Ecology

Ecology is a Dirty Practice

The fieldwork for my PhD took place on tropical islands off the north-west coast of Australia. I was researching seabirds. As each field trip approached, there was one particular sentence frequently uttered by friend and acquaintance alike. ‘If you need a volunteer, I’d be happy to help out’. Without fail, word for word. I knew that some would be able to hack it, but I doubted very much whether most would cope. You may have heard that ecology is not a dirty word, but it certainly can be a dirty research field to practice. When people offered me their assistance, I knew that most were envisioning warm, blue water lapping up a white, sandy beach, and all the colours of the surrounding coral reef. One of my study sites was exactly like these conjured visions. But I wasn’t there for leisure. My other study site had a healthy population of saltwater crocodiles that put paid to any notion of lazing on the beach after indulging in a snorkel. When I think of my study sites, three things come to mind: sleep deprivation, inescapable sun, and bird poo and vomit.

Invariably, ecological fieldwork involves long days in the field. At one point of a PhD field trip, I had slept for just four hours in a three-day period; another, I caught and processed seabirds for twenty six and a half hours straight. Unusual sleep patterns are a common feature in ecology. My past research experience has been on woodland birds in Victoria and most bird surveys require you to be collecting data at dawn when the birds are frequently calling and the cool, morning temperatures favour maximum activity. I have had alarms set for 2:30am to ensure I made it to particularly remote survey sites for sunrise. But it’s not just bird research that disrupts ecologists’ sleep patterns. Working on mammals may require night-time spotlighting, or a schedule of late night and early morning setting and checking of traps that leaves no chance for any sustained block of sleep.

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    Completely exhausted after working long into the night catching seabirds. Sleep is welcome wherever you can get it.  Image: Rowan Mott

Completely exhausted after working long into the night catching seabirds. Sleep is welcome wherever you can get it. Image: Rowan Mott

There were four islands at one of my PhD study sites and a single island at the other. Across all five islands, there were only two trees. Just two palm trees that provided non-existent shade. The tropical sun belted down, drawing the sweat out like you were a sponge being squeezed. This meant carrying lots of water, but this meant moving around the islands required more effort. The heat and humidity were suffocating. Then there was the tangle of Ipomea vines that would snare your ankles and bring you to your knees. These were challenging conditions to say the least and heat exhaustion was a very real prospect. Fast-forward to last week, and I was atop Falls Creek doing plant surveys. It was uncharacteristically cold for mid-November. I had woollen gloves, but had to keep taking them off to tie a succession of knots in string marking the survey quadrats. The cold stung my fingers and with each knot, my capacity for fine motor skills decreased further, thereby lengthening the time my fingers needed to be exposed. As the sleety rain and strong wind bit into my face, I was struck by the juxtaposition of these two fieldwork experiences. Ecologists may try to control for a lot of variables in their experimental design, but we certainly cannot control the weather.

You know you are approaching a seabird island long before the dinghy has made it to shore. There is the distant hum of countless squawking seabirds, and then there is the smell. It’s unmistakable and indescribable at the same time. It emanates from the combination of years and years of accumulated seabird poo, prey remains, and corpses of seabirds that have died on the island (mortality of nestling seabirds can be quite high). You quickly become desensitised to it, though. Catching these birds often required me to crawl along on my belly, my face centimetres above generations-worth of seabird poo, while maintaining focus on the target bird. Just to ensure that you were adequately poo-dowsed, each bird I caught made a point of defecating and/or regurgitating a fishy meal on me. To make matters worse, my study species were not small birds.

I have also found myself in other places I would prefer not to be while doing ecology fieldwork. I spent several nights in a mouse-infested hut in the mallee of north-west Victoria during a stint of bird surveys. As soon as the sun set, mice were everywhere. I was not looking forward to going to sleep, so I took the precaution of pulling the bed away from the wall. Obviously, I didn’t pull it far enough away because I woke up with a mouse tugging hairs from my head. I went home at the end of that field trip with fewer hairs and red, circular marks on my back that signified a case of ringworm that must have been the mouse’s idea of a fair exchange for some hair.

