They paved paradise and put up a parking lot!

The title comes from the song “Big Yellow Taxi” first sung by Joni Mitchell in 1970, and variously recorded by many others since. The song has a strong environmental message and amongst other things effectively was a comment on urbanization (albeit originally written about Hawaii). Ok, this song was written 45 years ago, what does it mean now? The reality is, as human populations continue to grow, urbanized areas are expanding at a rapid rate and becoming a dominant land-use in many areas.

Does it matter? Certainly, biodiversity is impacted by intensification of urbanization as native vegetation is removed and replaced with houses, roads and paths (generally referred to as impervious surfaces). Much of the remaining area is converted to managed grass (lawns) and gardens often dominated by plant species exotic to the area. Many native species demonstrate strong negative responses to impervious surfaces and lawns.  Effectively these new ‘habitats’ do not provide the resources many native species need, and as such we see significant contractions in the number of species found in cities.

How bad is the situation? I provide the image above of Melbourne (Melbourne is towards the centre of the left hand side). The image is generated from satellites and then classified based on spectral reflectance. Ultimately, we can simplify the city down to impervious surfaces, grass (both lawns and agriculture), tree cover and a couple of categories of water.  Using this approach it becomes clear that the city centre and much of the suburban area of Melbourne are now dominated by impervious surfaces and lawns with most of the tree cover removed. More worryingly, Melbourne is expanding and more areas are being converted to urban areas. Cities all around the World exhibit similar characteristics, and are having significant detrimental impacts on biodiversity. Interestingly, there is also strong evidence that the reduced interaction of people with nature that occurs in modern cities is impacting negatively on peoples mental and physical health.

Melbourne from Space

One of the biggest challenges of the future is going to be around how we make our urban areas less hostile to nature. This is going to require governments, planners and other groups of great vision to re-imagine how cities are designed and how they cater for more people. Continually expanding our cities can not be a sustainable strategy, yet on face value it may be the easiest political solution.  It will be interesting to observe if things change. Maybe in 45 years we will have a song that refers to “ripping up the car park and putting in an urban woodland”. Then again, maybe I am just dreaming 🙂

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Why Borneo?

bronze back tree snake

Ok, this post is from a more personal point of view. I am one of the group that teaches the Wildlife and Conservation Biology degree at Deakin Uni. I am often asked why you got into what you did, what inspired you, and why on do take students to Borneo?

So here goes, I am going to try and explain why 🙂 In a strange way they are all interlinked.  As a kid I just loved animals, I found them fascinating and was amazed by the diversity of them. Naturally I was told you need to be a vet. In reality this was the only obvious career path, from my parents perspective, that involved animals. So as a kid I spent my holidays working with the local vet, only to discover it was not for me.  I will say it was devastating when I made this discovery.  What was I going to do with my life?

It was not till some time later I was siting watching a National Geographic documentary on Borneo that I realised I actually wanted to work with wild animals. For many years I lived on a diet of National Geographic, David Attenborough and other documentaries and at school I immersed myself in biology. The strange thing about this all was this obsessive fascination with Borneo and tropical jungles.

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I went to uni got a biology degree, then did a PhD in pest ecology working with rats. It was not until I got a job at Deakin teaching wildlife conservation that I suddenly had the opportunity to start working with wild animals. In more recent years I have been able to go to the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra. I was not disappointed, they are amazing. I now take a group of Deakin enviro students to Borneo each year as part of one of our undergraduate units (SLE353).

There was one night a couple of years back when we were in Borneo doing field surveys with the Universiti Malaysia (Sarawak) that will stick with me forever. We were on the top of a hill called Bung Bratak, which is part of the traditional lands of the Bidayuh people of Borneo.  We were helping to document species on Bung Bratak whilst living with a number of the Bidayuh people.  One night we were out doing frog surveys. It was raining lots, it was dark and I was standing knee deep in water with one of the Deakin enviro students.  We were both soaked to the skin and had been out doing surveys for hours.  I remember turning to her and saying “Isn’t this amazing! We are standing in a swamp in Borneo catching frogs. I have dreamed of this all my life.”  She was as excited as me, and I think both of us realised how privileged we were to be able to spend time in a Global Biodiversity hotspot.

lantern bug

It is a strange thing to think about how you end up where you are. From a passion for wildlife to standing in a swamp in Borneo catching frogs was a long trip. Now I get the joy of teaching students about wildlife, hopefully helping to foster their excitement as well.  My main message to you all is follow your passion what ever it is.

