Branch out and see a tree change on your Big Lap

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A quintessential part of Australia is the Eucalypt tree. But did you know there may be over 700 species of Eucalypt in Australia? We don’t know for sure how many there are because dendrologists – those who study the science of woody plants – continuously argue over how to split and join groups.

The problem for the dendrologists is that the Eucalypts have spread all over Australia, have representatives in every environmental niche, and are incredibly diverse in size, colour, form, lifespan and aesthetics.

Australian Eucalypts include the tallest flowering plants in the world (Eucalyptus regnans) – the current tallest, in Victoria, is just under 100 metres, but we know that some trees were up to 120 metres. But Eucalypts also include Mallee species that may be less than one metre tall with the bulk of them hidden underground in extensive systems of roots and tubers. This underground portion allows Mallees to survive fires and other disturbances and we know some individual Mallee trees may be as old as 6,300 years!

As well as adapting to live everywhere from the alpine zones of the mountains to the plains and rivers and even the fringes of the deserts, trees can modify the environments around them. You’ll be aware that it is cooler under the shade of a tree, but did you know that the difference can be as much as 22oC compared to just beyond the tree’s influence?

Have you also noticed the way water runs down the branches and trunks of trees, often creating beautiful patterns? This is an example of the trees collecting water from all over their canopy and directing it to where it can best seep into the ground and ‘recharge’ the ground water for future use.

Trees also provide homes for a wealth of other living things – both plants and animals. There can be entire ecosystems hidden up there in the canopy, with species found nowhere else than in these canopies.
Of course, trees also provide direct benefits to us and our industries and, if you cut one down, you can grow another (two or five) in its place.

There are significant trees all around Australia and if you want to know if there are any unusual ones near you, the National Register of Australia’s Champion Trees provides maps and details of ‘big’ trees. But if you just want to explore the trees in a specific area, you can visit the Atlas of Living Australia and find a map of everything living within a 1-, 5-, or 10-kilometre radius.

The Atlas also allows you to use your journeys across Australia as input into useful science. Yes, just driving around and noticing trees might make you a Citizen Scientist and able to make a difference to what we know and how we manage out ‘great outdoors’. I personally am looking for people to assist in the great Australian Dieback Citizen Scientist task.

So, keep your eyes open for some of the wonderful tree species around Australia … and enjoy your travels!

Article contributed by: Associate Professor Cris Brack, College of Science, Australian National University

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