science

An Angry Eagle and a Nudist Colony: A Day Surveying Native Fish Species in the Dandenong Ranges

This is a guest article by Cameron Amos.

I am awake well before the sun will appear from the east; it is dark and cold. Eerie silence, street lights and condensed breath greet me at my destination, Lilydale. Why Lilydale? Here I am to meet Paul, an aquatic ecologist, whom I am to assist in conducting fish surveys throughout the Dandenong Ranges. 

I jump into Paul’s four-wheel drive and soon we are hurtling towards the ranges. We pass through the pleasantries and Paul looks at me coyly from the driver’s seat. “Our first site”, he begins slowly – then swallows, hesitates, rubs his forehead – “is at a nudist colony.”

A what! My mind races. What does a nudist colony mean? Surely no nudist in their right mind will be walking around the creek, starkers, in this temperature. But it is Easter Saturday; who knows how people might celebrate or commiserate this day? I respond with a mumbled acknowledgement: “That’s fine.” Well, I have no choice, now that I am travelling with haste, as the sun rises, towards our first site. 

We travel in silence as we drive up the increasing gradient into the hills of the Dandenongs. A couple of sharp turns and we are there, facing a well-built, steel-gated, unmarked driveway in thick, old-growth forest. The call is made to one of the residents and we wait for the gate to be manually opened. Both of us are silent in our wonder – or is that fear? – of what or how the resident could be greeting us. A shadowy figure emerges from the gloom of the greying light. A jumper, some track pants and a cheerful lady in her mid-to-late sixties approaches the gate. We both exhale our relief in too loud a manner as the woman opens the gate. Paul chats to her about our plans and how long we intend to take. 

We drive through. It looks like a school holiday camp. Small one- and two-bedroom shacks are dotted all over. Signs line the road, showing the quaint road names, speed limits, and where the games room is located. We pass an upright volleyball net near the games room. Both of us let out a synchronised immature giggle, like we are schoolchildren.

We arrive at the site and get organised to sample the section of the creek. I prepare myself, putting waders on, pulling out the buckets, bins and fish ruler. My mind is conscious of the knowledge that there may be nude people outside the periphery of my vision. Like some impending zombie attack. I try not to get too hung up on it – just like the impulse to ignore “do not press the red button”, the urge to gawk and stare around the complex is irrepressible. We commit to little chat as we prepare the backpack electrofisher to undertake the survey in the small tributary. 

An unnamed tributary located in the nudist village.  Image: Cameron Amos

An unnamed tributary located in the nudist village. Image: Cameron Amos

The backpack electrofisher uses pulses of electricity to attract fish towards the appliance, and as they are drawn closer, the pulse stuns the fish. Once stunned, fish return to consciousness quickly. My job as assistant to Paul is to act as netter. The job of the netter is to catch the stunned fish before it returns to consciousness or gets washed downstream. At the same time, I am required to carry a bucket with recovering fish, climb over large fallen trees, dodge or climb over slimy, waterlogged snags, power through gumboot-deep mud and try not to trip and fall into the creek. Most important of all: don’t drop the bucket of fish back into the creek. 

We quickly move through the site and collect short-finned eels (Anguilla australis), river blackfish (Gadopsis marmoratus) and mountain galaxias (Galaxias olidius). All the time my eyes are darting around in search of obstructions, trip hazards and stunned fish, whilst the distracting possibility of some goose-bumped flesh (that being a curious resident) interrupts my concentration. 

We finish in an hour. I’m sure there’s a nudist about to appear out of thin air and surprise me, but no. No one. We hop in the car and we’re off. Paul rings the lady to let her know we’ve finished and that we’ll lock the gate behind us. “No, it’s okay, we’re okay, we don’t need a cup of tea, thanks for the offer.” He hangs up and we both look at each other. I imagine calling into their shack for a cup of tea. Is it polite to enter a nudist’s home with clothes on? Would we be asked to de-robe? Fortunately, we didn’t accept the offer; too busy, too many sites to complete, or something like that. 

As though we stole the ute, we burn out of the driveway and the ute fishtails as Paul presses exuberantly on the accelerator. 