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    My back covered in seabird ticks. It took three people a very long time to pull all of these out and even then some were missed, only to turn up several days later.  Image: Rowan Mott

My back covered in seabird ticks. It took three people a very long time to pull all of these out and even then some were missed, only to turn up several days later. Image: Rowan Mott

As that anecdote indicates, ecology fieldwork can put you in contact with some animals that you would rather not meet. When offers for volunteers were flooding in, I doubt many had considered the prospect of an animal encounter that would make their skin crawl. And when I say skin crawl, this is about as literal as it comes. I once had to swap the battery on some equipment left at one of my study islands. The vegetation surrounding it was swathed in a mass of seabird ticks. Within seconds of commencing, I had ticks crawling on me. Within minutes I had given up trying to brush them off and focused on finishing what needed to be done so I could make a quick break for the beach. I was covered. There were too many to count and, despite the best efforts to remove them all, I was finding them for days to come.

Here in Victoria, I have had dangerous wildlife encounters while doing ecology research. It is difficult to look where you are treading when counting birds in the canopy. My pulse certainly races whenever I look down and find a snake at my feet. In every instance that this has occurred, the snake and I have parted ways on amicable terms. Every instance except one, that is. On this occasion, it was a cool morning; no doubt the snake I had unknowingly approached was lethargic due to the cool conditions and couldn’t muster the energy to move out of my way. I caught sight of a tiny section of its body nestled in the streamside grass, but before I could spot its head, it had struck at me. I jumped and narrowly avoided being bitten on the knee. Another quick side-step later and we were heading in opposite directions. The next time I went back to that site, there was a snake skin at the exact place that this near miss occurred. I collected it and have it on my bookcase as a reminder of how close looking at birds had taken me to danger.

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    My hands at the end of a field trip catching seabirds.  Image: Rowan Mott

My hands at the end of a field trip catching seabirds. Image: Rowan Mott

Sometimes it is the animals you do want to come in contact with that are the cause of pain. Many a seabird biologist will tell you just how much damage their study species is capable of inflicting on a carelessly placed hand. Even tiny marsupials, such as Mulgara, are treated with reverence for the painful bite they can inflict. And there are botanists who are allergic to the very species they are doing research on. Worse still, sometimes it’s not wildlife that is the major concern, but people. Twice now, I have been doing a bird survey in farm paddocks when gunshots have broken the background of birdsong. The farmers, having forgotten that I had asked permission to be on their property a day or so earlier, had decided to do some pest control in the very same paddock I was standing in. One step beyond the risk of being mistakenly shot is the outright, face-to-face, verbal threat that you will be shot unless you vacate the property. Thankfully, this has only happened to me once when communication between two business partners broke down, resulting in one thinking that I was trespassing.

The romantic notions people have of what field ecologists do are often very far from the truth. Yet, despite all of the tribulations I’ve encountered during the course of my research, I still enjoy what I do immensely. I hope that this article gives you an appreciation for research that isn’t always glamorous. So, next time you hear about some important ecology research that furthers our understanding of the natural world and helps us to better conserve it, spare a thought for the researchers who collected the data. Chances are, there was a certain amount of suffering that went along with the euphoric highs of fieldwork.


Rowan Mott

Rowan is a PhD student studying seabird ecology. When he's not thinking about the ocean, he likes to think about woodland birds. 

You can find him on Twitter at @roamingmoth


Banner image courtesy of Rowan Mott: 'I found a snake skin at the exact place I narrowly avoided being bitten on the previous visit to the site.'

Review: The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia

The Book: The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia - An Early Account by Alan E. Newsome
The Authors: Alan & Thomas Newsome

When first looking through The Red Kangaroo by Alan & Thomas Newsome, my first thoughts were something along the lines of wishing there were more books like it. The late Alan Newsome was one of Australia's most respected ecologists, known for pioneering countless research projects in Central Australia and integrating Indigenous knowledge with ecological insight. Indeed, throughout my brief scientific career, I’ve encountered and cited much of Alan's work.

