Julia Askeland

Julia Askeland

I was born in South Africa and acquired an early appreciation and respect for nature from my family. During the school holidays, I would often stay with my grandma who was a volunteer with South African National Parks. We would go for walks along the mountain, with her chatting away to her friends and observing the fynbos while I collected interesting objects and pestered critters I found along the way. When I was nine years old, I moved with my family to Australia. Much to my dismay, there were no kangaroos or koalas in suburban Melbourne. Also, Bindi Irwin, who I was promised would be my friend, was nowhere to be found.

Upon leaving school, I travelled to Peru to volunteer at a research centre in the Amazon Rainforest. At the time I paid little attention to the rich botanical diversity present. Back in Melbourne, I decided to study a Bachelor of Environmental Science (Wildlife Conservation and Biology) at Deakin University. I had an interest in primatology and volunteered overseas on various studies, returning to Peru twice more to monitor spider monkey reintroduction programs. Enthralled by the Amazon, I was always sad to return home. I missed walking through the jungle all day and falling asleep to the rainforest soundtrack.

My interests began to shift as I started to take a particular liking to the botanical classes on offer. Botany offered a less chaotic experience than tracking monkeys through the jungle and I enjoyed learning a skill set that was universally applicable. Upon graduating, Covid-19 hit and I found myself with a lot of time on my hands and not an awful lot to do with it during lockdowns. I contacted one of my university lecturers, Tricia Wevill, and we began to discuss ideas for an honours project. She raised an opportunity regarding a bryological project jointly advertised for co-supervision with botanist; Matthew Dell, which I found intriguing.

My honours project is investigating the effects of Cool Temperate Rainforest (CTRF) gradients on bryophyte functional traits. Bryophytes contribute significantly to the biodiversity of CTRF. In Victoria, CTRF occurs as small, fragmented patches – often in cool and protected gullies, where threatened by climate change and fire. Little is known about how climate-driven changes to vegetation will affect bryophyte functional composition and diversity at various scales. My project is investigating this by sampling epiphytic bryophytes on the dominant canopy tree Myrtle Beech (Nothofagus cunninghamii), along a gradient from the gully centreline in CTRF towards the ecotone of adjoining eucalypt-dominated forest. The analysis aims to inform likely scenarios for bryophyte communities upon drying and contraction in area of rainforest patches. Such information may be used to prescribe CTRF buffer requirements for land managers and to advise on bryophyte conservation needs.

While I was undertaking fieldwork, I realised that something felt awfully familiar. A damp smell, the colour of the leaf litter, and various creatures trying to feast on my blood – I was back in the rainforest! While putting together my project, it had not really dawned on me that I would be in rainforest again. I’m not sure what will come after I complete my honours, but hopefully there is more rainforest and more bryophytes too.