Q&A with an ecologist

Q&A with an ecologist: Diana Fisher

Diana Fisher and nail-tail wallby (Onychogalea sp.)
Diana Fisher and nail-tail wallaby (Onychogalea sp.)

It’s a pleasure to have Diana Fisher up next in Q&A with an ecologist. I’ve known her for quite some time and I continue to follow her research on the evolutionary ecology of marsupials with a keen interest.

At times Diana’s work can get quite risqué as you’ll discover below. Most recently, I’ve been working with Diana and many other wonderful ecologists on trying to better understand what’s behind the demise of the northern quoll and, more importantly, what we can do to change this terrible situation.

1. What got you in to ecology?

I don’t know why I’ve always been obsessed with animals. My family lived near a reserve and liked bushwalking, and also I had lots of pets, as many species and individuals as I was allowed.

I liked ecology when I went to uni because I like whole, live animals, although some of the maths scared me as an undergrad (I like it now. Also it helps that these days I have a tame mathematician at home).

2. Why are you still in ecology?


3. What’s the best mistake you’ve ever made?

As a postdoc doing evolutionary ecology experiments, putting a field site in the Brindabellas next to Uriarra pine forest near Canberra, which burnt spectacularly in the 2003 Canberra firestorm. I had to start again with a new site on the NSW south coast and a new study species. The new site and species turned out to be much easier (e.g. no −8 ºC mornings checking traps in July), and better.

4. What’s your favourite organism and ecosystem?

All dasyurids, especially antechinus, quolls, and kalutas (Pilbara animals). I have a soft spot for my PhD study animals: bridled nailtail wallabies (sweet, dopey little things). Any tropical terrestrial ecosystem with brigalow, spinifex or rainforest is great.

5. What result has surprised you most in ecology?

If you mean my results, I’ve been shocked by the dramatic way that antechinuses respond to manipulation. I think their way of life is so extreme that you just have to push them a little bit to see over the top responses (one reason why I love dasyurids). I have been involved in a few antechinus breeding experiments. The most surprising was when I stopped females from being promiscuous. I thought sperm competition was important to them and something was going to happen, but I was expecting a civilized slowing of male growth rate or something, not mass death of young unlucky enough to have monogamous mothers. Wild antechinuses have a lot of mass death.

A baby brown antechinus (Antechinus stuartii) and nestbox.
A baby brown antechinus (Antechinus stuartii) and nestbox.

6. What do you see as the next ‘big thing’ in ecology?

I don’t know at all. I don’t think I know what the current big thing in ecology is. I suppose in general community ecology has moved from being focused on competition a couple of decades ago to predation as the major driver of almost everything, and that might continue for a while.

7. What advice would you give to someone starting out in an ecology-based career?

Keep very detailed field notes by writing your data and observations in books (not loose pages). Make copies and keep the originals forever. Data and questions that you worked on as a young person will come back to you later in life, and long term datasets and past data are precious.

8. If you had 10 minutes with a decision-maker what key message would you give them?

Restore and maintain funding for CSIRO and the ARC including for ecology, evolution and biodiversity research. Pay attention to the research findings.

9. What’s your favourite field food?

Whatever locally grown or made food is special to the area: ngali nuts and soursop in the Solomon Islands, smoked beef and local bacon from Tiaro in central Queensland, fish and chips in Bateman’s Bay. I have yet to discover what the local delicacy of the Karratha region is.

10. What’s the best popular book you’ve read?

Popular science books: it’s hard to go past Richard Dawkins ‘The Selfish Gene’. I also really liked ‘The Ghost with Trembling Wings’ by Scott Weidensaul. My favourite non-science book is ‘They Call Me Naughty Lola’ by David Rose.

11. What’s the most important scientific paper you’ve read?

I can’t say what’s important for everyone, but the ideas and methods in Owens IPF, Bennett PM (2000) Ecological basis of extinction risk in birds: habitat loss versus human persecution and introduced predators DOI started a long term research direction for me.
The original mechanisms proposed in Pimm et al. (1995) The future of biodiversity DOI and Charnov EL (1991) Evolution of life history variation among female mammals LINK have also kept cropping up and have inspired a lot of other people too I think.

12. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Scientifically: collect data on bycatch, and find out as much as possible when in the field, not just on what you think is directly related to your research question at the time.

Generally: do something involving public speaking at an early age. I was encouraged to do school debating and nothing is as terrifying as improvising in front of a large critical audience as a kid. It cured me of any possible public speaking anxiety forever and surviving that was generally morale boosting.

13. What’s your most interesting/funny field story?

I spent four and a half months living under a tarp in the Solomon Islands, working on rainforest flying foxes for Tim Flannery in 1992 when he was doing Melanesian mammal taxonomy work at the Australian museum. I was only 22. I had recently finished honours, and I went with my similar-aged friend Liz. We were looking for a new, rare monkey-faced bat on New Georgia and Vangunu, to find out something about its natural history, status and distribution.

These are remote and beautifully undeveloped islands with no electricity, sewerage, phones (no sat phones in those days), banks (we had to carry our money for the whole expedition with us), or shops at the time really (people are subsistence farmers), and people do not generally speak English. In retrospect it might have been a risky thing for a couple of young girls to do, but it was brilliant. OH&S was inconspicuous; we handled hundreds of bats without gloves or shots. Visitors were accompanied by local guides everywhere, we always had several young (and old) men with us, and you had to pay to stay on people’s land, but there were lots of land disputes.

We were there on Easter Sunday and that was the only time when all of the guides left to go to church at once, leaving us alone at the camp. A man with a bush knife (like a large cane-cutting machete) turned up saying it was his land and we had to pay him or he would cut the camp down, so we paid him. The Solomons is not like PNG, threats like this are very unusual. When the actual landowners came back they told us that he was lying and we should go to the police. We reported the incident to the least intimidating policeman I’ve ever seen, he was barefoot, smiling, and wearing police shorts, a Hawaiian shirt and straw hat. He asked us if bats lay eggs. I didn’t think the money would be recovered.

The closest I came to any harm on the trip was not due to people or animals though, but when I slipped off a mud path above a rocky creek bed a few metres below, and somehow unconsciously I had noticed a root sticking out of the bank and hooked my leg over it as I fell, so that I did not plummet onto the rocks. I would have surely broken something and that could have been bad.

There is a strong story-telling and oral history culture there. This year I have been back and have a postdoc (Tyrone) and a Solomons student now working on bat ecology, conservation, and re-surveying our past sites where we found the threatened flying fox. It was great to see our former guides again and their children who are now grown up, and give them some photos. Locals remember all about us, and even exactly where each net was. People not born then have shown Tyrone these places.

On the 1992 trip, funny things I can remember are mainly me being a hopeless dag, for example I was offered betelnut, politely took some, got dizzy and fell over. We were sitting around the fire once taking turns telling jokes, and I was worried that I couldn’t remember any at all when put on the spot to think of something culturally appropriate. When pushed repeatedly, I told the only joke I could think of: ‘what’s green and kills you if it falls on you out of a tree?’ Answer: a billiard table. There are no billiard tables there, and Solomons jokes are not abstract surreal statements. Only Liz was laughing (a lot, at me).

New Georgian Monkey-faced Bat (Pteralopex taki), endemikc to the Solomon Islands.
New Georgian Monkey-faced Bat (Pteralopex taki), endemic to the Solomon Islands.

14. If you weren’t an ecologist what would you be doing?

Gardening. Working as a public servant in an environment agency (I have done that a few times over the years, but possibly that means I would be unemployed now).

15. Who will win this year’s AFL grand final?