What do rats, antibiotics, macadamia nuts and a toothbrush have in common?

rats and a toothbrush

There is no doubt that wildlife ecology has a certain mystique about it. The romance of field work in remote locations with exotic animals, I am sure in part, helps create this view of ecology being sexy.

Before I go any further I will say wildlife ecology is absolutely all of this. There is nothing better than being immersed in nature, and trying to work out how the system works, and how you can make the system work better. Ecology is absolutely amazing and I am still totally in love with it!

There are however times where ecology can feel like you are filming an episode of “Dirty Jobs”. I can hear you saying “Where is this blog going, and WHY!”.

You can blame blogger extraordinaire Ian Lunt for this post. In a Twitter conversation he suggested a post about the less glamorous and dirty jobs we do as ecologists will “definitely (be) guaranteed to get no RTs whatsoever :)”. Challenge accepted! 🙂 So here it goes, the worst job I have ever had to do as an ecologist.

Many years ago when conducting my PhD research in Queensland and northern NSW on rodent damage management in macadamia orchards I managed to come up with a fairly gross job.

We were trying to establish the inter-play between orchard habitats and the scrub habitats next to the crops, as far as rodents (The invasive black rat Rattus rattus) go.

Generally this would be a simple, but time consuming, exercise of mark/recapture and demonstrating that the enormous population of rodents living in the scrub were also turning up in the orchard and causing the very high damage we saw. Unfortunately, black rats are notoriously difficult to repeatedly capture (we tried and failed miserably), which meant we needed to come up with another way of trying to show the link between the two components of the system.

Upshot, we chose to use a bio-marker, in the form of the antibiotic tetracycline hydrochloride. This compound when in an animal bonds with calcium, and is laid down in actively growing bone material. The really cool thing is that when you put the bones under a UV light they glow yellow (seriously, it was really cool!!).

So we placed this antibiotic out (coated on piles of oats) in different parts of the system (if you want to see the approach it is here in this paper).

Three months later we went back to the sites and snap trapped (this species is a major introduced pest species in crop systems) the areas until we stopped catching animals. From memory this took more than 3 weeks in one of our sites. This is where the good idea came to an abrupt and messy end.

We were in the field catching hundreds of rats and we needed their bones! We thought we could let nature help us out, so we placed the fresh skulls of our rats in a cage (in separate open plastic bags) to let them rot with the help of flies. Problem! It was winter and even in Queensland the flies were not too cooperative and the skulls were only slowly rotting.

We could not take bags of half rotted rat skulls back to the university. My supervisor would have seen the funny side, but the rest of the biological science building would not have had the same reaction.

So came the worst job I have ever had to do in ecology. We headed into town and bought a large supply of toothbrushes (the ones with hard bristles) to start the dirty job of de-fleshing our skulls! We needed the jaw and teeth as these are the areas where bone material in rodents is always growing.

We sat there in an unheated room at our field sites, and between rounds of checking traps, we scrubbed the skulls and jaws clean It took ten 12 hour days to do them all. The worst thing about this was that as you scrubbed, the toothbrush would occasionally release ‘spray’. And every now and then a maggot would emerge from a scull 😩

So there you have it, that’s what rats, antibiotics, macadamia nuts and a toothbrush have in common for me.

I still think the bio-marker approach was a really neat way to show long term interaction between the two components of the system. If we had camera traps back then we could have come up with some equally cool, yet less disgusting, field experiment to show the same thing. Time brings new approaches, and with it new opportunities.

Conservation is a Global issue, and we need to train students to think Globally.

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I am closing in on having spent the last 17 years teaching wildlife ecology and conservation Biology to an ever growing student body at Deakin University in Australia. It is interesting to reflect upon how things have changed and to think about what we need to be doing in the future for students of conservation. 

There is no doubt in my mind that getting students into the field and exposing them to the skills they need to survive in the future as conservation biologists is absolutely critical (a discussion on field learning is for another day). In the last 10 years, however, I have also felt that students need to understand the issues around conservation from a more Global perspective.  

So many of the issues we face together on this planet are global by nature, but are students of conservation prepared to face the challenges on a global stage?  I can hear you groaning, but stick with me here 🙂 

We discuss teaching students from a global perspective, we incorporate international examples in our teaching, but do we really teach students to understand the roles of culture, economics, religion etc that provide the local context in which conservation is conducted in different parts of the world?  I suspect we probably don’t.

