A tale of Tim Flannery, a BBC/History Channel documentary and me

My usual Thursday morning train commute, and a quick check of my emails revealed that Coast Australia season 3 (BBC – Foxtel History Channel) were interested in doing a piece on my research into pumice rafting with the setting of Hinchinbrook Island as a backdrop. I replied immediately to say I was interested. After a quick chat with the show’s producers the dates, location and story were set.

I met 2007 Australian of the year, environmental crusader and all round lovely guy Professor Tim Flannery on the first morning of the shoot. I admit to a few nerves in meeting him for the first time due to his credentials and also because he would be the one interviewing me. But I had nothing to worry about, Tim, with all of his fame is a lovely man – intriguing with stories of his adventures in Papua New Guinea one minute and joking around making everyone laugh the next. I was put immediately at ease.

Our journey began with a two hour road trip from Cairns – south to the tiny coastal town of Cardwell. Upon arrival we loaded the boat with cameras, food, sound equipment and mosquito repellent and slipped into the azure waters offshore from Cardwell on our way to Hinchinbrook Island. Dugongs lazily swam in the waters surrounding the boat while giant birdwing butterflies flapped wings adorned with unimaginable colours signalling I was in paradise. We disembarked the boat amongst a mangrove forest as yellow sunbirds flitted from tree to tree in our wake. Next a golden beach fringed with rainforest greeted us from over the crest of a dune and our guide and skipper told us to look for fossilised crabs which were beautifully preserved in ancient muddy sediments – possibly a few million years old (according to Tim – a palaeontologist by trade). A short climb up through some steaming rainforest filled with the shells of giant land snails to the location of our shoot for the day. Here there was a large depression on the leeward side of the beach where pumice has been swept by wind and tide over the past two years, a perfect spot for our story.

Being in a documentary film is really a different experience, particularly in such a remote location, it is not glamorous – there is no hair or makeup person helping you to look your best and if the wind makes your hair look like you were just electrocuted well that’s just how it will look on film. Many unexpected things happen which delay shooting such as rain, and then the fact that your shirt and hair got wet and filming cannot recommence until it has dried. The number of angles required for mere minutes of television time is unbelievable – with on average 6 to 10 takes required for one or two questions. Shots of the hands, shots of the faces, shots from behind, shots from the front – the list goes on and on. Luckily we didn’t have to remember a script! Our shoot was over two days and on the second day we scaled a waterfall for the introduction to the segment. The view was truly magnificent so it was understandable why the spot was chosen – but almost funny in that it will only be for one or two minutes of footage in the end.

Our journey back home that day was a bumpy one with a washing machine of swell and tide, but none of this detracted from the distinct beauty of Hinchinbrook Island where rainforest gave way to rocky escarpment and heath changing back to rainforest and finally to mangrove swamps. The Cardwell inlet (man-made) gave us one last tropical treat as two large crocodiles greeted us from the shoreline. And that as they say in the film industry is a wrap!

Coast Australia 3 will air in 2017 on Fox History Channel and on SBS




The squirrels of seven hills nature reserve

A repeated soft hiss attracts my attention as I walk through the twilight of Seven Hills Nature Reserve. I retrace my steps and a furry tail whisks past me up an acacia tree. A juvenile Brushtail possum perhaps?

But then I see more small bodies climbing amongst the canopy and then a silent flight guided by expert eyesight and tiny membranous flaps of skin which stretch between front and hind limbs – is it a bird? is it a plane? No it’s a squirrel glider!

What a delight to stumble upon a feeding family of these marvellous creatures! And in a park less than five kilometres from the city and consisting of 52 hectares, these gliders are a marvel for the resilience of ecosystems despite a burgeoning human population and habitat destruction. They leap, glide and alight amongst the tallest trees with such grace – I see them making small incisions to suck at nutrient rich acacia sap, and I am transfixed for at least 30 minutes!

I contemplate later when I am back at home whether the seven hills nature reserve is a large enough habitat island to support these gliders into the future or will they succumb to well-known phenomenon in ecology called ‘ecosystem decay’?

A sombre thought in light of such a lovely discovery, but nonetheless a necessary one if we are serious about the protection of our wonderful flora and fauna. Ecosystem decay was a term first coined in the 1980s by Thomas Lovejoy1,2 and hypothesises that the fragmentation of once continuous habitats causes the gradual loss of species from a remnant habitat until a final stable number of species remains 1,2. This occurs due to complex array of factors including loss of genetic diversity due to inbreeding, a loss of available resources (shelter, food, etc) resulting in increased competition and edge effects 1.

