’s Cairns campus alongside her husband and collaborator, Prof William Laurance, Dr Laurance is a former post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonian Research.
In recent years Dr Laurance has been studying how human activity affects rainforest plants and animals with a particular interest in which species are more vulnerable – or resilient – to forest disturbance. In north Queensland she will expand her focus to include the impacts of climate change and a closer examination of trees and lianas, both fundamental elements of the rainforest community. “If the tree community starts changing due to climate change, everything else is going to change too and other species can’t help but be affected,” Dr Laurance says.
A north Queensland phenomenon she is also keen to investigate in a climate-change context is cyclones and their potentially disastrous effect on rainforests.
“Obviously with climate change we’ve already seen increases in temperature, but if cyclones increase in intensity it could be devastating for exposed rainforest,” Dr Laurance says. “It’s so difficult for those forests to recover their structure and original species composition, especially if they get hit by cyclones frequently. And they’ll never be able to store the carbon that we need our tropical forests to stockpile.”
She also hopes to carry out experiments on different varieties of lianas to discover whether these climbing vines delay or facilitate forest recovery after cyclones.
Dr Laurance’s experiences, particularly in the Amazon, showed her that fundamental theories about species diversity in rainforests and the ecological processes that drive them are sometimes not supported by real-life data. She says there are exciting opportunities through broader research to challenge and reassess accepted theories.
“I am realising how much fundamental knowledge we lack,” Dr Laurance says. “As scientists we’re developing better strategies – we’re now using a more experimental approach and also engaging in more multidisciplinary research, crossing-cutting various fields of study, such as climatology and forest ecology.”
Her previous project work in tropical locations such as Brazil, Panama and Mauritius has been undertaken with an extensive network of collaborators from all over Latin America, Asia, US and UK.
“We’ll be continuing our work in the Amazon so there are opportunities for students and post-docs to work there,” she says. “I would love to examine the impacts of oil palm expansion in Asia and get some students working up there. Working in those 70m-tall Bornean forests is an experience every biologist dreams about. That’s how you get a greater understanding of your own ecosystems, by visiting different areas and seeing what’s the same, what’s different and why it’s different.”
Dr Laurance has been asked to consult with governments on road planning and the likely impacts on wildlife and endangered species, “but just publishing the work and advising politicians is not enough,” Dr Laurance says.
“We really need to find some sort of interface between where science normally stops and having more influence with governments. We don’t have the money of the coal industry lobby but we must work out how to attain an equal level of influence,” she says.
“What we can do is get young people excited about science and the environment and help them recognise that it’s their future that is at stake.”
“Tropical biology is a very exciting field. You get to work in amazing areas and there’s nothing better than being out in the rainforest. So much of it is like a frontier – there is so much you can contribute and discover.”