I’m still standing; surviving (academic) rejection

I recently completed my Masters of Research (MRes) at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. The MRes is a two year program consisting of one year of coursework and a one year research project. I had always received good marks in my undergraduate degree and really excelled in the first year of my research masters. My research year was tough at times and while I had some periods of doubt surrounding my research, deep down I never really considered that I wouldn’t excel in my degree. But I was in for a huge blow and over the past couple of months I have had my first real taste of academic rejection. I received some pretty critical feedback from an examiner, my first journal submission was rejected and I was unsuccessful in applying for a couple of grants. It really has been the first time in my studies that I haven’t felt like I was nailing it.

I’d like to say that I had the immediate ability and maturity to rise above, but it was truly deflating. It was tough and I found myself doubting not only the research I had undertaken so far, but my ability to actually continue as a researcher.

But following a few days of self-loathing, and inspiring conversations with peers and family, I pulled myself together. I repeated the mantra that got me through the last months of my masters (thanks to @cfawarren ), “I must remember that the quality of my data is by no means a reflection of me as a person”. I then came to terms with the fact that this certainly won’t be the last time I face rejection or receive criticism about my work and it is the reality of being a researcher. Feedback (positive, negative or constructive) from examiners and reviewers can only make you a better researcher, scientist and in the long run, a better teacher – a sentiment summed up well in Judy Robertson’s blog.

Coincidentally, I attended a networking event for Early Career Researchers (ECRs) at Macquarie University last week where Professor Lesley Hughes interviewed the very inspirational Debbie Haski-Leventhal (@DebbieHaski) about her journey and experiences as an early career researcher. Listening to some of the rejection she faced throughout her career and the strength she has formed was inspirational. She pointed out that as researchers we probably face more rejection than any other field (apart from, perhaps, actors). While this doesn’t necessarily make the rejection any easier, it’s important to remember that these experiences are shared across researchers and we all have to be resilient.

The reality is, securing grants and publishing papers isn’t easy (nor should it be) and persistence really is the key (read this blog post by Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson for another excellent summary on academic rejection). However, as Dr Fletcher-Watson points out, as much as persistence is important, so is our enthusiasm, confidence and most importantly our science.

I have no doubt that the outcome of the last couple of months has been a positive one for me. It has made me want to be a better scientist and do great research – and that makes me excited! I have submitted my paper to another journal and received my official offer for a PhD. Right now I’m feeling mature and positive…. The challenge will be how I deal with the next round of rejection.

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Drought, deluge and elevated CO2 – A large-scale approach to understanding climate change

Predictions for future climate are varied, however, what is certain is that we will see changes to both temperature and precipitation regimes across the globe. While the impacts of temperature are widely assessed, it is not as common to see experiments that assess changes to precipitation. It could be that future precipitation is harder to estimate, or maybe because manipulative experiments are more difficult. Experiments that look at all projected aspects of climate change are important and Associate Professor Sally Power, an ecosystems ecologist with Hawkesbury Institutes, has been doing some fantastic work across a range of ecosystems. Baker visited Macquarie University this month to provide an overview of three key projects that she has been lucky to be a part of.

Professor Power is originally from the UK and she completed her undergraduate, post graduate and PhD at the Imperial College of London. Following 5 years of research in the UK she moved to Melbourne for work. It was an exciting job opportunity from the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment (HIE) that bought her to Sydney as deputy theme leader for the Ecosystem Function & Integration research theme. Her research broadly focuses on the impacts of atmospheric pollution and climate change on the structure and functioning of terrestrial ecosystems. No stranger to recognition, Power has been awarded a number of awards in the last 10 years, she was a Council member of the British Ecological Society from 2004 – 2007 and is currently a Steering Committee member for the Ecological Continuity Trust and the Committee on Air Pollution Effects Research.

