Ecology on Holiday

There is no better way to appreciate ecological change across landscapes than by taking a road trip.

My partner and I just had one of the best holidays of our life: two weeks driving from our home in Albury in southern New South Wales, to the Sunshine Coast in south-east Queensland, where I grew up. We have done this trip a few times, but have always used the drive (about 1500 kilometres, one way) as a means to an end, i.e. getting to the coast to see friends and family. This trip, we took our time, sacrificing a few extra days at the beach for more time to explore en route. And it definitely paid off!

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The road trip.

Australia is one of the lucky few countries that include most of the major terrestrial biome types. An interstate road trip is one of the best ways to see them! Ecologically, our trip was well-timed; the end of August signals the start of spring and wildflower explosions all over the country. The wattles were already in full swing around Albury, lifting our damp, grey spirits from a very long winter. Continue reading

Single-crop farming is leaving wildlife with nowhere to turn

Rolling plains of wheat, endless fields of flowering canola, row upon row of fruit trees: these agricultural landscapes are the stuff of stunning photographs.

Filling these paddocks with just one crop, known as monoculture, is a relatively easy, common and efficient way to produce food and fibre.

But international research shows that these monocultures can be bad for the environment and production through effects on soil quality, erosion, plants and animals, and ultimately declining crop yields. Research I have published this week in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability shows a possible link between monoculture landscapes and fewer wild pollinators.

Is there a better way to grow our food?

Published today at The Conversation. Read the rest of the story here….

Pollinator winter

Have you ever wondered where pollinators go in winter? Most of us think of pollinators in spring and summer, when crops and wildflowers are in bloom and bees, wasps and butterflies are everywhere. Media coverage of pollinators peaks in spring months, and most studies of pollinator activity in crops and natural ecosystems are carried out during flowering in spring or summer, for obvious reasons. Continue reading

Foundation stones: connecting cultural heritage and wildlife conservation

Stone walls are central to the rich cultural heritage of human history. Some of the oldest stone walls in the world still stand in ancient Mediterranean lands, and also provide the foundations for Incan architecture (think Macchu Picchu) and the castles and ramparts of feudal Japan. In the UK, Ireland and Europe, stone walls are key elements of pastoral landscapes from a thousand postcards, and numerous regional specialities maintain their own unique cultural and ecological foundations. This colonial heritage is also preserved in the new world, particularly North America’s New England region and Australia’s southern states.

Stone walling is more than simply stacking rocks. A harmonious balance of art and science are needed to keep the wall standing. Each stone is fitted into the negative space around its neighbouring stones, like a jigsaw, so that the final wall holds itself against the pull of gravity. Continue reading

Why did the pollinator cross the road?

The concept of the ‘edge effect’ has inspired long and varied discussion in the ecological literature. In essence, an edge effect is a change in animal or plant communities seen at a boundary between two types of habitat.

These changes are most obvious in plant communities, for example where a swamp segues into a savannah. So, historically, research into edge effects and ecotones (the zone surrounding the edge where two plant communities meet, and energy fluxes and dynamics change) was mostly focused on plants.

It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that people started considering how edges affected animals. Vegetation ecologists had already discovered that the zone surrounding habitat edges usually had more plant species than either of the two patches that met at the edge.

Then in 1930 Aldo Leopold noticed that game animals, like deer, were often found more frequently at forest edges than in the interior. These animals loitered at edges, where they could feed on all the extra plants and see danger coming more easily. And so the misconception arose that edges = more animals. Continue reading

Natural Culture

To what extent does culture (i.e. arts and entertainment) affect how people view nature or ‘the environment’?

Nature is not ‘immediate’ – she needs time to grow, time to heal, time to be appreciated and understood. Yet, for many people, their most available culture (‘popular’ culture) is all about the Now – if it looks to the past or the future, it measures it in days or weeks, not years or decades. Does this then influence their attitude to the environment?

It’s a pretty interesting question, and I’m sure the answer is mighty complicated. There would be some effect from nationality, racial background and possibly gender (as these things can sometimes determine what cultural elements you are mostly exposed to or ‘wired’ for), but the answer goes beyond that – not all ‘women’ think the same, not all ‘Australians’ think the same, and not all ‘English men’ think the same. Continue reading

Mistletoe Magic

Mistletoe has fascinated me since I was a child. At first, its charm was purely mythological – I spent many years obsessing over the European Christmas traditions I was missing out on by having a midsummer yuletide in subtropical Australia. Mistletoe, holly wreaths, snow angels, and warm eggnog – these things didn’t exist in my sweaty Queensland Christmases. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned what a remarkable plant mistletoe is, and found out that it grew in Australia (as does holly, albeit as a weed!). I was beside myself. I still remember my excitement the first time I saw a mistletoe plant, flowing serenely off a eucalypt branch in the Bunya Mountains, like a leafy green waterfall suspended in mid-air. Continue reading