Dr Daniel Falster, Expert in Understanding How Forests Work

We profile Dr Daniel Falster, a plant ecologist and mathematical modeller as well as an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at UNSW.
A headshot of Dr Daniel Falster in front of a tree

Dr Daniel Falster is a plant ecologist and mathematical modeller as well as an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). He uses a combination of maths, computer models, and large data sets to test fundamental ideas about the processes shaping biological communities.

Daniel uses insights from plant data to build mathematical models and software that simulate processes that select for different plant types. Processes such as how individual plants function, grow, die and reproduce, through to what happens when evolution is thrown into the system, are represented in the software.

“The challenge with studying forests is that it is very difficult to experimentally manipulate forests, especially on evolutionary timescales as they’re long lived and very large. So mathematical models are a key tool to test out how we think forests work,” Daniel said.

Recently, Daniel and a team of plant data scientists, through the Australian Research Data Commons’ Discovery Activities, strengthened and enhanced AusTraits, a transformative database. The database contains measurements on the traits of Australia’s plant species, standardised from hundreds of disconnected primary sources. There were 36 new data sources, including data for over 115,000 new trait records that was incorporated into AusTraits by the end of the ARDC Discovery Activity project. So far, data have been assembled from 244 distinct sources, describing more than 200 plant traits and over 22,000 species.

The additional datasets will enable Daniel to quantify variation in the types of plants growing across Australia, and crucially, test how well his mathematical theories of forest structure work.

“Competition for resources is probably the biggest factor driving what sorts of species will survive in any given location,” Daniel said.

Daniel’s innovative approach to understanding diversity has been recognised and in 2019 he was awarded the Australian Academy of Science’s Fenner Medal. His work seeks to transform community ecology into a predictive and data-oriented science, underpinning effective ecosystem management and restoration.

Daniel believes the ARDC has been a great resource, providing guidance and confidence for him and his team to use best practice data management to build a transformative data resource.

Where to next? For Daniel, answering fundamental questions about forest assembly naturally leads into questions around how they might change in the future as the climate changes. He also hopes to increase his work with industry, in areas of restoration and carbon sequestration. With the current demand to expand the area of forests, industry clients are looking for tools to understand what that could look like, under different management scenarios and climates.

“Scientists will rarely ‘finish up’, as one problem leads to the next, and you’re hooked again. And that very much sums me up — ultimately I enjoy solving problems,” Daniel said.

Read more about Daniel and his work.