Ok, so Eucalyptus pauciflora are pretty alright #FavEuc

What is your favourite eucalypt?

The Quantitative and Applied Ecology Group are polling Australia’s Favourite Eucalypt, click here for more details.  What is your favourite eucalypt?  This intriguing question has spurred tea room discussion, blog campaigns and, of course, tweeting #FavEuc frenzies.

My initial #FavEuc response was something along the lines of ‘plants are like children for me, its just not right to pick favs’.  As a slight plant nut, I often get asked what my favourite plant is, and I genuinely find it very difficult to decide… there is a time and a  place and a certain light for every plant out there.

However, I have to admit, Eucalyptus pauciflora are pretty alright.


Some E. pauciflora on a rocky knoll on The Bogong High Plains

Eucalyptus pauciflora are common at high elevations in Australia (hence common name Snow Gums), although there are a couple of examples of  isolated lowland occurrences.


Their height can vary substantially, from 1m to up to 20m.  Their bark is smooth,  with colours ranging from clean white with grey strips to seasonal variations around the shades of olive green to red and pink.

Their leaves are variable in shape and length, shiny green on both sides with conspicuous veins running lengthwise.  Juvenile leaves are opposite and ovate before becoming alternate and elongated in mature plants.

E. pauciflora fruit

E. pauciflora fruit



Their buds are club shaped, 7 – 12 per clustered in axils with caps with short points.  Fruits are variable between subspecies though commonly have short pedicels, with a flat or slightly depressed disc and small valves at rim level.

When seen flowering, this usually occurs between Oct and Feb.


E. pauciflora leaves and flowers

Littler known facts:


An example of a tree with multiple reclining options

When found at high elevations, E. pauciflora are often multi-stemmed, with low, thick trunks providing excellent sitting, leaning or reclining habitats for ecologists.

When burnt, E. pauciflora resprout.   Burnt white/grey stems often remain above new resprouting stems, which provide stark contrasts to blue alpine skies which have been known to inspire many pauses of thought and contemplation for the alpine walker.


Green, white and blue

I will leave you with this ancient example of a gorgeous snow gum:


Costermans, L (1994) ‘Native trees and shrubs of south-eastern Australia’.  5th Ed. New Holland Publishers, Australia.

All photos are my own.

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Since November…

Its been a little while since my last post, and while I will eventually get to ‘the hierarchical bit of my hierarchical models’, I thought I would first explain my absence.  My last blog post was in November, since then I have participated in a few research related adventures, some highlights include:

  • Helping organise and run our MUBoGS Mini Conference 
    Our MUBoGS Mini Conference involved around 40 postgraduate students from The School of Botany giving ‘speed talks’ of their research.  This turned out to be a fantastic day and a fantastic challenge for us all to get the main points of our research across to an educated but unspecialised audience in just three minutes.
  • Presenting ESA_2012_reduced copymy initial research thoughts at ESA 2012 held in Melbourne

I presented a poster explaining the rationale behind one chapter of my PhD and this was an excellent opportunity to speak to like minded researchers, get some solid advice and practice explaining myself and my work over and over again.

  • Holiday: explored Mt Wellington, Lake Tali Karng and Spion Kopje on a little hiking trip: A beautiful area of Victoria, look it up and check it out.

    Lake Tali Karng

    Lake Tali Karng

  • Volunteering on the NutNet Project with Dr Joslin Moore and Kate Giljohann in Falls Creek, Victoria, Australia.
    The Nutrient Network is a global research cooperative which aims to collect information about environment-productivity-diversity relationships across the globe.  Their current focal research questions include questions about the generality of our current understanding of productivity-diversity relationships, how plant production and diversity are co-limited by nutrient availability in herbaceous dominated communities and how grazers and fertilisation control plant biomass, diversity and composition.
    Check out their website: http://www.nutnet.umn.edu

    Awesome Clouds from the NutNet study site at Falls Creek

    Awesome Clouds from the NutNet study site at Falls Creek

  •  Demonstrating on The Uni Melb Field Botany Trip to The Bogong High Plains, Falls Creek, Victoria.
    This was great fun and a great opportunity to pick the brains of Dr Andrew Drinnen, Dr Peter Vesk and Daniel Olsen about plant families, genera and species that exist in this region of The Alpine National Park.  It was also rewarding to help and watch students work out what ‘spotting characters’ are and how important they can be for distinguishing between plant families quickly.  http://www.botany.unimelb.edu.au/ugcourses/606310/

    As well as seeing lots of plants, we also got some spectacular Fire Clouds at Falls Creek.

