Tag Archives: 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?

Luck.

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?

Hawthorn.

Q&A with an ecologist: Professor Lesley Hughes

Next up in Q&A with an ecologist is Professor Lesley Hughes.

Lesley is best known for her work examining the impacts of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystems and is a member of the Climate Council.

Did you know Lesley has a strong affinity with wombats? I didn’t, read on!

Professor Lesley Hughes, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, NSW

Professor Lesley Hughes, Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, NSW

1. What got you in to ecology?

I started out as an animal lover and keen natural historian. I just wanted to watch animals behaving. Somehow this morphed into community ecology once I got to university.

2. Why are you still in ecology?

The unbearable thought that climate change is going to wipe out so many species on the planet, and the hope that I can do something to save them.

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

Saying yes when asked to be a Climate Commissioner. It took a huge amount of time but was also great fun. The Commission is now dead, long live the Climate Council!

4. What’s your favourite organism and ecosystem?

Wombats. I don’t study them but I used to have a pet one, they are extremely intelligent and have fantastic personalities. I also really like weevils because they’ve got such cute faces. I love rainforests (but just to look at, too uncomfortable to actually work in them), but will always have the softest spot for dry sclerophyll woodlands.

5. What result has surprised you most in ecology?

How quickly and sensitively many plants and animals have responded to fairly modest global warming thus far.

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

I really hope that ecologists gets serious about climate change; not just as a ‘hook’ to try and get funded or published, but because it threatens our very existence.

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

Follow your passion (well I would say that, wouldn’t I?), but be prepared to take some chances and follow intriguing opportunities (see my ‘best mistake’, above).

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

See my answer to the next ‘big thing’, above.

9. What’s your favourite field food?

Can’t beat a really good sandwich and a thermos of strong espressso.

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

Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck (added bonus, one of the main characters is a biologist)

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

Peters RL and Darling JDS (1985) The Greenhouse Effect and Nature Reserves. Bioscience 35:707–717 LINK

This paper, written nearly 30 years ago, set out the implications of climate change for conservation. If policy makers had taken sufficient notice of this paper back then we would be in much better shape now.

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

“Maybe climate change would be a good topic for a postdoc” — Mark Westoby, 1990

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

My PhD fieldwork involved following ants around the bush; I used to attract them by putting out lines of tuna. Let’s just say that goannas really like tuna.

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

Epidemiology always interested me, but I’m not good enough at stats. The economics of developing countries also always intrigued me. But sometimes I think that life would have simpler if I’d been a hairdresser.

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

I live in Sydney, am completely uninterested in sport, and don’t care. Sorry!

Q&A with an ecologist: Professor Joern Fischer

Ecologists are an interesting bunch, and with that in mind I’d like to start a regular series of posts that reveal a little more about some of them. In the coming months you’ll hear from a variety of people, please note the list is certainly not intended to be exhaustive nor random in any way, but rather the one thing in common is that they are people who for whatever reason inspire me. Be it a personal connection, perhaps we’ve shared a beer or three and good conversation at a conference, or maybe I’ve admired their work from afar, they may be a mentor and close friend, or perhaps they’re just downright entertaining! There are many reasons.

So without further ado here is the first cab off the rank in Q&A with an ecologist, Professor Joern Fischer from Leuphana University, Lueneburg, Germany.

More about Joern and his team’s terrific research can be found at Ideas 4 Sustainability.

1. What got you in to ecology?
Quite simply, I like animals … and knowing that we’re losing species faster than at most other times in the history of our planet made me want to engage with this issue, and see if there is anything I can do about it.

2. Why are you still in ecology?
For the exact same reasons as above! However, I started to branch out quite a lot. If you are interested in conservation, you need to look beyond reserves. If you look beyond reserves, you can’t get around people. So, a lot of my interests today are about the interactions between people and nature. Without understanding social issues, conservation won’t work.

3. What’s the best mistake you’ve ever made?
Well, hmmmm let’s just say I ended up in Australia by serendipity. Wasn’t exactly planned like that, but turned out well in the end!

4. What’s your favourite organism and ecosystem?
I’m not sure I have a favourite — I like systems more than specific organisms. My current study system in Central Romania is certainly fascinating, both socially and ecologically. And we see all kinds of rare species quite regularly, from (signs of) bears to yellow-bellied toads to a huge variety of butterflies.

5. What result has surprised you most in ecology?
Probably that carnivores can persist in densely populated areas — people and carnivores can co-exist quite peacefully, even if they inhabit the same area.

6. What do you see as the next ‘big thing’ in ecology?
We have to do better in making our work useful to the real world. I think we need landscape-level work, which links with both stakeholders and other disciplines; and preferably is integrated across landscapes in the end. Such work is now being promoted by the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS).

7. What advice would you give to someone starting out in an ecology-based career?
Make sure you stay grounded in real-world systems. Too much modelling, too soon in your career, probably means you’re going to end up talking nonsense …

8. If you had 10 minutes with a decision maker what key message would you give them?
GDP is a meaningless indicator of social well-being, and other alternatives should be used immediately.

9. What’s your favourite field food?
Ciorbe de legume… Romanian vegetable soup!

10. What’s the best popular book you’ve read?
The Art of Loving, by Erich Fromm (bit on the intellectual side, but hey ….)

11. What’s the most important scientific paper you’ve read?
Probably Dreborg 1996, The Essence of Backcasting DOI

12. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Say “no” whenever you can or you’ll be overcommitted even faster.

13. What’s your most interesting/funny field story?
Hmmmm don’t know …. being zapped by an electric fence, nearly bitten by a snake, growled at by a bear? Those were three of the less elegant moments of my field life.

14. If you weren’t an ecologist what would you be doing?
Probably psychology, and quite possibly environmental psychology.

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