Figure 1: DIRECT experiment (Source: Imperial College London)

Figure 1: DIRECT experiment (Source: Imperial College London)

While at the Imperial College in London, Power worked on an experiment called DIRECT (Diversity, Rainfall and Elemental Cycling in a Terrestrial Ecosystem). Rainfall predictions for the UK are a 30% reduction in summertime rainfall and a 15% increase in winter rainfall by 2100. The DIRECT experiment sought to understand the effects of rainfall change on the function of a grassland ecosystem and how having a diverse range of plant traits (grasses, perennials and annuals) buffered these changes. Surprisingly, having a diversity of plant traits did not make a difference to ecosystem processes. Rather, it was the abundance of perennial species which provided better resistance through deeper rooting systems and nutrient uptake processes  (Fry et al. 2013). While future studies should include factors such as temperature and CO2, this research is key in providing useful strategies for future management of grassland ecosystems.

More recently, Professor Power has been involved in experiments a little closer to home, working on rainfall experiments in Sydney. Best estimate models predict an overall reduction in annual rainfall from 20-30% and Power has been working to understand these impacts. The DRI-Grass experiment (Drought and Root herbivore Interaction in a Grassland ecosystem) is a study, which not only looks at changes to rainfall, but it also looks to understand the impacts on root herbivores.  The numbers of root herbivores underground can exceed mammals grazing aboveground and so grasslands can be particularly susceptible to changes in the underground abundance herbivores (Johnson et al. 2014). Power explained that root herbivores are susceptible to changes in rainfall and so there is potential for substantial influence to the ecosystem. The experiment started in June last year and beetles were only added to the plots this year so outcomes from this study so far are minimal. Similar studies which have assessed temperature and CO2 have found significant impacts (Johnson et al. 2014, Tariq et al. 2013) and so it will be interesting to see the findings from the DRI-Grass experiment.

Some of the most exciting work at HIE is an experiment called EucFACE (Eucalyptus Free Air CO2). EucFACE is Australia’s largest climate change research experiment based in the Cumberland Plain woodland in Sydney’s Hawkesbury district. It is a unique experiment that allows the simulation of future projections of atmospheric CO2 in large outdoor plots (figure 2), and the first of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.

Figure 3: The EucFACE experiment site in the Cumberland Plains Woodland (Source:www.thinkoholic.com)

Figure 2: The EucFACE experiment site in the Cumberland Plains Woodland (Source:www.thinkoholic.com)

The rings are an impressive 28m high x 25m wide and it provides a CO2 at mid-century estimates of 550ppm. Results are limited so far but one of the most interesting observations to date is the increase in phosphate availability. In fact, as soon as the CO2 was turned on there was an increase in soil phosphate. The reasons for this are not known yet but Power certainly finds it intriguing. Power has some ideas, which include soil respiration rates or increased root biomass but whatever the driver, it certainly provides an interesting topic for future research.

The work that Power has been involved is not only impressive with regards to size and scale but what it aims to understand. We have not previously been able to look at climate change impacts on large scale communities and given the technology available we can start to look increased CO2 coupled with temperature and rainfall. Multifaceted experiments on a large scale are what we need if we are to get a thorough understanding of how our ecosystems will manage and adapt in the future.

References:

Fry E.L., Manning P., Allen D.G.P., Hurst A., Everwand G., Rimmler M. & Power S.A. 2013. Plant Functional Group Composition Modifies the Effects of Precipitation Change on Grassland Ecosystem Function. PLoS ONE 8(2):e57027

Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment (2014) EucFACE. Accessed 20 May 2014. http://www.uws.edu.au/hie/facilities/face

Johnson, S. N., Lopaticki, G., & Hartley, S. E. (2014). Elevated Atmospheric CO2 Triggers Compensatory Feeding by Root Herbivores on a C3 but Not a C4 Grass. PloS one, 9(3), e90251.

Tariq M., Wright D.J., Bruce T.J.A. & Staley J.T. 2013. Drought and Root Herbivory Interact to Alter the Response of Above-Ground Parasitoids to Aphid Infested Plants and Associated Plant Volatile Signals. PLoS ONE 8(7): e69013

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Predicting Climate Change in the Pacific Region – Are climate models working?