    As well as seeing lots of plants, we also got some spectacular Fire Clouds at Falls Creek.

  • Participating on many School of Botany Writing Retreats
    Our lab group have begun holding weekend Writing Retreats.  The point of this, is to provide a well supported, quiet and well structured writing time for people who have things to get written!  We work on a tight schedule of hour and a half and two hour writing blocks, interspersed with some breaks with include talking, laughing and eating homemade goodies together.  The point is to have a well defined goal for the weekend, and meet that with the help of peer support and celebrations at the end of the day.  
  • Organising, putting together and stressing about my one year Confirmation.
    One report, one presentation and one discussion later, I am now confirmed.  The act of having to write a solid research proposal, speak to this in front of my Advisory Committee and think about (and stress about) every little aspect of my project really helped to solidify some of my ideas and aims, as well as clearly highlighting areas that need more thought.  Overall, a positive experience.
  •  Visiting my study sites in Murray Sunset National Park for some intense field thinking.  A pilot study to prepare me for this spring.  Data collection, here I come.

    A Beyeria opaca seedling

    A Beyeria opaca seedling

    Doing a PhD is an exciting time to get involved with many different projects and meet lots of new people.  As Melbourne in getting chillier though, I am getting back to my models.


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Your thesis in 3 minutes

MUBoGS Mini Conference

Although I suggested in my last post that my next one would be about the hierarchical bit of hierarchical models, I am instead taking this opportunity to briefly present a little group called ‘MUBoGS’ and a little conference called ‘The MUBoGS Mini Conference’.

The postgraduate students in The School of Botany, here at Uni Melb, are getting active.  The Melbourne University Botany Graduate Society, affectionately known as MUBoGS, is holding the first Graduate School of Botany Mini Conference.

Our MUBoGS flyer. Note: mini plant (Wow!)

Most postgraduate members from the School (including Hons, Masters and PhDs) across all the lab groups will be presenting their thesis topics in 3 minutes and with the aid of up to 2 (non-animated) slides.

3-minute presentations, or ‘speed talks’ are becoming more frequent, both in conference settings but also within academic institutions. Annually, the University of Queensland runs a very successful 3MT competition that is open to students from many Universities from around the world.

The idea is to give postgrads a chance to practice effective communication of their research to an educated but unspecialised audience (see here for more info and some examples of cool, calm, collected and concise speakers, and here for good advice about preparing for a 3MT comp).

Putting together a 3-minute talk takes a whole lot longer than just 3 minutes.
The aim is to communicate what you’re researching, why you’re doing it and why it’s important.  Often these talks are judged firstly on your communication style, specifically whether you can get a non-specialised audience to understand the significance of your research, but also on how engaging you are.  Condensing the fundamentals of your research into something that can be delivered and understood efficiently is both surprisingly challenging and surprisingly rewarding.

Can you make people understand and care about your research in 3 minutes?

The postgraduate students here in The School of Botany will soon find out.  Our first Mini Conference is shaping up to be an excellent day.  As well as our students presenting, we are having panel discussions of PhD and Postdocs talking about transitions from PhD to ‘Post-PhD-Work’ and sharing some hints about ‘things I wished somebody had told me…’  We are also planning some social trivia and there will be many ‘Mini Plants’ to win throughout the day.

Stay tuned for more Mini Conference news…

And… here’s a photo of Eucalyptus incrassata (+ ants) flowering in the mallee…

Eucalyptus incrassata from Murray Sunset

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‘Model’ refers to…

My blog is titled Freya’s Research, but to date, there has (rather sneakily) been a lack of posts related to what I actually do here in the QAEco lab.   Unfortunately, I don’t just look at orchids and take photos of Acacia.

Caladenia alpina (orchid), Acacia sp. (wattle) and Diuris sp. (orchid)

A large part of my PhD will be building a hierarchical Bayesian model that incorporates plant functional traits as species level predictors of plant growth and reproduction.

