SciComm

Up Close and Personal

One of my dogs is such a smart-ass – she figured out that we locked them outside using a door jam, so she chewed it up so we couldn’t use it anymore.
We have a bearded dragon that is so lazy that she will just let herself drop from a height rather than run down the branch to get food.
My cat is very stubborn and cheeky, and she’s so obsessed with food that she knows the sound of the cheese knife hitting the chopping board!

I didn’t have to look too far to find these quotes from people talking about the things they find unique in their pets. It’s natural to humanise our animal companions, we just can’t help ourselves. Sometimes it can be hard to tell if someone is talking about their pet or their slightly odd housemate.

But how close to the truth are we when we say these things? Is this just us projecting our human view of the world upon an unknowing animal, or do animals indeed have individual personalities much like us?

Research into animal personalities, although it has been around since the 1930s, has really exploded in the past couple of decades. There is now a large body of evidence showing animals indeed have personalities (or rather, sets of individual-specific behaviours that do not change over situations and time). From primates to ants, and many species in-between, it seems that personalities are not that uncommon in the animal kingdom.

You may find it easier to imagine a chimp, who is not too different to us, with distinct personality. But it becomes rather more difficult to imagine when you are talking about something like a fish. But luckily, researchers have developed ways of measuring these behaviours (which do not require their animal subjects to take the Myers-Briggs Personality Test).

Jane Goodall's work made it especially easy for us to visualise chimpanzees as having distinct personalities.  Image: Hugo Van Lawick via  National Geographic

Jane Goodall's work made it especially easy for us to visualise chimpanzees as having distinct personalities. Image: Hugo Van Lawick via National Geographic

One of the most common behavioural personalities researchers measure is ‘boldness-shyness’, and this can be assessed by measuring an individual’s response to a new environment or unfamiliar object. For instance, in my own research on northern quolls I put a new object in each quoll’s enclosure, and measure the time they take to approach the new object. The longer they take to approach, the shyer they are.

So apart from legitimising your own views about your dog’s personality, why would scientists be interested in this? Well, it turns out personality often plays a very important role in how animals interact with their environment, which can ultimately affect their survival.

Bold individuals are often bigger risk-takers, increasing their chances of predation but also providing benefits. For example, shyer kangaroos reduce their predation risk by being more vigilant, but spend less time foraging as a consequence.

The benefits of having a certain personality can also change over time. For instance, personality seems to impact the feeding locations of female black-browed albatross, with bolder individuals foraging closer to the colony. This is an advantage in good years, when bold females can access enough food near the colony. But in poorer years this strategy is less successful, so shyer individuals who forage further out have the advantage.

Shyer female black-browed albatross have an advantage when food is scarce.

Shyer female black-browed albatross have an advantage when food is scarce.

Conservationists can also employ personality to help manage threatened species. We know from previous releases of endangered Tasmanian devils that bolder individuals are 3.5 times more likely to survive than their shyer counterparts. Considering we are currently breeding large numbers of devils in captivity for eventual wild release, these results highlight the importance of promoting a wide range of behaviours in captive-bred populations.

So, the next time your friend goes off on a tangent about their socially awkward cat – don’t be so quick to dismiss them! Animal personality is a lot more important than many of us might think.


Ella Kelly

Ella is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne, where she spends a lot of time thinking about why some quolls don’t eat cane toads (if only she could ask them!). She also enjoys talking and writing about science, and would ultimately love to have an actual impact on the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.

You can find her on Twitter at @ecology_ella.

 

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.'

The Little Things That Run The City

This is a guest post by Luis Mata. 

…let me say a word on behalf of these little things that run the world.

This quote was part of an address given by E.O. Wilson on the occasion of the 1997 opening of the invertebrate exhibit of the National Zoological Park in Washington D.C. The ultimate objective of Wilson’s address was to stress the urgent need to recognise the importance of insects and other invertebrates for humanity. He was keen to see that efforts aimed at the conservation of biodiversity were beginning to include non-vertebrate animals. In his words:

‘A hundred years ago few people thought of saving any kind of animal or plant. The circle of concern has expanded steadily since, and it is just now beginning to encompass the invertebrates.’

With The Little Things that Run the City - a close research collaboration between the City of Melbourne’s Urban Sustainability Branch, RMIT University’s Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group and nine other academic and government organisations - we sought to expand this circle so that it may also encompass the conservation of insects in urban environments. We were driven by the motivation to ‘say a word on behalf of the little things that run the city’. 

The Little Things that Run the City, Mata et al. 2016.  Artwork: Kate Cranney

The Little Things that Run the City, Mata et al. 2016. Artwork: Kate Cranney

How many insect species live in your city? How are they distributed amongst the city’s green spaces and habitats? What are the ecological processes they perform and ecosystem services they deliver? What are their most frequent ecological interactions?

The Little Things that Run the City project is addressing these and other questions within the boundaries of the City of Melbourne. Here are some of our key findings:

We found that at least 560 insect species occur within the City of Melbourne’s public green spaces. These included species of ants, bees, beetles, cicadas, flies, heteropteran bugs, jumping plant lice, leafhoppers, treehoppers, planthoppers, parasitoid and stinging wasps, and sawflies. The insect group with the highest diversity was beetles, followed by parasitoid wasps and flies.

