Staff profile - Shaun Cunningham

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Dr Shaun Cunningham

Position: Research Fellow (Grade 2)
Faculty or Division: Faculty of Science Engineering & Built Environment
Department: School of Life and Environmental Sciences
Campus: Melbourne Burwood Campus
Phone: +61 3 92445523 +61 3 92445523



I am a forest ecologist who endeavours to quantify pattern and process in native and planted forests, with the aim of better informing their management. My interests include predicting vegetation condition and extent across landscapes using remote sensing, restoring vegetation and ecological processes in agricultural landscapes, and physiological explanations for plant distribution. My research has ranged in scale from leaf-level processes to vegetation patterns across river basins. I have studied native systems from heathlands to rainforests, and restoration of native vegetation in agricultural landscapes. At Deakin, I am continuing my research in the above areas and starting a new project investigating structural and compositional changes in vegetation of floodplain and plains woodlands during the drought and the subsequent wet years.

I began my career looking at the impact of fire on the plant diversity and nutrient cycling of coastal heathlands. My PhD investigated physiological responses to climate variables of rainforest trees as explanations for their distribution. This research provided me with valuable insights into how climate change will affect native and production forests. After graduation, I spent a few years in Canberra working for the Australian National Herbarium, CSIRO Plant Industry and the Bushfire CRC. This work included species mapping and root biology.

I returned to Melbourne to research the dieback of river red gum forests along the Murray River floodplain. An important part of this project was developing a robust tool for mapping condition of river red gum forests across the whole Murray River floodplain. This remote sensing tool has been adopted by the Murray Darling Basin Authority for their annual assessments of the Murray. I am currently investigating whether the Tool can be expanded to the whole Murray-Darling Basin. These maps of vegetation condition have been used to quantify the potential drivers of this dieback including altered flood regimes and groundwater conditions, and to predict biodiversity across landscapes.

I have assessed the potential for widespread reforestation of degraded agricultural landscapes to provide multiple biodiversity benefits (composition, structure and ecosystem process). The work focused on changes to carbon cycling following reforestation of pastures with mixed-species native plantings. This has led to collaborations with CSIRO and other organisations to refine the predictions of the National Carbon Accounting Tool for above and belowground carbon stocks in environmental plantings.

Biography summary

Deakin University - Research Fellow (2014)

Monash University - Research Fellow (2005-2014)

CSIRO Plant Industry - Technical Officer (2002-2003, 2004-2005)

Charles Sturt University - Research Fellow (2003-2004)

PhD (Monash University)

BSc (Hons) (University of Melbourne)


Research interests

Shaun’s research areas of interest are:

• Restoring vegetation and ecological processes in degraded landscapes
• Dieback of native forests
• Predicting vegetation responses to environmental stress across landscapes using remote sensing based modelling
• Physiological explanations for plant distribution
• Relationships between climate and physiology of tree species

Major Projects

Either side of the ‘Big Wet’: current and future resilience of southeastern Australia’s biota (ARC Linkage 2012-2016)

Environmental Plantings for Soil Carbon Sequestration on Farms (DAFF & CSIRO 2013-2015)

Mapping the extent of vegetation types and condition of floodplain forests across the Basin (MDBA 2012-2014)

Mapping of stand condition for The Living Murray icon sites (MDBA 2008-2014)
The Carbon Project: Carbon, biodiversity and water consequences of carbon farming for a whole catchment (ARC Linkage 2009-2013)

Change ecology – gaining broad-scale, timely biodiversity knowledge in a time of uncertainty (ARC Discovery 2009-2013)

Past, present and future health of river red gum along the Victorian Murray river floodplain (ARC Linkage 2005-2009)



Recent publications

See full lists at:

Cunningham SC, Mac Nally R, Baker PJ, Cavagnaro TR, Beringer J, Thomson JR, Thompson RM, 2015, Balancing the environmental benefits of reforestation in agricultural regions. Prespect Plant Ecol, 17:301
Cunningham SC, Cavagnaro TR, Mac Nally R, Paul KI, Baker PJ, Beringer J, Thomson J, Thompson RM, 2015, Reforestation with native mixed-species plantings in a temperate continental climate effectively sequesters and stabilizes carbon within decades, Glob Change Biol 21:1552
Wilson K, England J, Cunningham S (in press) Biodiversity indicators need to be fit for purpose. Routledge Handbook of the Philosophy of Biodiversity. Routledge, Florence, Kentucky
Paul KI, Roxburgh SH, England JR, deLigt R, Larmour JS, Brooksbank K, Murphy S, Ritson P, Hobbs T, Lewis T, Preece ND, Cunningham SC, et al, 2015, Improved models for estimating temporal changes in carbon sequestration in above-ground biomass of mixed-species environmental plantings. For Ecol Manage 338:208
Drake JA, Cavagnaro TR, Cunningham SC, Jackson WR, Patti AF, 2015, Does biochar improve establishment of tree seedlings in saline sodic soils? Land Degrad Dev 26
Hoogmoed M, Cunningham SC, Baker PJ, Beringer J, Cavagnaro TR, 2014, N-fixing trees in restoration plantings: effects on nitrogen supply and soil microbial communities, Soil Biol Biochem 77: 203
Hoogmoed M, Cunningham SC, Baker PJ, Beringer J, Cavagnaro TR, 2014, Is there more soil carbon under nitrogen-fixing trees than under non-nitrogen-fixing trees in mixed-species restoration plantings? Agr Ecosyst Environ 188:80
Lada H, Thomson JR, Cunningham SC, Mac Nally R, 2014, Relating demographic characteristics of a small mammal to remotely sensed forest-stand condition, PLoS ONE 9:e91731
Mac Nally R, Lada H, Cunningham SC, Thomson J, Fleishman E, 2014, Climate-change driven deterioration of floodplain forest condition and implications for avifaunal futures. Global Ecology and Biogeography 23:191
Adams MA, Cunningham SC, Taranto MT, 2013, A critical review of the science underpinning fire management in the high altitude ecosystems of south-eastern Australia, Forest Ecol Manag 294:225
Bennett J, Cunningham SC, Connelly CA, Clarke RH, Thomson JR, Mac Nally RC, 2013, The interaction between a drying climate and land use affects forest structure and above-ground carbon storage, Global Ecol Biogeogr 22:1238
Lada H, Thomson JR, Cunningham SC, R Mac Nally, 2013, Rainfall in prior breeding seasons influences population size of a small marsupial. Austral Ecol 38: 581
Cunningham SC, Metzeling K, Mac Nally RC, Thomson JR, Cavagnaro T, 2012, Changes in soil carbon of pastures after afforestation with mixed species: Sampling, heterogeneity and surrogates, Agr Ecosyst Environ158:58
Hoogmoed M, Cunningham SC, Thomson JR, Baker PJ, Beringer J, Cavagnaro T, 2012, Does afforestation of pastures increase sequestration of soil carbon in Mediterranean climates? Agr Ecosyst Environ 159:176
Horner GJ, Cunningham SC, Thomson J, Baker PJ, Mac Nally R, 2012, Forest structure, flooding and grazing predict understorey composition of floodplain forests in southeastern Australia, Forest Ecol Manag 286:148
Thomson J Bond N, Cunningham S, Metzeling L, Reich P, Thompson R, Mac Nally R, 2012, The influences of climatic variation and vegetation on stream biota: Lessons from the Big Dry in southeastern Australia, Glob Change Biol 18:1582

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