In my next couple of posts I will endeavor to explain all these terms (but don’t worry there will also be a few posts about what is flowering around Melbourne). For my first post in this series about my research, I would like to start from the start and try to explain what a model is.

Needless to say, googling “model” gives you mixed results. I found it easier to ask my Supervisor for a good book on modelling.  The result of this was a book, ‘How to Model It, Problem solving for the Computer Age’ by Anthony Starfield, Karl Smith and Andrew Bleloch.

These authors suggest that models are formalisations of the relationships between things.

There are many types of models:

  •  mental models
  • graphical models
  • statistical models
  • mathematical models

A mathematical or statistical model, concerns the relationships between quantifiable things or values. Values that are actively changing are called variables, values that are less likely to change are parameters (these can mediate the effect of variables). Parameters that can’t be changed are called constants.

Hardenbergia violacea (is flowering outside at the moment)

How to model it begins with the authors posing a problem; “how long will it take you to read this book?” A length of time immediately pops into ones head. But, if you go to the trouble of really thinking about it (which the book makes you do), you might find that the time it will take may depend on a few things.

Maybe the time it takes to read the book will depend on how fast I read one page, and then on how many pages there are in the book. Maybe it will depend on the number of tasks I have to do on each page and the time it takes me to do each task (maybe how many things are in flower outside?).

If I take my mental model a bit further, I can formulate a simple equation:

T = pP + wWP


T = time taken to read the book,
p = time to read one page of the book,
P = number of pages in the book,
W = number of ‘tasks’ per page, and
w = time taken to complete each task

P,  W, and  w changes between different books and so these are variables (because they are actively changing).  p may not change as much from book to book, as everyone probably has an their own average reading time. Therefore, p is a parameter.

The authors of How to model it show that we all make (mental) models all the time.

A model is a purposeful representation of something. Models can be used for synthesising information, for estimating values of important variables, for prediction, decision-making and explanation.  One major benefit of using a formal model is that you’re forced to be explicit about your thought processes. It can be quite challenging and very revealing when you’re confronted with all your assumptions.

In my research I will be a using a type of statistical model called a hierarchical  Bayesian model.  My aim is to model plant growth and reproduction incorporating the influence of species-specific plant functional traits.

Of course, an important consideration should always be what the point of your model is.  Indeed the authors of How to model it suggest you should always ask yourself three questions:

  • What (exactly) am I doing? (I should be able to describe it precisely)
  • Why am I doing it? (How does it fit into the solution)
  • How will it help? (What will I do with the outcome once I have it)

Acacia pycnantha inflorescence

Great questions to ask oneself.  What’s the point?   Why do I want to model plant growth and reproduction?  Why don’t I just spend all my time taking photos of orchids and Acacias?   The answers to all this and more will pop up in a future post or two.

In my next blog, however, I will attempt to give an overview of the ‘hierarchical’ bit of my modelling approach.

Stay tuned…


Starfield AM, Smith KA & Bleloch AL (1994) How to model it, problem solving for the computer age.  McGraw Hill, New York.

Thanks to W.K Morris for proof reading.

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The Wattles

Genus: Acacia
Family: Mimosaceae

This time of year (late winter into early spring) is a great time to have eyes and a nose.  One of the main reasons for this, is because it is the flowering time for many Acacias.  For those poor souls who have not been acquainted with, or have not paid much attention to this group of flowering plants, they often look like this (a bright, bright mass of yellow):

A bright mass of sweet smelling yellow

There are many species of Acacia flowering around Melbourne at the moment, and with only a little effort they are relatively straightforward to identify.  For a successful ID of Acacias you need to know something about their foliage and flowers.  A copy of ‘Native trees and shrubs of south-eastern Australia’ by Leon Costerman is also highly recommended.  This comes in a big comprehensive book covering common trees and shrubs of NSW, Vic and SA, but also a very handy smaller field guide ‘Trees of Victoria and adjoining areas’ (‘Mini Costermans’).

Underneath a bipinnate leaf. Note pinnae and pinnules.

Acacias have two broad types of foliage :

Bipinnate leaves  are ‘feathery’ and divided into pinnae. The pinnae further divided into pinnules.  All acacias have bipinnate leaves to start with.
In some species bipinnate leaves are replaced as the plant grows older by leaf like bodies called phyllodes.  Some species have broad, flat phyllodes whilst others can have spiny, needlelike or very slender phyllodes.