The short-finned eel   ( Anguilla australis ) was one of the species observed during the survey.  Image: Edgar R. Waite,  Illustrated Catalogue of the Fishes of South Australia .

The short-finned eel (Anguilla australis) was one of the species observed during the survey. Image: Edgar R. Waite, Illustrated Catalogue of the Fishes of South Australia.

At the next site we are greeted by a driveway full of wood carvings. Paul curls the car around the back of the property and we park. He races to the back door to let the landowner know we’re here, while I stay and wait in the car. I look around the property. Above the ute, glaring at me like the Eye of Mordor, is a timber-carved eagle. Paul jumps in after a few minutes of me locking eyes with the angry wooden raptor. The GPS is fished out of the glovebox and it tells us where to head – that being some random direction where tracks have not been made and cars have never been. We park in the middle of a paddock on a slope that is asking the handbrake big questions. 

We bash our way through a mangled, gnarled, old and seemingly impenetrable tea-tree stand. With a few more scratches than we had before, we get to the stream and begin the electrofishing. After two hours of grunting, groaning and pushing through overgrown vegetation, we’re done and we head back to the car. It’s late in the day and I’m grateful that we're finished. My body aches with the climbing and vegetation bulldozing, and I look forward to a shower. When we have parked in front of the angry eagle, Paul goes inside again. The eagle glares at me. I shy away this time, unable to hold the staring competition. 

Paul’s back in. “Right,” he says, “one more site.” Eh?! Another surprise. We race off, trying to beat the setting sun, which is now just a sliver of light to the west, penetrating through the tree giants, leaving perpendicular orange slots along the road. 

The next site is accessed from a landowner’s home that sits on the ridge of a valley. We turn the headlights on and start the trip through the paddocks towards the creek. It’s darker than dusk but lighter than night. In this light, there’s no dodging the small mounds and gutters and the car heaves and bounces like an angry rodeo bull at each change in elevation, pushing us up and down against our seat belts. Eventually, battered, shaken and thankfully not stirred, we make it to the bottom. Under the moon, squinting in the hope of light, we finish the site. 

It’s late in the evening. I am back in my own car, starving, heading for home, smelling of fish and sweat and feeling a whole-body exhaustion, both mentally and physically. This has been the strangest day of my life as an aquatic ecologist. I will never forget it.


Cameron Amos is an aquatic ecologist of 17 years who currently works for a consultancy. When he's not chasing fish with an electrofisher, you may find him locking eyes with macroinvertebrates.


Banner image courtesy of Uzman Naleer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

More Wild Science

This year for National Science Week, the team at Wild Melbourne want to know how YOU feel about science and nature - why is science important to you when you explore the natural world and how has it changed your perspective? Whether it's chasing birds, growing plants, understanding ecology, or painting a landscape, science affects the way we perceive nature in so many ways. Today, more of the Wild Melbourne team share their thoughts on science and its relevance to their relationship with nature. If you haven't already seen our first Wild Science article, make sure you have a read here.

Ella Kelly - PhD Candidate // Wild Melbourne Writer

In Year 12, I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. On a visit to the University of Melbourne Open Day, we walked past the Zoology building and my dad suggested we check it out. Ten years later, I’ve completed my Bachelor, Master's, and am now working on my PhD in Science, all in that building (I really need to get out more). I work in conservation, which can be incredibly challenging – there’s a lot of sad stories out there – but I still have hope. I work on protecting predators threatened by the cane toad invasion. When the toads originally arrived, things looked grim; native predators were poisoned by them and populations disappeared fast. Now, we're seeing species adapt to the toads, and with the help of a bunch of very dedicated people and some really cool science, they have a good chance of survival.

Trish Koh - Master of Science Candidate // Wild Melbourne Social Media Volunteer

To me, science isn’t just about lab coats and counting species; it forms the backstory to everything in this world. When I was a kid, I wanted to find out everything about anything. Unfortunately, sometime during high school, I fell out of love of science and just wanted good marks. While studying a completely different university course, a chance encounter with a science communication lecturer re-ignited my passion for science. I want to make sure that everyone can still re-connect with science because we can appreciate everything a little more if we know the story behind it. That’s why I love making science accessible to everyone by summarising the latest science and nature news for the Wild Melbourne social media pages.

