UniServe Science News Volume 14 November 1999

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Virtual Field Botany at the University of Tasmania

Robert Wiltshire, School of Plant Science, University of Tasmania

Field Botany is a formative unit in the third year of undergraduate studies offered by the School of Plant Science, University of Tasmania. In an intensive eight-day summer course, the students are exposed to the diversity of plants (about 500 vascular species) found in environments that range from near sea-level to alpine; from rich basalt soils to ancient weathered quartzite; and from sites ravaged by clearfelling and burning to 1000 year-old cool, temperate rainforest, all in close proximity to the Mt Field National Park and the Southwest World Heritage Area.

The ecological patterns and processes shaping the vegetation are investigated in a series of field exercises structured so that students experience the dramatic transitions in vegetation type from the alpine cushionplant community to the subalpine sclerophyll heath, or the transition from tall, closed forest on rich basalt soils to buttongrass plains on peat and quartzite, in single-day exercises. Such a diversity of environments within such a small area is unique in Australia.

Although the intensity of the course maximises the learning experience for the students in the field, it can be overwhelming and a means of reinforcing the material and concepts is required when the students return to campus. To achieve this, the field-based approach is supplemented with a comprehensive 'Virtual Field Botany' site.

Students can access information on the flora and ecological factors affecting the vegetation of the Mt Field National Park and the Southwest World Heritage Area from anywhere in the world at http://www.utas.edu.au/docs/plant_science/field_botany/. This web site offers a comprehensive illustration of the flora of the area, with dozens of sites within Mt Field and the Southwest National Parks illustrated, with key environmental parameters listed and common species found in each. Hundreds of species are cross-referenced by both site and taxonomy, with diagnostic features.

This description of the flora and vegetation types, combined with key references to the relevant literature, provides a resource that reinforces the material learnt in a highly intensive manner in the field in a readily accessible and attractive manner. The combination of the experience of the vegetation in a spectacular natural setting, the reinforcement of the material with the web site, and the recent production of a comprehensive text (The Vegetation of Tasmania, Edited by J. B. Reid et al. 1999) results in a remarkable field botany course.

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UniServe Science News Volume 14 November 1999

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