As  a footnote, a big thank you to National Geographic and David Attenborough for providing a good dose of science and inspiration.

Amazing animals: Wallace’s Flying Frog

wallace 2 wallace

Most animals really are amazing in their own right. They are a product of evolution and each has its own remarkable aspects.  But sometimes we see animals that have gone out on an extreme. One such ability is the capacity to fly, or at least glide, for non avian (AKA birds) species. In terrestrial species gliding is utilized as a way of moving around forest ecosystems, and can be observed in a few mammals, some reptiles and also amphibians.

It kind of makes sense that gliding would evolve as a movement strategy in some animals living in tall forest ecosystems, particularly if the tree canopies are not always connected. It is probably much easier to get up high and glide to the next tree rather than walk all the way down the tree and then amble along the ground to the next tree (Assuming you have the capacity to do so).  Evolution is a funny thing, but often leads to interesting solutions to common problems, albeit over extremely long periods of time. Keep in mind that gliding as an end point was probably not the driver for evolution of particular characteristics, but a consequence resulting from some other adaptation (e.g. webbed feet for swimming).

One such species which we encountered last year whilst in Borneo on our study tour for SLE353 was Wallace’s flying frog (Rhacophorus nigropalmatus). This species is named after its discoverer Alfred Russel Wallace the famous 19th century biologist who spent considerable time in Borneo and south east Asia investigating ideas around what drives species distributions and how species evolve. Wallace and Darwin actually came to similar conclusions around the ideas of evolution and co-authored a paper on the topic. Unfortunately for Wallace, history shows the fame went to Darwin, but the work of Wallace is still influential in describing global species distributions and patterns. You have to feel sorry for Wallace, in a different World we may have been talking about Wallacean evolution!

So, back to our amazing animal! Wallace’s flying frog is a large frog and is distributed in Borneo and peninsula Malaysia. Whilst its common name would suggest it is capable of flying, in reality, it glides by spreading the membranes out between the toes on all four feet (see pictures above). By spreading all legs out it is able to glide between trees or from the canopy down to water holes for breeding. Another name for the species is a parachute frog which probably is more realistic of their flying capabilities. Not only is it an interesting frog because it can glide, it is a very lovely looking frog which seemed happy enough to pose for photos for us.

Grampians Fire, Climate and Biodiversity research highlighted in new Wild Melbourne Science Short

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A few weeks back, while we were in the Grampians for our undergraduate field program, the team from Wild Melbourne came and visited us for a couple of days. They were out to film for their upcoming documentary on environmental issues in Victoria. As such they spent time talking with me and PhD student Susannah Hale about our long-term fire, climate and biodiversity research in the Grampians.

It was a really good Science Communication exercise having to discuss research concepts and outcomes in a way that has relevance to a broad sector of society. As part of the exercise the Wild Melbourne team have produced a Science Short about the research. You can check it out here https://youtu.be/qpo8S6HHAd8

So who is Wild Melbourne? They are a non-profit organisation dedicated to the protection of our environment and to teaching people the importance and majesty of native species and landscapes. From Port Phillip Bay to the high country, Wild Melbourne focuses on the nature around our city. If you are into nature and the wonders of Victoria I encourage you to get on board with Wild Melbourne for the amazing ride they are taking people on.

Their website is at http://wildmelbourne.org/

Like them on FaceBook at https://www.facebook.com/WildMelbourne

Follow them on Twitter https://twitter.com/WildMelbourne

If you want to stay up to date on what is happening in our Grampians research check out https://twitter.com/Wild_Gramps

Small mammals, fire and climate: Join our long-term Grampians research team for your honours.

trap in burn AA krisitin pygmy poss Heath mouse psuedomys shortridgeii

How will our southern Australian ecosystems respond to climate change? How will small mammals cope under hyper-variable rainfall conditions and increased fire activity? Do these questions sound like you? Read on 🙂

My team has been conducting critically important long-term ecological research in the Grampians landscape of Victoria, Australia, since 2008. The only way we can really understand how systems will respond to changes in climate is to conduct long-term research under variable climatic conditions, and this is one of the few long-term small mammal research projects in southern Australia.

In 2016, we have two honours research projects for the right students. Come and be a significant part of the Nancy Millis Science in Parks Award winning team (2015), and learn great field and research skills along the way.

