Centre Spotlight: Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science

This month we visit James Cook University and shine some light on a centre where research and outreach are aiding the conservation and sustainable use of tropical ecosystems in Australia and overseas.
The Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science (TESS) at James Cook University (JCU) is home to over 150 researchers working across eight field stations and research facilities in Australia, including Orpheus Island Research Station and the TERN-affiliated Daintree Rainforest Observatory, and many locations overseas. TESS conducts projects around the world to tackle environmental issues of acute concern which cut across five thematic areas: 1) Ecology, Biodiversity and Conservation; 2) Environmental Change and Archaeology; 3) Ecosystem Science; 4) Sustainable Landscapes and Livelihoods; and 5) Education, Training and Capacity-building.

“We approach these key issues from a multi-disciplinary perspective to better integrate the wide-ranging talents of our researchers,” says TESS Director, Distinguished Professor Bill Laurance.

“TESS Flagship projects cut across thematic areas and involve collaborative, multidisciplinary research that addresses several of the most pressing and complex issues of sustainability science and sustainable development in the tropical world.”

“Our mantra is ‘bottom-up is best’. We let TESS researchers decide on their own priorities, and then we support their visions and help build them into team efforts. History proves that this approach works, as we’ve consistently been one of the most scientifically productive and high-impact centres at JCU.”

JCU TESS's five thematic areas of research
Better biosecurity, Daintree drought and Thylacine hunting in Queensland

TERN newsletter readers will be familiar with TESS’s Daintree Drought Experiment, which is working to predict how the world’s rainforests will respond if droughts become more frequent in the future. The project not only demonstrates research innovation but also the immense value of investment in collaborative research infrastructure.

“Our researchers are also working on innovative solutions to invasive species and biosecurity in tropical Australia and helping farmers provide healthy and sustainable food supplies,” says Bill.

“And, we also led the search for the Thylacine on Cape York, which may sound loopy but was very solid science focused on declining tropical wildlife, and had many around the world captivated.”

Further afield, the centre is leading a global project investigating the environmental research impact of road and urban expansion and providing many nations in the Asia-Pacific, Africa and Latin America with advice on finding the balance between rapid population and infrastructure growth and management of their biologically rich terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

Thylacines on Queensland’s Cape York Peninsula – Professor Bill Laurance on “Geckos and Gum Leaves” YouTube Channel

Student research and outreach

Dr Yoko Ishida, who coordinates many TESS activities under Bill’s leadership, says that TESS’s research innovation and impact isn’t limited to academics.

“Our undergrad and postgrad students are doing all kinds of great things. For example, Rebecca Webb is looking at the amphibian fungal disease Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, including the effects on host physiology and age structure, as well as mitigation strategies.”

Another study by Emma Rehn is examining charcoal particles from sediment cores collected in Arnhem land and Cape York to create fire histories for these sites spanning the last 3,000 years, to better understand interactions between fire, humans and vegetation in Australia’s Top End.

And, Lizzy Joyce is working to identify the origins of the northern Australian flora by exploring the contribution of taxa to Australian tropical and savanna biomes from areas in present-day Indonesia.”

JCU TESS PhD students (left to right) Lizzy Joyce, Rebecca Webb and Emma Rehn

A final accomplishment, of which TESS members are justifiably proud, is its work to improve the role of women in STEM and within the centre’s leadership positions.

“In the last two years, TESS has shifted from having a male-dominated leadership to close to gender-parity among its Directors, Advisory Board, Research Theme, Flagship leaders and seminar speakers,” says Yoko. “TESS is truly a wonderful place to work and study.”

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