And then comes the question, can we do this from our safe western based class rooms, or do we need to immerse our students in different cultural contexts to allow them to understand the challenges of doing conservation in a different place?

Certainly for me, I felt the one thing we could not easily teach conservation students in Australia was how to view situations through the eyes of a different culture. In fact, I was fairly certain the best thing we could do for our conservation students was to take them outside Australia and visit our Asian neighbors. 

At this point, it helped greatly to have a supportive Head of School, who himself was Chinese, who shared a similar view point and was willing to back a little bit of an experiment, and ultimately take a punt.

So six years ago we started planning to take a small group of our environmental science students to Asia to focus on conservation and environmental sustainability from an Asian perspective, and in 2011 we headed to Taiwan for 3 weeks. Taiwan was a really interesting place, a similar population to Australia, a similar GDP, a similar proportion of indigenous people, in an area approximately half the size of Australia. We explored the country, looked at issues associated with protected areas, indigenous land management, eco-tourism and urban planning and sustainability. It was really interesting, and the students found it really challenging. 

The big lesson we learned during the process was that our students wear rose coloured glasses when reflecting on Australia. Note to self for future years, students need to do pre-departure  study to compare and contrast Australia with their destination.

Students were surprised to see commercial exploitation within National Parks, but equally saddened to see indigenous peoples moved out of areas to establish protected areas.

Students were surprised to see commercial exploitation within National Parks, but equally saddened to see indigenous peoples moved out of areas to establish protected areas.

For various reasons, we decided to up the challenge level and take the tour to Malaysian Borneo, and this year will be our 4th trip back. There is no doubt that Borneo typifies the issues associated with tropical forests the world over.

Exploitation of timber, deforestation and transformation to oil palm, major hydro-electric power projects, massive species declines, and significant pressures placed on indigenous communities (sound familiar?). 

I suspect to our students the issue of oil palm led deforestation is at the fore front of all of their thoughts. They have grown up on campaigns to buy non-palm oil products etc. 

But what happens when you get to a country that heavily relies on palm oil for their economic development? Well first there is shock! “Why do they not understand what they are doing to their environment?”.  Horror! “I cant believe that everyone we talk to supports the need for oil palm plantations”.  Then comes the mellowing. “Well how could this be done better to get economic advancement and conservation of tropical jungles at the same time?”.  

It is interesting to note, that as much as 50% of oil palm fruit ends up rotting on the ground unharvested, even as more oil palm is being planted. This is largely due to a lack of workers. Suddenly, the issue becomes how do you get the most efficiency out of your current crops before clearing more land for more crop? And so the conversation starts.

A visit to an oil palm plantation in Sarawak was an eye opening experience. Students started to try and think about solutions to the issues of workforce, and an inability to service the current plantations.

A visit to an oil palm plantation in Sarawak was an eye opening experience. Students started to try and think about solutions to the issues of workforce, and an inability to service the current plantations.

Having now spent many weeks in Asia with Australian environmental science students, I am more convinced than ever that we need to get more students out of Australia and seeing the issues for themselves. 

To this end we have also been able to establish a unit where students go on an environmental placement for a month to a developing nation and work on local projects. This unit has been ridiculously successful with 150 students heading around the world this summer.

I have over the years been surprised, excited, saddened, and every other emotion possible watching our students immerse into a different country with a different culture, a different mix of religions and completely different economic imperatives.

Certainly, this one trip does not change the world view of our students, but it starts them on a journey.  At the end of the day life is about journeys, and it is the route you choose that adds depth, colour and understanding (whoops, sorry, I got philosophical for a second there). 

So my plea to all of you involved in teaching our future environmental scientists, start to think about innovative ways that you can take your students out of their western comfort zone for a while, and look at the world through some one else s eyes.

Spending time with indigenous communities has been both challenging and incredibly rewarding. Our students are constantly amazed about the generosity and openness of all the indigenous communities we work with.

Spending time with indigenous communities has been both challenging and incredibly rewarding. Our students are constantly amazed about the generosity and openness of all the indigenous communities we work with.

Long-term research is critical for ecology, but it starts from humble beginnings.

blog headerWe often talk about the need for long-term continuous research in ecological systems. Long-term research allows us to see patterns we may not necessarily see through space for time substitution studies or snap shot studies, but how do long-term studies start? Bearing in mind that studies do not become long-term until they have actually been running for a reasonable length of time, do they start out planning to be long-term?