Small islands in the Pacific and East Timor are facing serious challenges from future climate change, in fact the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified these small island states as being the most vulnerable countries of the world to the adverse effects of climate change (PCCS 2013) (figure 1). Climate change will impact on a range of sectors in the Pacific region including fisheries, agriculture and tourism. While there is no shortage of awareness around the issue, the understanding and ability for communities to respond and adapt to this change is currently limited. To better understand the effects and assist with adaption planning, a three-year program, the Pacific-Australia Climate Change Science and Adaption Planning (PACCSAP), was implemented in 2009 (Department of the Environment 2014).

Pacific Islands picture

Figure 1: The Pacific Islands identified as some of the most vulnerable and part of the 3-year PACCSAP program (Source: http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/pacific)

Dr Jaclyn Brown, an ocean and climate research scientist with the Centre for Australian Weather and Climate Research at the CSIRO specialises in all things related to the Tropical Pacific Ocean and is presently part of the PACCSAP program. She is working to improve the understanding of climate change and its long-term impacts for the Pacific Islands.  Dr Brown spoke at the Climate Change Research Centre, University of New South Wales (UNSW) in May. Dr Brown explained that one of the key issues in predicting what will take place in the Pacific is that we do not have accurate estimations or predictions due to short fallings of current climate models. Traditional models provide reasonable estimates, however, Brown believes that we need much more than this if we are to provide meaningful information to this region.

p_2_Pacific-Map

Figure 2: Location of the Western Pacific Warm Pool – a key driver of ENSO (Source: http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/enso)

The key area to understand when predicting future climate in the region is the Western Pacific Warm Pool edge. Brown explained that this is important, as it is the engine of the climate system and key in the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO). The equatorial Pacific is characterised by warm, fresh water in the west, and cooler, saltier water in the central and eastern part of the basin. The area between the two water masses is referred to as the edge of the Western Pacific Warm Pool (figure 2). The location of this pool edge and its movement from east to west is what drives ENSO and the fundamental changes to global climates on a decadal scale (Brown et al. 2013). To understand how well a model can predict future change, then we must understand how these models behave with historical climate data (Grouse et al. 2013).  The most up to date models used have been developed as part of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP), a global project that has been working to provide a framework for climate models since 2008. The project is currently in its fifth phase and so the current models are aptly named CMIP5 (CMIP 2013).

Without going into the mechanics of climate modelling, a process that would make most of our heads spin, there are some underlying factors that drive these models. Many scientists have used the 28-degree isotherm (line of equal temperature) to define the edge of the warm pool. Given the complexities of our ocean basins, however, there are a range of other factors which could also be used to define this warm pool edge including salinity gradients, convergence of ocean currents and barrier layers to name a few. The problem faced by modellers is that there is not one sole factor that appears to be able to detect the edge of the warm pool and this presents some issues when we are trying to use these models to predict what will happen in the future. So do the most recent CMIP5 models accurately simulate the western tropical Pacific? Grouse et al. (2013) and Brown et al. (2013) suggest that while there are certainly improvements there are still a number of limitations and bias in these models. Brown explained that while these recent models provide greater resolution they report between 1 – 3 degree increase in temperature. While the 2 degrees difference in estimates does not seem like a lot Brown suggests that this difference in predictions does matter, especially for the effects of ENSO and therefore the future of the Pacific islands. The benefits will be remarkable if this fine level of resolution can be achieved in climate models.

While models continue to improve, further research and improvements must be made to understand the Dynamic Warm Pool edge and how this will move in the future if we are to accurately predict changes in this region. Updated models need to combine the complexities of the system if accurate information is to be provided.  It is exciting work, which will allow us to make accurate predictions for the Pacific region and help us understand what measures need to be taken to ensure that this region can adapt to a changing climate.