Master of Science candidate Trish Koh is passionate about making science accessible to everyone.  Image: Trish Koh

Master of Science candidate Trish Koh is passionate about making science accessible to everyone. Image: Trish Koh

Evatt Chirgwin - PhD Candidate // Wild Melbourne Writer

A friend once asked if I was pursuing a career in science because I like knowing things. She was surprised when I told her it was actually because of the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, I like knowing things; I’ve spent countless enjoyable hours learning facts and theories from books, journal articles, teachers, researchers, and friends. In more recent years, my own research into how natural populations adapt to environmental change has lead to results that I personally find extremely interesting and that I hope can aid broader conservation efforts. However, for me, science is at its most exciting when it gives me the feeling of curiosity upon encountering the things we don’t know or understand. Above all else, this feeling of curiosity – whether it arises from my research or simply observing critters at my local beach – is why I pursue work and a life in science.

Cathy Cavallo - PhD Candidate // Science Communicator // Wild Melbourne Social Media Manager

Growing up around science has helped me understand and question life as it goes on around me. I always want to learn more, and while this curiosity fuels investigation, every investigation triggers further curiosity. Seriously! Science is an endless, immersive cycle of discovery and intrigue that I find utterly captivating. Through science communication and engagement, I try to spark this curiosity in others. I am currently turning this curiosity towards understanding the foraging ecology of little penguins and how we might employ them to study change in the marine environment. By doing so, we may be better placed to protect our marine biodiversity in our changing environment. But science doesn’t have to be formal, hard or empirical. Wondering at the world about us is an exercise in science. I wish more people realised that.

Elodie Camprasse - Wild Melbourne Community Outreach & Events Manager

I have been passionate about marine life for as long as I can remember and was fortunate enough to learn diving as a kid. I was in awe immediately and felt very blessed to see incredible creatures that not a lot of people get to see: fishes, invertebrates, marine mammals... Later on, I became interested in seabirds. They were creatures I could very rarely see underwater. Nowadays, technology allows us to put tiny devices on seabirds and other animals, in order to track them. As they spend most of their time at sea, this is the only way we get to find out what they're doing in a meaningful way. With the devices I used on birds such as penguins during my PhD, I could know where my study individuals went, and even at which depths and in which places they were attempting to catch prey. We are now even able to deploy miniature cameras on the heads of marine creatures to know what they're up to. This is only one of the many ways science and technology help us understand our natural world in order to better protect it.

Elodie Camprasse developed a love for the ocean from a young age, and has been fortunate enough to see some amazing things during her PhD research.  Image: Elodie Camprasse

Elodie Camprasse developed a love for the ocean from a young age, and has been fortunate enough to see some amazing things during her PhD research. Image: Elodie Camprasse

Rachel Fetherston - Wild Melbourne Publications Manager

The collaboration of the arts and sciences has always been a part of my life. From reading and writing, to walking and snorkelling, without either school of thought it is safe to say my perspective of the world would be very different. Art informs science and science informs art, in more ways than one. Writing about how humans perceive nature, whether in a creative or simply informative way, is reliant on how I understand nature through science. And vice versa too - science can be dependent on art and creativity, and the process of simply writing down your ideas to stimulate the mind and encourage novelty is so important. The most vital perspectives that I believe science brings to a person’s view of the world are complexity and understanding. Nothing is what it seems, but I think that everything can be or will one day be understood. You don’t need to fear the unknown - instead embrace it, with the knowledge that science may one day reveal more about the world than we ever thought possible. If this is the case, we have no excuse not to protect the natural world when we so clearly know what is happening to it.

Tim Brown - Master of Science Candidate // Wild Melbourne Productions & Social Media

One of my favourite possessions as a child was this personalised mug. On it were three words beginning with T, I and M and my favourite Looney Tunes character - the Tasmanian Devil. While I didn’t care about the words at the time, I distinctly remember one of them was ‘inquisitive’. It seems this mug was a prophecy of sorts. My inquisitive nature has only blossomed as the years have passed, thanks largely to science. Science has helped me learn so much about the natural world around us. But science not only provides answers - it also teaches us what questions we need to ask. This has lead me to my current research on helping the recovery of a native wetland fish. While they're no Tasmanian devils, dwarf galaxias (my study species) can survive for months without surface water by hiding in yabby burrows or under stones.