In itself, the history behind the compilation of this text is fantastic. The story goes that Alan's son, Tom, found Alan's original notes and manuscript in the family garage several years ago, meekly labelled 'Red Kangaroo Book.' Along with the manuscript were notes from a potential publisher expecting it ready for publication in 1975. Thirty years later, after Tom happened across the box of notes, the work contained in The Red Kangaroo remains every bit as relevant.

The period in which this work was conducted represented an exciting time to be a desert ecologist in Australia. Alan's work contributed to much of our basic understanding of the region and its fauna, particularly the red kangaroo Osphranter rufous. Logically set out, this text showcases much of Alan's early work on the red kangaroo's ecology and life history, supported with data and images collected from those early field trips. Not only does this offer an insight into fundamental aspects of an iconic Australian species, but it also showcases how field ecology was conducted half a century ago.

The view was magnificent, and the ride, an armchair, we were just above the trees... there was no margin for error.
— Alan's description of an aerial kangaroo survey

Of particular interest is the chapter describing red kangaroo 'Ecomythology': the communication of red kangaroo ecology through Indigenous culture. Alan's research and conversations with traditional owners uncovered chants and songs detailing much of the red kangaroo's ecology, from its diet to its habitat preferences. Given this work occurred over fifty years ago, Alan was somewhat of a pioneer in integrating science and Indigenous knowledge, and his documentation of that process is fascinating.

Where The Red Kangaroo succeeds, however, is through Newsome's ability to marry scientific discovery with naturalism. Written from the perspective of a young scientist (Alan conducted this research as a 25- to 30-year-old in the 1950s and 60s), Alan's prose exudes a flair and love of his subject rarely seen in modern scientific writing. It's refreshing to come across a book not only steeped with data, but also language that reflects the sheer amount of knowledge of the landscape the author was working in. Consequently, The Red Kangaroo makes for an incredible read, regardless of the reader's background, whilst also standing out as an important contribution to Australian natural history and science.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if... you're at all interested in natural history and science, or the reasons why the red kangaroo is so adept at persisting in the harsh Australian desert. 


Billy Geary
Billy is the Science & Conservation Editor at Wild Melbourne. He is a wildlife ecologist interested in predator-prey interactions and invasive species management.

You can find him on Twitter at: @billy_geary

Are artificial lights driving microbats.... batty?

This is a guest article by ecologist Grant Linley.

Their looks are the stuff of nightmares, they are continually urbanising and colonising new environments, and they have had disastrous impacts on the environment so far. These thoughts might go through the brain of Microchiropteran bats when thinking about humans. Whilst some may reel at their looks, their uniqueness makes them quintessentially Australian. These small, flying mammals are all around us at night and they live unheard and unseen among us. Insectivorous bats are a diverse and adaptable group of mammals that has been able to persist among environments that have undergone large scale changes due to urbanisation, making them a true Aussie battler.

Insectivorous bats are known to eat up to half their body weight in insects each night, with some eating up to 600 mosquitoes a night. Not only do they play an important role in keeping invertebrate species in balance, but in doing this they also promote plant growth and pollination. This makes them a key species in keeping urban ecology in balance. To help understand what affects insectivorous bats within urban environments, I conducted a study that considered the impacts of artificial lighting in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs. Using an Anabat Express (a gadget that helps us listen in on bat vocalisations), ultrasonic calls were recorded and used to identify species in artificially lit and unlit areas.

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    The Gould’s wattle bat ( Chalinolobus gouldii ) smiles for the camera. The study found that they were the most common species to occur along Bayside’s foreshore.  Image:   Lindy Lumsden

The Gould’s wattle bat (Chalinolobus gouldii) smiles for the camera. The study found that they were the most common species to occur along Bayside’s foreshore. Image: Lindy Lumsden

 

HOW DOES ARTIFICIAL LIGHTING AFFECT BATS?