References

Brown J.N, Langlais C. & Maes C. (2013) Zonal structure and variability of the Western Pacific dynamic pool edge in CMIP5, Climate Dynamics, 1-16

CMIP5 Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (2013). CMIP5 – Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 – Overview. Accessed 15 May 2014. http://cmip-pcmdi.llnl.gov/

Department of Environment (2014) Pacific-Australia Climate Change Science and Adaption Planning Program. Accessed 27 April 2014. http://www.climatechange.gov.au/climate-change/grants/pacific-australia-climate-change-science-and-adaptation-planning-program

Grose M. R., Brown J. N., Narsey S., Brown J. R., Murphy B. F., Langlais C., Gupta A.S., Moise A.F & Irving D. B. (2014). Assessment of the CMIP5 global climate model simulations of the western tropical Pacific climate system and comparison to CMIP3. International Journal of Climatology.

Pacific Climate Change Science (2013) Future climate of the Pacific. Accessed 26 April 2014. http://www.pacificclimatechangescience.org/research-activities/future-climate-of-the-pacific

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Science communication in the Australian media – How do we do it better?

headlines

Climate change reporting in Australia is disproportionately negative. (source: abc.net.au)

It is an interesting era in which to be a scientist. For the first time in almost a century the federal government has not got a science portfolio and so Australia do not have a federal minister for science. We are faced regularly with doubt and delusion with regards to the reality of future climate change and unfortunately, a large proportion of climate deniers are widespread reporting in mainstream media. Given we are a developed and relatively well-educated nation the question is why is science so negatively reported? So this blog is not a biological science post, rather it is a post that focuses on the importance of science communication in an era when science must be heard. I think this is an important topic, especially as a large part of this blog has been to learn to effectively communicate science to all audiences. Trying to understand why Australia does not hold science and its findings as an important part of our development is important. Even more of an imperative is understanding what we can do to improve this.

The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (ACIJ) held a public lecture and expert panel on the media’s treatment of climate change and climate science earlier this year. The fantastic panel included Wendy Bacon, professional Fellow with ACIJ; Professor Peter Ralph, Director of the Plant Functional Biology and Climate Change Cluster in UTS; Robyn Williams, ABC Radio National’s The Science Show and Will Steffan, Councilor with the Climate Council of Australia and researcher at Australian National University. The panel looked at the current state of science reporting, the potential reasons for this state of affairs and what the science community need to do to improve this.

Some mind boggling statistics were provided by Wendy Bacon about the state of science reporting in Australia, which were reported by ACIJ (2013). In the Northern Territory for example, only one science report every 5 weeks is printed, The Herald Sun rejects the findings of climate science in 97% of its science reports and the Australian generally reports climate scepticism. More disturbing is that the discourse of Andrew Bolt, one of the most prolific journalists and climate skeptics in Australia, seems to be forming national opinion when it comes to climate science, more than any scientist or academic. Bacon added further insult to injury with the statistic that, ‘Australia ranks at the top of per capita emission in the world, but we also have the highest concentrations of media scepticism or denialism in the world.’ It is a rather depressing thought that as a developed and educated nation, our mainstream media continue to reject the findings of the scientific community. Will Stefan suggests that the current scepticism is analogous to what was seen in the US with the battles to ban smoking advertising and the pseudoscience around the benefits of smoking.

So the question is what can the science community do? Well Robyn Williams suggests that scientists just aren’t very good at the four-word statements such as “climate change is a myth”. Journalists are trained communicators who learn to get their messages out as quickly and as catchy as possible. Scientists on the other hand have been trained to provide extensive background, reasoning and explanation for their work. We have huge messages and usually don’t have any communication training and background. Unfortunately it is the hard-hitting statements by well trained journalists, rather than the extensive research that sticks with the broader community. Dr Ralph suggests that not only can science report be disengaging, but also be depressing and leave people feeling powerless. We need to be clever, explained Ralph, we need to engage the broader public through platforms such as Crowdsourcing where we get the broader population involved in scientific observation. Coincidentally, a report on this was published only this month in the Sydney Morning Herald (Jonas 2013). These sort of platforms not only get people engaged with science but also obtain a vast amount of data.

