Scientists just hand counted 51,324 trees in a patch of Victoria’s forest

It sounds like the start of a joke – why did the scientists measure 51,324 trees in the forest?

The answer though, is serious. The patch of forest at Starvation Creek near Warburton, north east of Melbourne in Victoria, has provided the biggest and most detailed study of its kind, and will help scientists understand how climate change and fire affect trees.

The survey – which took 15 months to complete – identified, measured, mapped, tagged and painted a stripe on every tree with a diameter larger than the width of a finger within 16 hectares. This survey, unsurprisingly, required a number of university students. 

“Australia’s unique tree flora, overwhelmingly dominated by Acacia and Eucalyptus, and its variable – and at times extreme – climate have created complex forests with complex histories,” wrote University of Melbourne ecologist Professor Patrick Baker.

“But such a detailed large-scale monitoring effort had never been undertaken in Australia.”

Luckily, the University of Melbourne team wasn’t alone. The plot is the first in Australia, but one of many around the world in the Forest Global Earth Observatory (ForestGEO).

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The ForestGEO network, which began in 1981, includes 76 forests in 29 countries. In total, they monitor 7 million trees and about 13,000 species worldwide. Each plot uses identical survey methods to make sure that comparisons across diverse forest types are as consistent as possible.

This ‘network’ of forests allows the team to understand some interesting characteristics about our home grown trees.

They found 47 different species in the area, including 13 eucalypts.

“While this is not extraordinary in Australia – many eucalypt-dominated forests contain half a dozen or more eucalypt species – it turns out that it is extraordinary in a global context,” wrote Baker.

“Of the now 76 plots in the ForestGEO network, only the Lambir plot in Sarawak – with over 1,200 tree species – has more species in a single genus of canopy trees.”

Every location tree forest
A map of the location and species of every tree in the Starvation Creek ForestGEO plot. Picture: Patrick Baker

Although the researchers are probably taking a well-earned break right now, this is only the start for the Starvation Creek site.

“The trees we see now are the ones that survived – we can’t measure the ones that never made it,” says Baker.  

“By monitoring the Starvation Creek plot into the future we can fingerprint how climate change, fire and other factors are affecting which trees live and which trees die. This is why long-term monitoring is so important.”

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