Within the coastal vegetation in the Bayside area, I found unlit sites to have higher numbers of calls and species richness when compared to lit sites. Almost all of the identified species were adversely impacted by artificial lighting, specifically Austronomous australis, Chalinolobus morio, Miniopterus schreibersii oceanensis, Mormopterus spp, Myotis macropus, Nyctophilus geoffroyi, Saccolaimus flaviventris, Vespadelus darlingtoni and Vespadelus regulus. Lit sites attracted bats at lower temperatures than unlit sites and bat activity remained active throughout the night at unlit sites. However, at lit sites bat activity quickly diminished in the hours after sunset.

The effects of artificial lighting on insectivorous bats are complex and likely to be caused by a variety of reasons. All species that are susceptible to artificial lighting, except V. regulus, have larger bodies that are less manoeuvrable. It is thought that a lack of manoeuvrability may force these species away from lit areas, as they are not able to capture prey that is attracted to the lights. It is possible that artificial lighting causes changes in activity of bats at different temperatures because it interferes with insect navigation systems, making insects active at lower temperatures and in turn attracting bats during these times. The difference in bat activity throughout the night is thought to be caused by a rapid decrease in insect density around light sources as time passes after sunset, which forces bats to go in search of their prey in unlit areas.

 

WHAT CAN YOU DO FOR THEM?

Artificial lighting on the foreshore in the municipality of Bayside has impacted bats and appears to fragment parts of the landscape. The negative impacts on insectivorous bat activity will likely increase as more street and safety lights are installed in urban areas. In the future, safety lighting systems should be installed in car parks and walkways that are activated by a sensory switch and only remain on for a short period of time. Councils should also consider minimising the use of mercury vapour lighting, which attract larger insect loads than low-pressure sodium lamps. Additionally, members of the local community can build and install bat boxes, which provide bats somewhere to roost. Unfortunately, suitable habitat for these species is constantly diminishing within suburbia. These findings will be published shortly.

Banner image by Scott Sanders (via Wikimedia Commons).


Grant Linley

Grant is an ecologist interested in Australia's flora and fauna. He has experience researching, trapping, tracking, identifying and handling different Australian species. Whilst experienced in terrestrial Australian ecology, he has also conducted research in Borneo and South Africa. Grant's interests centre on preserving and reintroducing extant and extinct Australian species as well as using natural predators to control mesopredators.

Behaving in an Urban World

This is a guest post by Monash University PhD student Will Sowersby. 

You may have noticed that the world around you is changing. In fact, it is doing so at an unprecedented pace. Today, half of the world’s population live in cities and by 2050, that figure will be over 70%. In evolutionary terms, this rate of urban development represents a radical ecological upheaval. It is the sort of change that, in the past, generally occurred over geological time, not within generations. The process of urbanization often results in a loss of biodiversity due to the destruction and fragmentation of habitat, as well as the exposure of animals to artificial stimulations and pollutants. In many ways, we might expect such radical changes to leave our cities totally devoid of life, or only inhabited by the few hardiest species. Instead, more and more animals appear to be adjusting to and exploiting life on the streets. Peregrine falcons are nesting in skyscrapers instead of towering trees and crows are using passing cars as nut-crackers.

How have these species adapted? Well, the first way an animal responds to changes in its environment is by altering its behaviour. In this regard, the ability to adjust behaviour to changes in the environment can mean the difference between a population surviving and going extinct. Recently, the importance of studying animal behaviour in urban settings has become a hot topic in behavioural ecology: the area of science that explores how behaviour shapes – and is shaped by – the environment. By studying the behaviour of animals in urban areas, we can further our understanding of why some species have flourished, why others have not, and what measures we can take to help wildlife live in our cities and decrease biodiversity loss in urban areas.

So what allows some species to flourish in urban environments, while others fail? Some may simply have an inherent set of behaviours and life history traits that make them ‘pre-adapted’ to city life. Often, such animals have also benefited because urban settings have eliminated competitors and provided additional food sources. In Melbourne, for example, aggressive social birds such as noisy miners have flourished, often to the detriment of smaller, native bird species. Similarly, most Melbournians will be familiar with the grunts and hisses of the brushtail possum, an opportunistic marsupial that has benefited from feeding on our gardens, inhabiting our rooves and even taking a free feed from well-meaning residents.