Perhaps as scientists the days of long winded academic reports written for other scientists are coming to an end. Perhaps a hero of mine, Tim Minchin, is right when he says that ‘the arts and sciences need to work better to communicate science’. The impacts of a changing world will impact everyone, and ensuring that everyone is engaged in this changing world is vital. Science should not be an exclusive field but rather something that includes us all, something where we all believe we can make a difference. Communicating science should not be something that someone else does, learning to involve, engage and communicate science to all levels will be key if we want to see a change in the current discourse. Maybe then we will see a change in media reporting.

References

Bacon. W (2013) Sceptical Climate Part 2: Climate Science in Australian Newspapers Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, University of Technology Sydney.

Jonas. G (2014) The rise of the citizen scientists. Sydney Morning Herald, Accessed 18 May. http://www.smh.com.au/technology/sci-tech/the-rise-of-the-citizen-scientists-20140516-zrcij.html  

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Bats – Reservoirs for devastating pathogens

It may be difficult for the most of us to find bats endearing, especially when we learn that not only do they harbour an extraordinary number of diseases but they do so without getting so much as a minor cold. How the bat immune system works so that they are able to carry these diseases without any harmful side effects is intriguing. Dr Michelle Baker, a senior research scientist at CSIRO, is currently carrying out some fascinating work on better understanding the immune responses of bats and their ability to coexist with deadly viruses. She visited Macquarie University last month to share the work that her team have been undertaking.

Bats are an intriguing mammal explained Dr Baker, they are the second most species rich and abundant group of mammals, they have a long lifespan in relation to body size and they are the only mammal with the means to fly. They have evolved to fill a range of important ecological niches and they harbour a large number of diseases. This high mobility combined with a wide geographical distribution puts them in a perfect position to spread pathogens. Despite this, research into bats is not widespread and until recently they were the least studied group of mammals.

Figure 1. Grey Headed Flying Fox (source australianmuseum.com.au)

The relatively recent emergence of zoonoses (infectious diseases which can pass from animals to humans) has raised interest in these animal and bats account for a large number of new and emerging pathogens (Ng and Baker 2013). Traditionally bats have been linked with viruses like Rabies, however, since 1994 there have been four new human pathogens emerge from bats. Specifically, these pathogens have emerged from the genus Pteropus, otherwise known as the fruit bat or flying fox (Iehle et al. 2007, Plowright et al. 2011)(figure 1). The most well known, or perhaps widely publicised was the Hendra virus, which in 1994 was responsible for the death of 14 horses and 1 human. Since then there have been two reported infections, or what Baker calls ‘spill-over’ events per year, a rather stressful statistic if you are a horse. While it is not certain what causes the spill-over from bats to horses, a recently developed Hendra vaccine means that horses can rest a little easier.

Hendra is not the only virus that comes from bats however, others include Ebola, Coronavirus (SARS), MERS, Menangle, Nelson Bay and Melaka, all of which can have huge human and economic impacts. The one thing that these viruses have in common is that they don’t make the bats sick, and this indicates that these Pteropus bats are indeed true reservoirs for some viruses (Plowright et al. 2011). Bats are social animals Baker explained, and so it is easy for viruses to circulate throughout the population. Occasionally, and for reasons not yet known, these viruses will spill-over into another species with infection via bat excrements such as faeces, saliva and urine (Ng & Baker 2013).

Figure 2. Summary of innate immune system vs adaptive immune system. Innate immune system is the first line of defense in an animal's immune system

Figure 2. Summary of innate immune system vs adaptive immune system. Innate immune system is the first line of defense in an animal’s immune system. (Source: http://sphweb.bumc.bu.edu/)

While the triggers for the virus transfer are important, it is the bat’s ability to coexist with these pathogens that intrigues Baker and she has been working on understanding this since 2008. Focusing on innate immunity rather than adaptive immunity in bats (figure 2), Baker has found that there are some differences in the genes that produce interferon (the proteins produced by cells in response to exposure to viruses or bacteria). Bats have three types of interferon and most work has been done on type 1 due to its importance in antiviral processes. Interferon can be quite toxic explained Baker, and so generally organisms keep it quite low until it needs to be stimulated to fight an incoming virus. In bats, however, type 1 interferon levels seemed to be stimulated all the time with no further increase when exposed to a virus (figure 3). It seems that rather than constantly fighting off the virus, bats are carrying around a package of infection, a process that is incredibly energetically expensive.