Gliders require a continuous canopy to glide from tree to tree and allow dispersal while avoiding predation. They also require suitable old-growth trees with intact hollows for nesting, not to mention sufficient available food sources 3. Studies show they are not able to utilise highly modified landscapes such as farms or urban landscapes to visit distant populations in neighbouring bushland fragments 3. However, on a positive note their minimum home range is small being a maximum average 2.84 hectares, indicating that squirrel gliders may be able to survive in smaller habitat fragments such as the seven hills bushland reserve 1,3.  I can only hope that due to the small size of squirrel gliders and their documented small home range requirements that several family groups may exist at seven hills. This should allow individuals living here to reproduce with other individuals which are not closely related, thus retaining their genetic viability and allowing them to remain at seven hills nature reserve both now and in the future.

Perhaps a genetic and home range study of sugar gliders in urban forests of Brisbane could be the topic for a future PhD or research project!

1              Laurance, W. F. et al. Ecosystem decay of Amazonian forest fragments: a 22‐year investigation. Conservation Biology 16, 605-618 (2002).

2              Lovejoy, T. E. et al. Ecosystem decay of Amazon forest remnants. Extinctions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 111, 295-325 (1984).

3              van der Ree, R. The population ecology of the squirrel glider (Petaurus norfolcensis) within a network of remnant linear habitats. Wildlife Research 29, 329-340 (2002).


2nd International Conference on Urban Tree Diversity

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the 2nd International Conference on Urban Tree Diversity in Melbourne. Held at the MCG (never been there so now I know what they are talking about when it’s mentioned in the news!) this conference gave me a really unique perspective of trees in the urban environment and the different pressures that we place on them. This time I presented a poster on my research into the critically endangered regional ecosystem Melaleuca irbyana (swamp tea-tree) – this is my poster:

Melaleuca_irbyana_poster_FINALI learned so many new things at this conference – it would be impossible to name them all but here are a few of my personal highlights. Did you know that a tree needs at least the size of its crown in below ground soil space if not double to be functionally stable! Many mature trees in built up cities (e.g. Hong Kong) are faced with smaller and smaller rooting areas and as a result die or fall over (sometimes tragically killing pedestrians). In Hong Kong where less than 1% of the population has their own personal garden these trees are highly valued by the community and hence taking good care of them is really important.

I was also really impressed with Melbourne City Council’s Urban Forestry Program. This program has used cutting edge GIS technology to map, document and update information on all of the trees located in Melbourne city – so you can track the trees in your neighbourhood – find information about the species and whether the tree is healthy or in decline – to see their interactive maps click Melbourne Forest Visual. AND you can even email a tree! Yes that’s right you can email a message to your favourite tree and/or report damage to your favourite tree directly to the Council. I was fascinated by this and it surprised me that the response from the people of Melbourne City was overwhelmingly positive with many residents sending poems and love letters to their favourite trees!

But why should we care about urban trees? Well, they provide free air conditioning for one! And they are in decline, after the millennium drought many of the urban trees for example in Melbourne went into decline and died so we lost them – but these trees are important! It has been shown that walking in a park with trees enhances our wellbeing (see ‘Why a walk in the woods really does help your body and soul’) they provide free air conditioning to our cities and suburbs and they provide shelter and shade to both us and other wildlife and don’t forget that little thing we breathe oxygen! So many reasons to love trees – I hope this post inspires you to go hug a tree!


Melaleuca irbyana field work finalised!

So last week a very special day occurred – I finally finished the field work I needed to complete for my research into the critically endangered Melaleuca irbyana regional ecosystem. These magnificent forests are filled with the silent papery whispers of the Melaleuca irbyana trees, eerily beautiful, however sadly they are definitely an ecosystem on the edge. I definitely enjoyed my time examining the remnant populations of this tree – which occur as island-like monocultures either bordering eucalypt forests or within a matrix of urban and peri-urban development. Here are some snaps I managed to take in between measuring literally 1000’s of trees – I hope you enjoy them!

Meeting NASA’s Dr. Abigail Allwood – what a great day to be a scientist and a woman! GIRLPOWER!

Today I had the pleasure of being asked to repeat my FameLab presentation and speak a little about my research journey as a prelude to an awe inspiring presentation by NASA’s (and QUT’s) Dr. Abigail Allwood! WOW! It was such an honour to meet her and hear all about her research. And she is a lovely person to boot – what a great science day I had! 🙂

Meeting the famous Dr. Abigail Allwood

Meeting the famous Dr. Abigail Allwood

Three minutes of Fame!

Three minutes of Fame!

