Surviving When Water Gets Low

Scientists from Western Sydney University are helping policy-makers plan for climate change.

Recent droughts and heatwave conditions in northern Australia have led to the death of more than 7,000 hectares of mangrove forests. Brendan Choat, an associate professor at Western Sydney University, is investigating the physiological underpinnings of this widespread die-off. Understanding this is essential for predicting forest mortality and better managing the risk to natural ecosystems posed by drought and extreme climate.

“Trees use an intricate plumbing system of hollow tissues, called xylem, to lift large volumes of water to their canopies from the soil,” explains Choat. “Droughts cause a reduction in soil moisture and increased evaporation, causing blockages in the xylem and preventing the efficient transport of water to leaves, leading to a decline in the tree’s canopy cover.”

Supported by an Australian Research Council Discovery grant, Choat, along with colleagues from the University’s Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment are examining water and carbon uptake under drought conditions, and the ability of vascular tissues like xylem and stomata to withstand desiccation. 

Dr Tony Auld from the Ecosystem Management Science Division at the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage says: “Brendan’s work will help us to identify which tree species are at most risk from water scarcity, allowing us to predict where problems may arise and leading to better management of forests and woodlands.” 

Need to know

  • Droughts prevent efficient transport of water to leaves
  • Western researchers are trying to understand the physiological mechanisms behind drought tolerance    
  • This could lead to better forest management in the face of extreme climate    

Meet the Academic | Associate Professor Brendan Choat

Brendan Choat obtained his BSc (Hons) in 1997 (JCU) and his PhD in 2003 (JCU).

From 2003-2005 he worked as a Post Doctoral Fellow at Harvard University in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. He held a second Post Doctoral Fellowship in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, Davis from 2005-2008.

In 2008 he returned to Australia to take up a Research Fellowship at ANU before moving to a Senior Research Lectureship at the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment. He is an editor for the PrometheusWiki Project and on the editorial review board of Tree Physiology.

In 2010 he was awarded a Humboldt Fellowship for Experienced Researchers.

In 2013, Dr Choat was awarded an ARC Future Fellowship for his work in mapping drought responses in trees.


This research was supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council, and the Australia Pacific Science Foundation.

© Alice Gauthey
Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.