Stephen McGain - Wild Melbourne Writer

From the earliest age I can remember, I have always explored the natural world and been fascinated by the complexity and diversity of the plants and animals that live all around us. I always wanted to know why certain animals looked a certain way or fed only on specific food types. More broadly, understanding science helped me to make sense of what I came into contact with in my everyday activities, and explained why some things behaved the way they did, whilst others behaved differently. Science is now more than just an interest to me. I see it as a way of the future - that is, the way new technologies will be integrated into modern society and how they will transform the way we know and live into the future. This, to me, is incredibly exciting.

Stephen McGain loves learning about the complexity and diversity of life on Earth through science.  Image: Stephen McGain

Stephen McGain loves learning about the complexity and diversity of life on Earth through science. Image: Stephen McGain


Let us know YOUR thoughts on science and nature by commenting below or - better yet - by sharing them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook using the hashtag #wildscience. We'd love to hear from you! 

 

                                                  

 

Wild Science

This year for National Science Week, the team at Wild Melbourne want to know how YOU feel about science and nature - why is science important to you when you explore the natural world and how has it changed your perspective? Whether it's chasing birds, growing plants, understanding ecology, or painting a landscape, science affects the way we perceive nature in so many ways. Today, some of the Wild Melbourne team share their thoughts on science and its relevance to their relationship with nature. 

Paul Jones – Educator // Wild Melbourne Writer

For me – and I’m sure I’m not alone – science isn’t a cabinet of facts to bring out and look at; it’s a toolbox, to reach out to the world and understand it in marvellous, complex clarity. The facts, discoveries, and inventions we make are the reward for our curiosity. My work has recently taken me into the biomedical sciences; the scientists I speak with are seeking to solve problems in cancer, disease, reproduction, and immunity, to improve the quality of life for some of our most vulnerable members of society. National Science Week is a wonderful way to remind people what their curiosity may lead to, both for humans and all the different living things we share our world with. It’s a passion and enthusiasm that we are born knowing, always asking one more question. And always the same ones – what? How? Why?

Alex Mullarky - Wild Melbourne Publications Sub-editor

My background is in arts, but what inspires me to write is the world around me. Science allows me to process what I see and experience and understand how it all fits together. The wonderful thing about working with an organisation like Wild Melbourne is the dedication to exploring and communicating scientific ideas in a way that anyone – even arts graduates! – can understand. One of my favourite things is meeting people who have dedicated themselves to studying some facet of how our world works, and using the skills I have to help them tell their stories. At home on the farm, it’s also important to me to turn to science to figure out the best ways to manage my domesticated animals in harmony with the native environment. 

On a recent expedition through the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria, writer Alex Mullarky used her talent for writing and knowledge of the natural world to educate others about local wildlife.  Image: Alex Mullarky

On a recent expedition through the Rhodope Mountains of Bulgaria, writer Alex Mullarky used her talent for writing and knowledge of the natural world to educate others about local wildlife. Image: Alex Mullarky

Sam Lemaitre - Wild Melbourne Community Outreach & Events Assistant

My passion for nature and the sciences of nature started young. I grew up watching David Attenborough’s documentaries and developed a strong curiosity for how animals function and interact with each other. Knowing wildlife is the first step to protecting it and science provides us with amazing tools to do so. I am now pursuing that passion by studying a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and I really enjoy learning about Australian wildlife and its amazing diversity!

Anne Aulsebrook - PhD Candidate // Wild Melbourne Admin & HR Manager

As a kid, I don’t think I understood what science was. I remember complaining as a twelve-year-old that science class had no relevance to my life. Hilariously, my friend replied, ‘Yeah, science is useless for me; I want to be a marine biologist!’ – so I clearly wasn’t alone. But within a few years, my perspective changed. I had always cared about the natural environment, and I liked learning how living things worked. When I was fifteen, I completed work experience at the Melbourne Aquarium, and also in a marine biology lab. I learnt that around 30% of sharks lay eggs, and that it is more sustainable to eat calamari than flake. I learnt that scientists can be young women who make up dance moves during their labwork. I ended up studying a Bachelor of Science at university, majoring in zoology and ecology. Now, I’m researching how streetlights affect birds, and hoping to help reduce the impacts of urbanisation on wildlife. 