The noisy miner is one of many bird species flourishing in urban environments.  Photo: Emma Walsh

The noisy miner is one of many bird species flourishing in urban environments. Photo: Emma Walsh

Many of the animals we now see reappearing in our cities and suburbs differ greatly from their bush and rural counterparts. For example, many urban populations – including birds, lizards and mammals – are significantly bolder than non-urban animals. Bolder animals may be better able to cope with human activity, less likely to retreat from threats, and quicker to exploit new food sources. Furthermore, urban animals also get less stressed. That is, they release less stress hormones than non-urban animals, which would be beneficial for living in a highly stimulating and chaotic environment. Remarkably, some animals have even begun to learn the rhythms of our cities, such as watching for traffic and crossing roads when traffic lights are red.

We have only recently become aware that many animals exhibit consistent “personalities”, or more accurately, behavioural types. Certain behavioural types correlate within an individual (e.g. aggressiveness and boldness) to form what is called a ‘behavioural syndrome’. Behavioural syndromes are considered to be largely inflexible across contexts and are likely to be heritable. Therefore, individuals inhabiting urban environments may have a set of inherent behaviours that have allowed them to more readily adjust. This means that other individuals in a population may not be able to demonstrate appropriate behaviours in urban environments. Consequently, urban animal populations may have a lower diversity of behavioural types compared to non-urban populations, and a lack of diversity is rarely (if ever!) a good thing.

The common brushtail possum is a familiar sight for many in suburban Melbourne.  Photo: Dr Carlo Kopp

The common brushtail possum is a familiar sight for many in suburban Melbourne. Photo: Dr Carlo Kopp

Artificial light has well known effects on animal behaviour (refer to a recent Wild Melbourne post by Anne Aulsebrook) and so does anthropogenic noise. Many frog species around Melbourne are being drowned out by traffic noise, impacting the chances of males attracting mates. One species, the southern brown tree frog, is offsetting this by raising the pitch of its calls in noisy environments, so that males can be heard from further away. Noise pollution is also forcing urban birds to adjust their vocal communications or risk going unheard. Urban silvereyes are much louder than their rural counterparts, while urban noisy miners can even adjust the volume of their calls depending on whether they are near busy or quiet roads. 

Chemical pollutants that are getting into the environment are also having a dramatic effect on the behaviour of wildlife. For example, hormones used in agriculture in Australia, which leach into our waterways, can alter the mating behaviour and morphology of freshwater fish. Furthermore, chemicals used in the human female contraceptive pill are the likely cause of feminization in fish, which has a significant impact on their ability to breed.

Growling grass frogs are one species that may be suffering due to traffic noise.  Photo: Peter Robertson

Growling grass frogs are one species that may be suffering due to traffic noise. Photo: Peter Robertson

How can we use our knowledge of animal behaviour to minimise the impacts of urbanisation and to encourage animals to return to our urban spaces? We should firstly feel encouraged by the fact that we can coexist with wildlife. By offering native animals a wide choice of native vegetation and large, undeveloped areas in our cities, we can increase both the diversity of species and the diversity of individuals within species in our urban spaces. By knowing how and when animals move through the landscape, we can create safer passageways for them. Already, road-crossing structures are allowing some of Victoria’s rare arboreal marsupials to safely cross highways, while crossing structures are helping red crabs on Christmas Island to make their annual migration. Elsewhere, cities are turning the lights off in large buildings at night, so that migratory birds are not distracted as they fly past. We could do the same here in Melbourne (at key times during the year), along with implementing stricter pollution controls (particularly in sewage and wastewater treatment plants), lowering noise pollution, decreasing vegetation clearance, not feeding wild animals and keeping cats inside (particularly at night). Ultimately, a city shared with wildlife is not only healthier for us, but also far more interesting. By beginning to understand the creatures around us, we can make sure our cities are not only home for us, but for them too.

Banner photo courtesy of Anne Aulsebrook.