For ID in the field, the type of foliage (bipinnate or phyllode) is a good spotting characteristic.  After this, other foliage characteristics such as the number and placement of phyllode veins or the position and number of glands are significant characters for identification.

Different types of phyllodes

Look closely and you might see the individual flowers that make up this globular inflorescence. You can see the number of closed flower buds on the inflorescence on the right.

Individual flowers of Acacia species are tiny.  These tiny flowers are aggregated together to form an inflorescence and Acacias also have two broad inflorescence types: globular or cylindrical.

This division of inflorescence structure is also an important grouping characteristic for ID in the field.  Most Acacia species flower from late winter to early spring.  Time of flowering can be useful to distinguish between some species.

Single globular inflorescence, cylindrical spike and a raceme of globular flower heads.

An Acacia seed pod, a typical pea pod

Finally the fruiting pods are important features.  Size, shape and surface texture are important.

In mini Costermans (which you should put in your pocket before leaving the house, always) the first major groupings occur between :

– Wattles with bipinnate leaves and globular flower heads (go to page 132)
– Wattles with phyllodes and cylindrical inflorescences (go to page 135)
– Wattles with phyllodes and globular flower heads (go to page 138)

Once you have identified one of these broad groups, you can move to another section of the field guide and start looking in more detail at spotting characters such as placement of glands or veins, distribution and flowering times.  Clear drawings with detailed inserts of relevant features such as leaf glands are super helpful and make Acacia ID relatively straightforward.  So give it a go, it is surprisingly satisfying.

For example:

Acacia oxycedrus, photographed July in The Grampians

Acacia oxycedrus (photo left)

Foliage: Stiff green flat phyllodes 2-4 cm long, slightly curved, tapering to a very sharp point, 3-4 raised veins.
Flowers: (Jul-Oct) Yellow, crowded on axis in cylindrical spikes to 3 cm long.

Acacia longifolia (photo below)

Foliage: Flat  green phyllodes, spreading to erect on stiff branches, 2 (-4) main veins, gland near base.
Flowers: (Jul-Oct) Yellow, in spikes.

Acacia longifolia, photographed August at Seaford



Acacia verticillata (photo below)

Foliage: Green phyllodes mostly in whorls of about 6, often needle-like (or flattened) with sharp point, 8 – 25 mm x 1-2 (-5) cm long.
Flowers: (Jul – Oct) Bright yellow, in soft ovoid or cylindrical spikes 1 – 2 cm long.

Acacia verticillata, photographed in October near Bendigo


Costermans, L (1994) ‘Native trees and shrubs of south-eastern Australia’.  5th Ed. New Holland Publishers, Australia.

Costermans, L (2006) ‘Trees of Victoria and adjoining areas’.  6th Ed. Costermans Publishing, Australia.

(‘Mini Costermans’ = buy this).

All photos by Me!  For more Acacia love see http://www.flickr.com/photos/cracoo/sets/72157627391145521/with/7970371684/

A baby Acacia displaying both bipinnate leaves and phyllodes

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Trait-based Reading Group

Trait-based approaches to ecology and conservation

I chose the paper for our recent lab Reading Group and we discussed McGill et al.’s (2006) paper on community ecology and functional traits.  General principals in community ecology are notoriously hard to find.  McGill et al. (2006) believe that a focus on functional traits and environmental gradients can lead to a more quantitative, general and predictive science.  The authors propose four broad research themes based on traits, environmental gradients, the ‘interaction milieu’ and performance currencies that are intended to move community ecology beyond simple pairwise species interactions and towards a research agenda focused on a physiological approach with well defined units of measurement.

Overall our group agreed that traits are a powerful way to make generalisations in ecology.  We thought the discussion of big questions and clear future research directions in the paper gave a nice introduction to the field of functional ecology and to future applications of this method.

SLA (Specific Leaf Area) is a commonly used plant functional trait

Our discussion of this general approach led to some questions around the definitions and consistency of use for terms such as ‘functional trait’, ‘life history trait’, ‘functional type’, ‘vital rates’ and ‘attributes’.  This subsequently led to the acknowledgment of different scales in trait based research and questions surrounding levels of variation within traits, between traits, across species as well as between sites, regions and biomes.

