Become a dead tree detective

This eucalypt tree dieback event was recorded in Armidale, but The Dead Tree Detective research project wants to know what's happening in your backyard.
This eucalypt tree dieback event was recorded in Armidale, but The Dead Tree Detective research project wants to know what's happening in your backyard.

There's ample anecdotal evidence of which trees have survived our most recent drought and which didn't, but a research project is underway to put a scientific spin on dieback in New England.

The project is the topic of discussion at GLENRAC's online Focus event this Wednesday, July 15 from 1-2pm. (Register for the free webinar at or contact the GLENRAC office on 02 6732 3443.)

The Dead Tree Detective (TDTD) is a research project operating out of Western Sydney University and the University of New England.

Appealing to citizen scientists, 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, a 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 -- couldn't have predicted the years of intense drought and fire that would follow.

"We really set the project up at just the right moment," Belinda said.

"The drought this country has experienced over the last two years, coupled with intense heatwaves, has significantly affected a lot of areas.

"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).

These recordings have also highlighted a trend in impacted areas, 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," Belinda said.

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.

Belinda said there are strong connections between the drought impact on the trees and bushfires

"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.

"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."