Calling all Citizen Scientists and Dead Tree Detectives

Have you ever fancied yourself as an amateur sleuth? Someone with a fine eye for detail, a rogue sense of curiosity and a love for staying up late watching vintage Poirot movies? Well, your time for detective validation has arrived, dear citizen. Dust off your Hamburg hat, dig out your camera from the depths of your closet and get your notebook ready, because there’s a mystery unfolding across Australia, and your help is needed to unravel it.

The back story
The year 2020 arrived in a haze of electric orange and thick black smoke; frightful, unprecedented and steeped in dread. As Australia’s bushfire crisis bounded across backyards, rainforests, bushland and international television screens, a heavy blanket of helplessness settled itself across the charred landscape. What could we do but watch with increasing horror as drought-stricken Australia went up in flames?

Despair in the face of natural disaster is a particularly heavy kind of grief. Witnessing the fragility of life, seeing the inaction of those in power (even after the inconvenient truth of destruction is forced upon them), and feeling the overwhelming sadness of so much loss is enough to make anyone feel defeated. But this must not be the case. 

What has become clear in the wake of the drought and fire events is that we must find ways to cultivate hope. Now, more than ever, we need action, agency, information. This is where the sleuthing comes in.

Silver top stringybark (Eucalyptus laevopinea) dieback in the New England, NSW. Recorded by Dr Rachael Nolan, sourced from The Dead Tree Detective.

The Dead Tree Detective
A research project operating out of Western Sydney University and the University of New England is giving power back to the people. Appealing to citizen scientists, The Dead Tree Detective (TDTD) calls on members of the community to assist in gathering observations of dieback events taking place across the country. The call to action is simple – take a photo of any dead or dying native tree and upload the image and its location to their online database. In return, the team of scientists hopes to gradually understand reasons for tree death, species that are vulnerable, and what steps must be put in place to protect them. 

Started in June 2018, TDTD founding scientist Professor Belinda Medlyn and her team – including Brendan Choat, Rachael Nolan, Matthias Boer and Rhiannon Smith – had no idea of the years of intense drought that would follow. “We really set the project up at just the right moment. The drought this country has experienced over the last two years, coupled with intense heatwaves, has significantly affected a lot of areas,” says Belinda. 

“The records we are receiving stretch from South-Eastern Queensland down into Tasmania, and there are patterns that are emerging – what sort of things die, where they die, when they die – but we still have quite a few gaps that we are trying to fill in. We need people across the country to record what’s going on in their own local patch so that we can get a bigger picture of what’s happening and where the hot spots of trees dying are.”

Of the hundreds of observations submitted to TDTD thus far, a pattern of affected species includes many commonly found natives, including Blakely’s Red Gum (Eucalyptus blakelyi), Snow Gum (Eucalyptus pauciflora), Mountain Gum (Eucalyptus dalrympleana), Silver Top Stringybark (Eucalyptus laevopinea) and Old Man Banksia (Banksia serrata).

There’s a lot of focus on threatened species, as there should be, Belinda explains, but the focus of TDTD is on broad landscapes and how they are functioning: “Some of the species we’ve seen dying are not threatened, they’re not restricted or in danger of disappearing altogether, but we are at risk of losing the function of that particular ecosystem because of the number of trees that could potentially die.” 

A number of significantly impacted areas has also surfaced amongst the findings, particularly around the central west of NSW: from the New England Tablelands down to Mudgee, Orange, Bathurst and Canberra. “A lot of people in these areas are writing to us and saying: ‘Looking at the scorched leaves on the trees, I thought that the fire must have gone through, but I know that area wasn’t burnt.’ The drought has been so severe that the trees have lost their canopies,” says Belinda.

Drought and Bushfire
Considering the large amounts of dry and dead vegetation that fuelled the intensity of Australia’s recent catastrophic blazes, one of the most interesting findings from these mapped recordings could be the potential to understand the behaviour of recent and future fire events.

“There are of course strong connections between the drought impact on the trees and bushfires,” says Belinda. “The dryness of the vegetation as it wilts in drought increases the risk of fire – but also makes it harder for the trees to recover after the fire.”

Hairpin banksia (Banksia spinulosa) dieback in the Blue Mountains NSW. Recorded by Belinda Medlyn, sourced from The Dead Tree Detective.

With recent rainfall across parts of eastern Australia, recovery from both bushfire and drought is something the team are interested to observe over the coming months: “We’ve all seen fires that happen in normal years and how quickly the trees come back; the new flush of leaves is so reassuring. But in this case, the fact that the trees have been so heavily affected by drought significantly affects their capacity to recover after fire. They don’t have the reserve to regenerate in the same way.

At the moment, we don’t really know what is going to come back. But that is what we are keen to find out and track – which species have been most affected, which can recover and which can stay recovered.”

Dead Mulga Wattle (Acacia aneura) trees in Newman WA. Recorded by Suzanne Prober, sourced from The Dead Tree Detective.
Drought damage to the trunk of a Scribbly gum, probably Eucalyptus rossii, at Kain’s Flat near Mudgee. Recorded by Matt Herbert, sourced from The Dead Tree Detective.

Citizen Scientists and Amateur Detectives
For me, the real success of TDTD is its ability to engage the people – the farmers, gardeners, teachers, road-trippers, Poirot-fan-clubbers – providing them with a public space to voice concerns about the ecosystems around them and the confidence to know their contributions are not only being heard, but adding to a much larger knowledge system. 

“We really couldn’t do it without the citizens writing in with their photographs,” says Belinda. “We as scientists don’t have the capacity to get out into the landscape, so we don’t always know things are happening. Having people out there who are travelling around, or seeing tree death on their properties, and alerting us to this has been absolutely invaluable in increasing our understanding of dieback patterns in this country.

“I’d really like to see TDTD become part of the landscape of ecological monitoring in Australia. My hope is that it becomes a general portal where people can report tree death sightings and also find out what’s going on in their own area – if what they are seeing is being observed by others – and what scientific information there is about it.

“We’re still looking for funding to support this project – at the moment it’s running through the Atlas of Living Australia who helped to set it up, but it would be great to have funds to support it in the long term.” 

How can you get involved?
Glad you asked, Hercule.

Getting involved is as easy as putting your best detective spectacles on and keeping an eye out for any signs of dead or dying trees. The dieback doesn’t have to be caused by drought, says Belinda. Insects, fire, erosion – TDTD are interested in seeing tree death in all its manifestations. 

When you spot something that appears to be a dead or dying tree, take a photo and make a note of its location. Whether it’s a quick snapshot of a forest along the side of the road as you head off on your family holiday, or a tree growing near where you live, if it looks suspicious, snap it. 

Finally, upload the image of the tree and its location to The Dead Tree Detective website or email the information through to [email protected].

Keep up to date with reports across Australia or in your area by browsing the Data section on the website, or read through the latest research and information into dieback on the website Blog and Resources page.  

Time to get sleuthing, people!

Header image: Mass dieback event at Kain’s Flat near Mudgee NSW. Recorded by Matt Herbert, sourced from The Dead Tree Detective.