Recently I entered a science communication competition called “FameLab” which is the British Council’s international science communications competition. FameLab encourages young scientists to communicate their work. And if successful, the Council provides training in presenting, media and creating a personal brand throughout the different stages. The rules of the competition are quite strict – and it’s challenging to distill down your research – which has involved writing thousands and thousands of words and reading hundreds or possibly thousands of research papers into 3 minutes. However, if you can do this, then I guarantee you will understand your research better than you did before you started. As this process of distillation and thinking, followed by yet further distillation creates the kernel, or crystal of your research question or questions and what they set out to achieve.

‘Picture this, you have three minutes, no PowerPoint, no lab coats and no jargon… do you have what it takes to win FameLab?’

Stage 1 – YouTube

For the first stage I had to submit a YouTube video of my research adhering also to the guidelines above. To be honest, I didn’t think I would be selected, but as luck would have it two weeks later I got the call to compete in the State heats! I was quite surprised, but also excited and later I got really really nervous!

Stage 2. FameLab State Heats

The State heats of FameLab involved a full day of media training, but also prior to this I got to speak live on ABC Local Radio Brisbane which was basically my talk, have a listen if you’re keen.

The training was incredible, as scientists we don’t get that much training in communication, media, creating a personal brand and how to use twitter, facebook or a blog in our research. All of this was so fascinating and completely new to me. I already had a blog but it was good to hear some of my ideas reiterated and elaborated upon.

The presentation… (eeeek!) I have to say I was nervous, incredibly nervous before the State Heats of FameLab and it didn’t help that I was fighting off a cold. Admittedly, I ALWAYS get severe nerves before public speaking and this was no different. And I thought that I didn’t present it as well as I could…. however….

A surprise definitely to me was that I not only won “The People’s Choice Award” I was also selected as State “Runner Up”! WOWEEEE!!

Perth – The National Finals The National Finals ran over two amazing days where we were coached by Malcolm Love in the art of science communication. Here we went deeper into the art of communicating, we were analysed for body language and we asked ourselves what is the endgame here? What are the reasons for wanting to do science communication? Why is it good to get science out there in the community? Why is it good to be a good science communicator and keep working on this? Well, I think in part answer to these questions, it is because there are a lot of misconceptions out there about scientists and science. And this is in part the fault of scientists. For too long we have avoided the glare of media spotlights, preferring our labs or as a field biologist, perhaps beaches or forests to getting our science out there and exposing it and as such getting the community at large comfortable with it and potentially then, more accepting of the theories and research we so desperately need more funding for. One only has to read the recent article in National Geographic: Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science? to realise that we have a major problem on our hands:

“We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge—from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change—faces organized and often furious opposition.”

The more we can sell our ideas and research the more we are building a bridge between science and the public and governments. This will then hopefully translate into more real science backing up actual decisions in legislation for the benefit of the societies and communities we all live in. Science is not necessarily scary and too hard to understand: we just aren’t explaining it well enough NOR often enough. And thus if complex science can be distilled into 3 minutes – well I think that part of the divide has already been bridged. And while I didn’t win or get a place at the final, this was such an amazing journey and I think my presentation skills have improved out of sight. I also made friends with some wonderful fellow scientists who I hope to stay in touch with.

Here is the final presentation!

The International Biogeography Conference, Bayreuth Germany, January 2015

… And learning how to deal with the cold that is Europe in Winter (when you really are a tropical girl at heart!)

I was recently lucky enough to attend the International Biogeography Conference in Bayreuth, Germany this January. And it was really my first time in a proper Winter (ever) and the first time I have seen snow falling that I can remember. So first-up it was freezing and because I was only going to be there for roughly 7 days I didn’t bother to purchase a proper jacket. Let me just say to anyone who is going to Europe in Winter that you should buy a proper jacket – no matter what! These were the conditions on my first day (see images below), and I was absolutely frozen to the bone!

However, seeing snow falling for the first time in my life made it all worth while. I’m sorry to say that when the snow was actually falling I didn’t have my professional camera on hand so no pictures, however I have to say those little flakes were mesmerising, it’s the closest I’ve felt to being a kid in years!

IMG_3266 IMG_3275

Interestingly, this trip had many firsts for me!

These were:

  1. My first presentation at a conference (ever)
  2. My first international conference
  3. My first conference
  4. First time seeing snow fall!!! (= mind blown haha)
  5. First European Winter experience

So I was honoured not only to be selected to present my research (only 72 applicants out of 300 were selected to present! With a total of 600 attendees) but I also won a student travel award to fund my travel. And while only a small amount of cash, every little bit helps with these kind of trips! So here I am presenting my findings, the one where I am laughing must be after I finished, as I was pretty nervous!

I also met so many fantastic people and heard about so many interesting studies. In particular a highlight for me was meeting and discussing my research with Professor Robert J Whittaker, who developed the General Dynamic Theory of Oceanic Island Biogeography (GDM) which is one of the theories I am testing in my research (very very exciting!).