I am not sure about others, but our research in the Grampians ecosystem in western Victoria, Australia, did not start out with a long-term view point. Actually our research commenced in 2008 with a view to try and work out what species of small mammals had recolonized a massive area that had been burnt in 2006. The fire in 2006, was one of those large, high intensity wildfires that were being called ‘Mega-fires’ at the time. There was very little known about recovery after this type of fire so we thought it was a good opportunity to see what was happening two years after the event.

We established 36 sites throughout the Grampians, and over a 3 month field season the team trapped everything they could. This was a major exercise, almost 10,000 trap nights, lots of lovely prickly vegetation, and lots of mice! The interesting thing at this point was that there were not many native small mammals in the system at all.  Fair enough I hear you say, the system was burnt two years prior. But, a number of our sites had not been burnt in decades and were supposed to act as reference points for our burnt sites. Upshot, for some reason the whole system seemed devoid of native small mammals.

Deakin - PV long term small mammal monitoring sites with recent wildfire historySo sitting back at the end of 2008, we discussed whether we should conduct another year of monitoring.  We were really worried about what was going on, and really keen to see when things came back into the burn area.  All of a sudden here we are in 2016 with 8 years of data from this amazing region.  I have always had in my mind it will not be long-term until we have 10 years under our belt, but the reality is this is now one of the longer ecological monitoring projects in Victoria.

So what have we discovered (for want of a better word)?  Well, we now know we have been incredible lucky.  We have had a very strange cycle of rainfall, ranging from massively below average rainfall runs through to a major flood event in the summer of 2010-2011.  These rainfall conditions not only mimic what has been predicted to occur under future climate change conditions, they have demonstrated the power of water in temperate ecosystems.  Prior to this project I had always thought of small mammal species as being relatively stable through time, being reset by fire, but coming back.  I did not really think of their numbers booming and busting as we have seen from long-term research in arid systems.  What we have seen is an almost classic boom-bust response of mammals in the Grampians based on rainfall.  So, temperate systems like the Grampians are not resistant to shifts in rainfall. This could be a significant issue under future climate change conditions.

Native small mammal captures across the 36 Grampians sites (blue), against the rainfall background (green)

Native small mammal captures across the 36 Grampians sites (blue), against the rainfall background (green)

In part due to the floods, we got 2 more major fires in 2013 and 2014.  The rain makes every thing grow, and the system declines when the rains drop away, leaving the system ready to burn. Interestingly, another prediction from climate change models is that systems will suffer more, larger fires as a consequence of underlying rainfall patterns.  I am sure you can start to see how lucky we have been in such a short period of time, hyper-variable annual rainfall conditions and multiple high intensity wildfires. Off this main project, we have also looked at what survives immediately after wildfires, and we are currently trying to use satellite imagery to predict where climate refuges exist in the landscape for small mammals during droughts.  All of this from a one year snap shot study.

I have learned a few lessons along the way.

  • Stick to your guns and stay the course.  There will always be people saying we know everything now, lets stop!
  • Keep the land managers involved. It is as big an education for them as it is for you. With the managers involved comes the chance to influence management of the system.  I am happy to say the Parks Victoria in the Grampians has been amazing at modifying their management in context of the results coming in.
  • Be prepared to make it bigger, and chase other avenues as the project evolves. We have our long term sites that are managed and run the same through time, but we have had lots of other side projects operating through the time we have been in the Grampians.
  • Staffing and continuity. I have been lucky, all this research has been conducted by Deakin honours students.  On top of this, most of the students that went on to do honours had been involved in the project as volunteers in previous years, and most have helped out in some way in subsequent years. This involvement by students across multiple years has allowed us to have continuity through time.
  • Be prepared to be surprised! I would never have anticipated the response we have seen in this system.  It has changed the way I think of small mammals in temperate ecosystems for ever.  It is also depressing looking at long term rainfall trajectories. Long gone are the days of happily looking forward to a nice hot dry summer.  Great for the beach, but not so wonderful for our small mammals.

If you want to follow the adventure, we have a twitter feed for the project at https://twitter.com/Wild_Gramps

Global Domination of Social Media Continues

Having watched all my colleagues over the years embracing different social media options, I have slowly dipped my toes into different aspects. It is so hard to keep up, and there is no doubt as a scientist these days you need to be visible in some digital form. So here we go again! As if FB, Tumblr, InstaGram and Twitter were not enough I have succumbed to pressure and set up a WordPress. Hopefully it will be useful to someone 🙂