Rowan Mott - Ecologist at Monash University // Wild Melbourne Writer

I catch birds for science. When I release them a few minutes later, there is a high likelihood that each bird will be wearing a uniquely numbered metal leg band, be carrying a GPS tracking device, and may be missing a couple of small feathers or a drop or two of blood. Although this is highly stressful for the unlucky birds that I catch, this one short moment of stress can tell us a vast amount of information about the movements of the bird, its diet, and its general state of health – all of which is important for discovering how the species interacts with its environment and the threats it may be facing.

Ecologist Rowan Mott catches birds for science, learning how we can better protect species in the process.  Image: Rowan Mott

Ecologist Rowan Mott catches birds for science, learning how we can better protect species in the process. Image: Rowan Mott

 

Ellie Michaelides - Head Mediator at Science Gallery Melbourne // Wild Melbourne Communications & PR Manager

I studied zoology for five years at university, but at the end of my degrees I decided that I liked talking to people about science more than doing research in the lab or out in the field. Communicating science in a way that is clear and concise, but also relevant and interesting, is crucial to helping people see why it is so incredibly important in almost every aspect of our lives. I love science because it provides an explanation or an answer for almost anything you can think of, from curing disease outbreaks and saving endangered species, to making cars safer and crops more efficient.

Leonardo Guida - Wild Melbourne Community Operations Director

The ocean is my place for reflection. Looking across the vast blue and breathing in the salt air energises my body, mind, and soul. Through my PhD research, I was privileged to have the opportunity to develop a more intimate relationship with the ocean. I learnt about our relationships with sharks and rays and how our actions through fishing affect their populations. Whether dreaming from the shoreline or from under the waves, the ocean brings me peace.

Leonardo Guida believes that science has brought him closer to the marine life with which we share the oceans.  Image: Leonardo Guida

Leonardo Guida believes that science has brought him closer to the marine life with which we share the oceans. Image: Leonardo Guida

Sarah Bond - Wild Melbourne Education Manager

Whenever I look around at the plants where I work, I am always struck by the diversity of the different species. All plants have the same constraints, the same needs, the same goals, and yet they have developed so many different ways of doing the same thing. Science has helped me to understand this, as well as taught me the skills of interpreting and identifying plants. I think of this every time I’m learning about a new (to me) plant species or comparing the different features of plants from the same family that are vastly different. Nature is incredible and continues to inspire me every day. 


Let us know YOUR thoughts on science and nature by commenting below or - better yet - by sharing them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook using the hashtag #wildscience. We'd love to hear from you! 

 

 

Be The Scientist You Always Wanted To Be

As a child, did you ever dream of becoming a famous scientist, but ‘life’ just seemed to get in the way? Or maybe you discovered your love of science later in life and thought it was too late to restart your career? Or even still, maybe you finished a degree but never found a job in the industry, but still yearn to pursue your love of discovering and exploring the intricacies of the natural world? 

When talking to people about their current jobs, I often hear the list of barriers, which at the time seemed too great for them to overcome. In actual fact, though, many wished that they had persevered. I simply respond with, “Well, it’s not too late.” They usually give a surprised look and provide me with a mixture of responses equating to: “It’s too late in life to pursue my interest in science, but even if I did drop everything, how on earth would I be able to get into it now? I mean, I can’t afford to go back to university full-time and the current concepts aren’t exactly fresh in my mind anymore.”

Albert Einstein is often considered the face of modern Western science, yet more and more organisations are now encouraging the public, and not just academics, to get involved in research.  Image: RMY Auctions

Albert Einstein is often considered the face of modern Western science, yet more and more organisations are now encouraging the public, and not just academics, to get involved in research. Image: RMY Auctions

This is when I get to tell them the good news. Citizen science is alive and kicking in just about every scientific field imaginable. It's also in need of people just like yourselves! That’s right - the chance to fulfill that childhood dream without even having to make a career change is far more achievable than ever before.