We were not entirely clear on the detailed approaches being used to ‘rebuild’ community ecology based on traits, particularly in the face of multiple interactions between large numbers of species, but our attention was drawn to literature (not cited within this paper) that focuses on mechanistic and physiological trait based modelling (reviewed in Kearney and Porter 2006).  We thought that better theory about which traits are important, why, and under which circumstances will make trait-based approaches more applicable to conservation science.  In particular, we concluded that it would be nice to see more quantitative tests of the predictive ability of trait-based research, along the lines of Keith et al. (2007).

Hakea sp. with a different SLA

Within QAECO there are a few Qaecologists who work with functional traits of both plants and animals, with a general focus on applications of trait-based ecology to conservation problems.  See our QAECO blog here for more details.

Keep checking our main lab blog for more of our Reading Group papers (for our discussion on Restoration Ecology, see here).


McGill, B.J., Enquist, B.J., Weiher, E., & Westoby, M (2006) Rebuilding community ecology from functional traits. TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution.

Kearney, M., & Porter, W.P (2006) Ecologists have already started rebuilding community ecology from functional traits.  TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution.

Keith, D.A., Holman, L., Rodoreda, S., Lemmon, J., & Bedward, M (2007) Plant functional types can predict decade scale changes in fire prone vegetation.  Journal of Ecology.

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Mallee, where is?

Following on from my last blog post, ‘Mallee, what is?‘, I thought I would briefly introduce some geographic context to my mallee musings with ‘Mallee, where is?‘…

The Mallee is on Earth, in Australia, in Victoria, NSW, SA and WA.

‘Mallee’ is a vegetation that is typically mapped based on the biogeography of dominant ‘mallee’ eucalypts. It is uniquely Australian, with large tracts of open scrub mallee occurring in north west Victoria, south west NSW, south SA and south east WA.

National Parks in and around the Mallee region

In the east of Australia, the mallee  is restricted to sand plains and sand dunes of the  of the Murray basin, and large tracts of remnant mallee vegetation occur across Victoria, NSW and SA.

In Victoria, good places to see mallee type vegetation are The Little Desert, Wyperfeld, Big Desert and Murray Sunset National Parks.

Sometimes referred to as ‘Victoria’s Deserts’ these parks contain a rich diversity of flora and fauna…. as well as quite a bit of sand.

Sand dunes are a prominent feature of the mallee landscape and are clearly visible from satellite imagery.  The Murray Basin has a complex geological history, but broadly speaking many landscape features visible today  were established in the Pliocene and early Holocene due to marine and fluvial deposition, as inland seas expanded and retreated.

Murray Sunset NP and east west sand dune formations, both clearly visible from sat imagery

I will be mainly working in Murray Sunset National Park, which has a diverse vegetation driven by changing soil types across the region.  What does this look like from the ground? Some major plant families in the area include Myrtaceae, Chenopodiaceae and Myoporaceae … stay tuned for more info on these plant families in future posts.

For now, heres a sampler of some of the plants you might see in this region:

From top left: Lomandra leucocephala (Xanthorrhoeaceae), Eremophila sp. (Myoporaceae), Zygophyllum apiculatum (Zgyophyllaceae), Enchylaena tomentosa (Chenopodiaceae), Maireana sp (Chenopodiaceae), Eremophila sp. (Myoporaceae), Scaveola spinescens (Goodeniaceae), Eucalpytus sp. (Mrytaceae) and Goodenia sp. (Goodeniaceae)

  • Noble, J. C. & Bradstock, Ross Andrew. & CSIRO.  (1989).  Mediterranean landscapes in Australia : mallee ecosystems and their management.  East Melbourne, Vic. :  CSIRO.
  • National Mallee Conference. & Noble, J. C. & Joss, P. J. & Jones, G. K. & CSIRO.  (1990).  The Mallee lands : a conservation perspective : proceedings of the National Mallee Conference, Adelaide, April, 1989.  Melbourne :  CSIRO Australia.
  • White, M., A. Oates, et al. (2003). “The vegetation of north-west Victoria: a report to the Wimmera, North Central and Mallee catchment management authorities.” Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, Melbourne.
  • For mallee related photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cracoo/ and Google Earth.
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