Schematic illustrating the type I interferon levels without virus attack and with virus attack. In animals A & B the interferon levels are quite low given the cost and toxicity to produce. However, in the bat this is elevated without virus attack with very little change demonstrated when a virus is included.

Figure 3. Schematic illustrating the type I interferon levels without virus attack and with virus attack. In animals A & B the interferon levels are quite low given the cost and toxicity to produce these proteins. However, in the bat this is elevated without a virus being present and there is very little change demonstrated when a virus attacks.

There is uncertainty as to why the bat’s immune system works as it does, however, there are 5 key things to take from this research to date. Bats are one of the most abundant and diversified mammals, they are true reservoirs for pathogens, there are some key differences their innate immune systems, there are a number of spill-over events from bats to other species but we do not yet understand what triggers these events.

There is a lot of work that needs to be undertaken to comprehend the bat immune system, which will in turn provide insights into the coevolution of pathogens and their hosts. Understanding the processes for increased disease prevalence within the population and the triggers for a spill-over to another species may help us understand when and where it is most likely to occur. Increasing urbanisation means that humans will increasingly sharing space with these animals and so understanding this unique relationship will be key in managing both existing and novel pathogens.

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Spatial Information Systems – Overwhelming concept or invaluable conservation tool?

Mention the term Spatial Information Systems (SIS) to many a biologist or ecologist and you may get a blank look or even worse a look of terror. For many of us the extent of our knowledge and interaction with SIS has been with Google Maps, but it is much more. SIS contributes to a range of sectors including mining, fisheries, forestries, health and transport on a daily basis. In fact, almost every industry and sector can benefit in their planning and decision making from using these spatial information tools. Dr Alana Grech and Dr Michael Chang from Macquarie University’s Department of Environment and Geography spoke to the Biology department this month about some of the research they have been doing with SIS. What is exciting is the value that spatial information can contribute to biologists in assisting with research and with key issues such as conservation and environmental management.

As Dr Chang explained, Spatial Information is the science of Global Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing for data storage, visualisation (via mapping) and information. Spatial data can be biophysical, geographic, economic or social, and powerful tools are used to model, analyse and visualise this data to improve our understanding, decision-making and communication. Spatial information can have a direct impact on productivity. NSW Ambulance, the third largest ambulance service in the world, provides an excellent example of how these tools are used. As they are required to provide a response every 27 seconds, decision-making and communication must happen rapidly. By enabling vehicles with GPS and using a command centre which has up-to-date information on roads, hospitals and availability, operators can identify the nearest vehicle and communicate quickest routes and estimated arrival times to the ambulance drivers and hospitals respectively. By layering this with information on incident hotspots, they can also undertake proactive planning for key times such as Friday and Saturday nights (NSW Government 2012).

So how does SIS assist in adding value to biology, ecology and conservation management?  Dr Chang explained that SIS can be used across the terrestrial environment to map layers on vegetation, topography and species distribution (figure 1).

Figure 1. Example of layers that may be utilised for understanding the distribution of a terrestrial species using SIS (from http://www.firstecology.co.uk)

Using an example from the CSIRO, Chang demonstrated how these tools have been used to map pasture from space so that farmers can accurately estimate available feed as well as understand rates of pasture growth and quality. The Australian National Parks & Wildlife Service has also used SIS across National Parks to understand the landscape, vegetation and historical fire patterns in order to develop management plans (Haines-Young et al. 2003).

SIS can be extended to the marine environment and Dr Grech demonstrated how spatial information on dugong populations was used to prioritise conservation initiatives in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. Challenges are presented when assessing species over such broad scales and it can be difficult to understand where to focus conservation measures. Using information collected via aerial surveys and applying geostatistical techniques, a spatial population model of dugong distribution and abundance was developed to prioritise ‘hotspots’ for dugong conservation (figure 2). This information was in turn used as an effective component of the decision-making process and was used to support the management of dugongs in the area.