Citizen science is the movement in which members of the public partner with scientists to answer real-world problems. Around the globe, citizen science is growing exponentially and contributing important data to a host of different projects with real and significant outcomes. For example, citizen scientists have contributed to transcribing old ship logbooks to digitise the data, monitoring bird populations for eBird, playing computer games that may help scientists learn more about retinal neurons, collecting water samples to help estimate the health of river and estuary systems for a group called Estuary Watch Victoria, and even participate in the search for the next exoplanet (a planet which orbits a star outside the solar system and may have life) by measuring the brightness of a star using images taken by LCOGT’s telescopes.

More recently, an emerging branch of citizen science includes Australian projects that utilise smartphone and tablet technology to help identify populations of different animal and plant species. There are more than 1,100 active and searchable global citizen science projects listed on SciStarter, all of which are waiting for volunteers like you and me to sign up.

What will you discover as a citizen scientist?  Image: Natural History Museum, UK

What will you discover as a citizen scientist? Image: Natural History Museum, UK

Closer to home, I interviewed Andrew Gray, a co-founder of BioQuisitive, a citizen science project with big plans right in the heart of Melbourne. In a nutshell, BioQuisitive is located in Brunswick and is an open community laboratory that provides a safe environment for people from all walks of life to come and learn about biology and life sciences, and get involved in workshops, classes and projects.

Gray’s journey began just like most of ours. He had a passion and imagination for science but didn’t have a place to express it. It wasn’t until he was asked to start up an enterprise through the Global Challenges Science Program at Monash University that he began to explore the possibilities. While always being a fan of hackerspaces (essentially a shared resource in which a group of members all passionate about a similar field can collaborate), he realised there was no shared science space available. The only similar space in Australia was in Sydney, founded by none other than Meow-Ludo Meow Meow, the director of Biohacker Space BioFoundry. Gray met with Meow Meow and was shown what was possible by being introduced to his network and laboratories. At that moment, the possibility of creating a similar but unique space became a reality.

A little way down the track and after countless hours of hard work and persistence, BioQuisitive is now a thriving haven for citizen scientists from a diverse range of backgrounds. As Gray explains, “… we're breaking the mould here in a country where a paradigm exists in how people partake, who will partake, and where they will partake in science. Just yesterday I had a member of the public, with little to no scientific background, learning and conducting molecular biological experiments by transforming bacteria to do new things.”

BioQuisitive is an open community laboratory that provides a safe environment for people to get involved in workshops, classes and projects.  Image: Eddie Jim / The Age

BioQuisitive is an open community laboratory that provides a safe environment for people to get involved in workshops, classes and projects. Image: Eddie Jim / The Age

While I expected the projects of a new, start-up citizen science movement to have the bare bones in regards to resources and the calibre of projects being undertaken, I was remarkably amazed to discover the opposite was true.

“Members are working on a variety of projects. Bio-printers, isolating and harnessing the power of plastic eating bacteria, using CRISPR to knock out various metabolic pathways in yeast, Microbial Fuel Cells, and renewable energy projects,” Gray explains. “Previously we have even worked on projects in collaboration with Cornell University and MIT media lab.”

Asked about what BioQuisitive hopes to become in the future, Gray says, “Our community is comprised of people from all walks of life. We have scientists in research and academia, artists, musicians, brewers, accountants, economists, lawyers and many more contributing to make this work as a team. It's unreal to me, and I'm still finishing my undergraduate degree, but I feel like this is how science should be practiced.”

While BioQuisitive may not be for everyone, it is one fantastic example of how getting involved in citizen science has never been so achievable. Right now, there are literally thousands of opportunities to be the scientist you always wanted to be.

For more information on BioQuisitive, don’t hesitate to get in touch via info@bioquisitive.org.au or http://www.bioquisitive.org.au/


Stephen McGain

Stephen studied a Bachelor and Master of Science at the University of Melbourne. His Masters involved investigating the impacts that dredging and climate change might have on the important seagrass habitats that exist in Port Phillip Bay. He is currently studying a Diploma in Conservation Land Management in the hope to further contribute his knowledge and skills to the local community.


Banner image courtesy of Ollie Toth.