If you are interested in either of these projects (see below), please contact me on john.white@deakin.edu.au. It would be useful to have a small resume indicating your skills and expertise and marks in your undergraduate degree.  The honours information for our school is available here

The Grampians landscape and our long-term small mammal monitoring sites

The Grampians landscape and our long-term small mammal monitoring sites.

Project 1: How do small mammals respond to climate, fire and vegetation productivity? The Grampians long-term climate, fire and small mammal diversity project.

 Principal Supervisor: Associate Professor John White

Principal Supervisor contact details: john.white@deakin.edu.au

Associate Supervisors: Dr Raylene Cooke raylene.cooke@deakin.edu.au

Start date: February 2016

Project description:

This is an extremely exciting opportunity to be part of a long-term ecological research program in Victoria. Long-term data sets are extremely rare, but the value of such data for investigating aspects such as fire and climate change are unsurpassed, and the experience you would gain on such a project are enormous.

In early 2006 the Grampians suffered an extreme fire event where almost 50% of the Grampians landscape was burnt in a high intensity landscape-scale fire. In 2008, Parks Victoria and Deakin University established 36 long-term small mammal monitoring sites to investigate the recovery of wildlife after major fire events. These sites have been monitored for the last eight years by different honours students.

In 2013, a 35,000ha wildfire affected the Grampians, and again in 2014 a 55,000ha burnt much of the remaining unburnt vegetation. Over 90% of the Grampians landscape is now less than 10 years post-burn.

Since 2012 we have also genetically sampled every small mammal that is captured with the aim of eventually investigating the landscape genetics of populations in response to fire and climate conditions.

As part of your honours project, you will collect the 2016 small mammal data in the field, and analyze the long-term trends in small mammals (9 years of data). The project aims to understand

  1. the rate of recovery of mammals in response to time since fire,
  2. the relative role of rainfall in modifying the rate and intensity of recovery, and
  3. the influence of vegetation productivity (previously developed from satellite imagery) on the rate and intensity of recovery.

Requirements: A manual drivers license, and experience driving a manual vehicle (Our 4WD fleet are manual). A willingness to do a 4WD training course and a first aid certificate as part of your honours (Costs will be covered as part of your honours by Deakin University, and will provide an additional boost to your resume).

A commitment to spending as much as 9 weeks in the field in an intense 3 month period. An ability to work in a team environment with other students and Parks Victoria rangers. Desirable: Experience in trapping and handling small mammals.

The Wannon fan in the southern Grampians.  Dots are the proposed camera grid, against a background of NDVI.  NDVI is a measure of vegetation productivity and relates to soil moisture.

The Wannon fan in the southern Grampians. Dots are the proposed camera grid, against a background of NDVI.  NDVI is a measure of vegetation productivity and relates to soil moisture.

 

Project #2: Using camera traps to investigate the small scale impacts of winter fuel reduction burns in extremely long unburnt heath ecosystems.

Principal Supervisor: Associate Professor John White

Principal Supervisor contact details: john.white@deakin.edu.au 9251 7625

Associate Supervisors: Dr Raylene Cooke

Start date: February 2016

Project description:

This project aims to investigate how small mammals utilize a patchy mosaic of burnt and unburnt heath in the Wannon fan in the southern Grampians. Using camera trapping we will be sampling mammals at 150 fixed points that have been established across the Wannon fan area. Each camera is located in the middle of a 4ha grid cell, with the total grid covering an area of 600ha. The area has been subjected to experimental winter burns to try to reduce the risk of large high intensity wildfires. In this research we aim to establish what small mammal species use the Wannon heaths and how they respond to different vegetation and fire recovery conditions. This project will be critical in establishing a long-term fine scale monitoring approach to fire management actions.

This information is critical to informing how heath based systems can be burnt at lower intensities under variable climatic conditions. This is an exciting project with considerable real World application.

Requirements: A manual drivers license, and experience driving a manual vehicle. A willingness to do a 4WD training course and a first aid certificate as part of your honours (Costs will be covered as part of your honours by Deakin University).

A commitment to spending as much as 9 weeks in the field in an intense 3 month period. An ability to work in a team environment with other students and Parks Victoria rangers.

Desirable: Some experience with GIS (i.e an undergraduate GIS unit). Previous experience with camera traps.

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.