Dugong Model

Figure 2. Map showing dugong relative density, which was developed using aerial surveys and geostatistical techniques (from Grech & Marsh 2007)

Where SIS can really shine, however, is through the mapping of cumulative pressures. Grech explained that key to effective management of Marine Park Areas, such as the Great Barrier Reef, is having a good understanding of what is being protected and the activities that impact on them. Mapping geographical areas and associated species distribution and then layering pressures such as pollution, anthropogenic activities, abrasion and erosion can provide a cumulative impact map. These maps allow us to identify hotspots and risk areas that can be used to drive conservation efforts. These tools not only provide biologists with valuable information for research and conservation priorities, but also give us the means to communicate our research beyond the realm of the science community. It helps us to add value to biological sciences and transition to real world management applications, something that is important in a time when the communication of science to the broader population is vital.

The Cooperative Research Centre Program, an Australian Government initiative, suggests that we can expect a significant increase in benefits to both environment and economy as SIS is integrated into the operation of carbon markets, natural resource management and monitoring programs more generally (CRCSI 2014). It seems the capability and potential for these tools are limitless, and as technology and hardware improves the question is where to next and what is the potential? Will there be the ability to provide instantaneous information that allows our policy and decision makers to make ‘on-the-ground’ decisions or will we be able to use these tools more effectively to assist with rapid response to natural disasters such as fires, floods and cyclones?

References
Cooperative Research Centre for Spatial Information (2013) What is Sptial Information? http://www.crcsi.com.au/About/What-Is-Spatial-Information. Accessed 21 April 2014

CSIRO Australia (2014). Pastures from Space.   http://www.csiro.au/Outcomes/Food-and-Agriculture/PasturesFromSpace.aspx. Accessed 20 April 2014.

Grech, A. & Marsh, H. (2007)  Prioritising areas for dugong conservation in a marine protected area using a spatially explicit population model, Applied GIS, 3(2): 1-14.

Haines-Young, R., Green, D. R., & Cousins, S. H. (Eds.). (2003). Landscape ecology and geographical information systems. Taylor & Francis, London.

NSW Government (2012), http://gov.cebit.com.au/nsw/emergency-services-public-safety/ambulance-service-of-nsw/. Accessed 20 April 2014

 

 

 

 

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Prey Behaviour – Is it really important?

When we think about the removal of predators from a natural ecosystem system quite often what we expect to see is an increase in the previously hunted prey. What we don’t expect to see are significant changes in prey behaviour, which not only have impacts on food intake but also influence changes in reproductive output, growth rates and life history traits. Dr Robert Warner, currently in Australia, spoke this month at Macquarie University and demonstrated how prey behaviour, in response to the eradication or restoration of predators, can rapidly alter population dynamics and modify entire ecosystems.

Trophic Cascade

Figure 1. A simple representation of the trophic cascade – the reduction in the top predators due to human impacts of fishing or hunting results in an increase in the next trophic level, herbivores. This then results in an increase in grazing and a decrease in primary productivity (plants / algae)

Humans often have an impact on the largest animals be it either in a marine or terrestrial environment, and until recently the scientific community focused on the impacts of this via trophic cascades (figure 1). Warner explained that we are starting to explore what else happens when we remove predators from an ecosystem and we are seeing that prey will change their behaviour based on the presence or absence of predators. In the presence of predators prey will exhibit anti-predator, or risk averse, behaviour and Wirsing and Ripple (2011) explain that this can be through strategies such as escape facilitation, encounter avoidance and increased vigilance. Essentially animals may alter habitat use, feeding patterns, movements and other traits under risk of predation. When the risk of predation is removed then these behaviours can change with implications for populations and entire ecosystems over relatively short timeframes.