The most common species was a ‘Minute brown scavenger beetle’ in genus Cortinicara. Minute brown scavenger beetles are tiny and dark, and measure about 2 mm in length. Truly ubiquitous in the City of Melbourne, the species was collected in all studied sites and habitats, and in association with 102 different plant species – that’s 94% of all surveyed plant species!

The European honey bee Apis mellifera was the most common bee species. We also recorded many Australian native bees, including chequered cuckoo, leafcutter, and blue-banded bees.

A blue-banded bee ( Amegilla asserta ) flying towards a black-anther flax-lily.  Image: Luis Mata

A blue-banded bee (Amegilla asserta) flying towards a black-anther flax-lily. Image: Luis Mata

We have recorded at least four new species to science. These include an ant in genus Turneria, a lacebug in genus Tingis, and two jumping plant lice: Mycopsylla sp. nov. and Acanthocasuarina sp. nov..

As many as 97% of all recorded species were native to Australia. The most common non-native species was the Argentine ant Linepithema humile, an aggressive invasive species known to displace native ants and capable of disrupting ant-mediated seed dispersal interactions.

Mid-storey was the habitat type with the highest insect diversity. As many as 337 species were recorded in association with mid-storey plants. The second most diverse habitat type was tree, followed by grassland and lawn.  

The tussock-grass Poa labillardierei was the plant species with the highest associated insect diversity. As many as 103 insect species were associated with this native grass. The native wallaby grass Rytidosperma sp. and kangaroo grass Themeda triandra also had large numbers of associated insect species. The shrub with the highest associated insect diversity was the fragrant saltbush Chenopodium parabolicum, followed by sweet bursaria Bursaria spinosa, gold-dust wattle Acacia acinacea and hop goodenia Goodenia ovata.

There were over 60% more insect species in native than non-native tree species. Interestingly, however, the tree species with the highest associated insect diversity were both the native spotted gum Corymbia maculata and the non-native pepper tree Schinus molle.

We documented approximately 2,200 associations between insect and plant species. On average, each insect species was associated with 3.3 plant species. For example, the most generalist herbivore recorded in the study, a tiny green leafhopper, was recorded in association with 57 plant species, which is more than 50% of all surveyed plant species. This is assuming of course that it actually feeds on every plant species that we found it on!

A dingy swallowtail ( Papilio anactus ) in Carlton Gardens.  Image: Luis Mata

A dingy swallowtail (Papilio anactus) in Carlton Gardens. Image: Luis Mata

Half of all adult insect species recorded in the study were herbivores. Of these, as many as 68% were folivores, a guild in which species specialise to eat leaves.

We don’t know how many species were pollinators! What we do know is that as many as 25% of all recorded species are known to visit flowers to collect nectar and/or pollen – that is almost 150 species of beetles, parasitoid and stinging wasps, flies, heteropteran bugs, ants, and, of course, bees.

Over 40% of all recorded insect species were predators or parasitoids. These species are therefore capable of regulating the populations of potential insect pests.

The insects recorded in the study may supply at least two types of food: honey and lerps. We documented only one species of honey-producing bee, namely the non-native European honey bee. Lerps are crystallised protective structures made out of the sugar-rich liquid honeydew exudated by the immature stages of jumping plant lice.

The Little Things that Run the City project illustrates the importance of insect biodiversity conservation to the City of Melbourne, and by extension, to other cities worldwide. Our findings are being applied to identify where to prioritise conservation activities, guide the design and maintenance of green spaces, and assist decision-makers considering insects in broader biodiversity plans and strategies. The study is providing valuable baseline data that can be integrated into the council’s planned research agendas; for example, in future iterations of the City of Melbourne’s BioBlitz and in the future development of monitoring programs.

Our findings are also providing data to The shared urban habitat, one of the five main research lines of the National Environmental Science Programme – Clean Air and Urban Landscapes Hub, and to the recently awarded Australian Research Council Linkage Project Designing green spaces for biodiversity and human well-being.

Insects are the most diversified animal group on our planet - and in our city! From a functional perspective they are arguably the most important as well. The ‘little things that run the city’ spread seeds, eat rubbish, pollinate food crops and flowers, produce honey, keep soils healthy, help control weeds and pests, and are a food source for some of our other most dear animals, such as lizards, bats and birds. Keeping them safe and healthy within our city should be one of our top urban conservation priorities!


Dr Luis Mata is a postdoctoral researcher at RMIT University’s Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group. You can discover more about Luis and his research on his research blog. 

Banner image of a shield bug from genus Cuspicona courtesy of Luis Mata.  

The Wild Melbourne Journey: A Case Study in Science Communication

The Wild Melbourne team are pleased to announce that we've been fortunate enough to be invited by Australian Science Communicators' Victorian Branch to present our story.

Australian Science Communicators is a group dedicated to fostering the successful communication of science to the public, in all formats. This aligns incredibly well with Wild Melbourne's mission of increasing the Victorian public's understanding and appreciation of nature. 

Come along to LOOP Bar on Thursday 21st July to hear us talk a little about the Wild Melbourne story, what we've learnt, and to see a range of our unreleased video footage from around Victoria (similar to the Science Short shown below!).

For those interested, there will also be an opportunity to network with us, as well as with many other Australian Science Communicators after the event. 

The event is free, so please head to the EventBrite page and register to attend. We hope to see you there!