One of the most well-known and beautiful examples which demonstrates the ecosystem wide response to changes in prey behaviour was in Yellowstone Park following eradication of the Grey Wolf in the 1900s. The absence of wolves meant that the Elk no longer needed to manage risk of predation and so valleys and river banks that were previously inaccessible became prime areas for foraging. The increased numbers of Elk and overgrazing of vast areas resulted in fundamental changes to not only the assemblages of animals but the physical geography of the land as well. Following the reintroduction of the wolves in 1995 and a return to the risk averse behaviour in the Elks, the entire ecosystem, both biological and physical, was restored in relatively short timeframes (Fortin et al. 2005).  Watch a stunning video on how wolves change rivers here.

Warner explains that while there have been increasing numbers of behavioural studies undertaken in the terrestrial environment there have, until recently, been very limited numbers in the marine environment. Warner has been working with Liz and Josh Madin, who are currently researching out of Macquarie University, to understand how prey feeding behaviours in reef ecosystems change when predation is altered. The Line Islands in the Central Pacific provide an excellent opportunity to undertake such research with the archipelago reflecting a continuum of environmental conditions from degraded (high human impact) to pristine (no human impact). Madin et al. (2010) demonstrated that large-scale human removal of predators from a natural ecosystem indirectly alters prey behaviour and this study showed that once predation risk is removed that prey excursions (or the distance prey travel for food) are increasing. Madin et al. (2010) explain that this change in feeding may drive unexpected effects across reef food webs.

The decreased vigilance and increase in excursion lengths can be seen beautifully on the halos surrounding coral reefs (Madin et al. 2011), a phenomenon which can even be seen from space. On intact reef systems with high predation rates fish exhibit risk averse behaviour and undertake very minimal travel from the safety of coral reef in which case we see relatively small halos around reefs. On those reefs that experience more disturbance and have lower predation rates fish will travel further from the safety of the reef and as a result we can see larger halos around the reef (figure 2). These studies are important for the development of fisheries management and shifting the focus from the direct consequences of removing top-level fish to the indirect effects on non-target prey.

Reef Halo

Figure 2. Reef halos as seen from the air on the left (Madin et al. 2011). A) demonstrates a reef with a large halo in the case of low predation – fish excursion rates are bigger and so is the spatial extent of grazing. B) demonstrates a reef in an intact system with high predation, risk averse behaviour and low excursion rates.

We have also seen that predation can have positive effects on reproductive activity and while there is not enough room to provide extensive details here I do encourage readers to explore this further. The strange, and rather humerous mating behaviour of bumphead parrotfish has only been witnessed in marine park reserves, the places where fishing is banned and top-level predators are in tact (Aswani & Hamilton 2004). Further testament to the importance of protecting our ecosystems where possible. Watch a brief video of this entertaining behaviour here

Research in the marine environment has so far been limited to coral reefs and so we are unsure if this is happening in other marine systems. Whether these same processes are taking place in the open ocean is currently unknown but future research in this area could provide some key insights to the importance of conservation of large predatory pelagic fish such as shark and blue fin tuna. We already have seen the benefits of no-take reserves and marine parks which are focused on the return of fish to pre-fishing levels. What we have not been focussed on is behaviour of prey, these studies provide insight into why this is important and key for us to manage.

References

Aswani S. & Hamilton R.J. 2004. Integrating indigenous ecological knowledge and customary sea tenure with marine and social science for conservation of bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) in the Roviana Lagoon, Solomon Islands. Environmental Conservation, 31 (1): 68-83.

Fortin D., Beyer H. L., Boyce M. S., Smith D. W., Duchesne T., & Mao J. S. 2005. Wolves influence elk movements: behavior shapes a trophic cascade in Yellowstone National Park. Ecology, 86(5): 1320-1330.

Madin E. M., Gaines S. D., & Warner R. R. 2010. Field evidence for pervasive indirect effects of fishing on prey foraging behavior. Ecology, 91(12): 3563-3571.

Madin E. M., Madin J. S., & Booth D. J. 2011. Landscape of fear visible from space. Scientific reports, 1: 14.

Wirsing A.J. & Ripple W.J. 2011. A comparison of shark and wolf research reveals similar behavioural responses by prey. Fronteir Ecology Environment, 9 (6): 335-341.

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