Postdoc In Transit

I am currently in academic limbo.

My contract position as a postdoc at Charles Sturt University ended in December, after 3 years as a postdoc researcher and 3.5 years as a PhD student before that. At the beginning of March, I’ll be starting an exciting 3-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of New England in Armidale, working with Romina Rader, Darren Ryder and Oscar Cacho.

I’ve found the transition period between postdocs challenging for a few practical reasons. It’s not as simple as clocking off at one job, handing your pass in and turning up to the new place. And while there is lots of good advice online about starting a postdoc for the first time (e.g Margaret Kosmala’s Advice for New Postdocs and Natalie Matosin’s Postdoc-ing for Dummies), I couldn’t find many tips on navigating the no man’s land between two postdocs at different institutions. But do read Amy Parachnowitsch’s great post on being ‘an unemployed academic’!

These are some of my experiences as an early career field ecologist in transit. Continue reading

Ecosystem services vs. disservices: it’s really not that simple

A key argument against the ecosystem services concept is that it doesn’t account for most of the ecological complexity around us. This is a valid criticism. The ecosystem services concept is based on an idealised economic stock–flow model, which is pretty simplistic and unrealistic when you apply it to a real social-ecological system (i.e. any system based on human and nature interactions).

Identifying a particular ecological process as a ‘service’ because it benefits humans in one time and place overlooks the principles of basic ecology: outcomes of interactions between species and environments change across space and time.

Recently, some scientists have argued that quantifying ecosystem disservices is the best way to account for this complexity. Disservices are essentially the opposite of services, outcomes of natural processes that affect humans negatively, like disease spread, or pest damage to crops.

But this could be just another wild goose chase. Continue reading

Nature, food and people: there’s no magic bean for sustainable agriculture

If you believe your Twitter feed, every Jack and his beanstalk has the quick-fix solution we need to beat the sustainable food challenge. ‘If you want to eat meat, switch to pigs, birds & fish to generate fewer emissions’. That’s convenient, because ‘lettuce is three times worse than bacon for the environment’.

These solutions all sound pretty sexy. But reducing the environmental impact of food production is not as simple as choosing one crop or livestock type over another.

Food production is a social-ecological system. That means it’s a system based on a mutual relationship between nature and humans. The ecosystem (i.e. the farm) influences human lives and actions, via ecosystem services. And humans influence the ecosystem’s structure and function, through direct management and indirect drivers like regulations, subsidies, financial markets and consumer demand. Continue reading

Box–Gum woodland pollinators: the case of the mysterious urn heath

Have you heard of urn heath (Melichrus urceolatus)? I hadn’t, until July last year. It grows along most of Australia’s east coast, but only in Box–Gum Grassy Woodland ecosystems (update: also in other ecosystems! see Greg Steenbeeke’s comment below). For most of the year, it’s an unassuming, prickly little shrub, usually less than 1 metre in height. Then in late winter, it bursts into a mass of tiny creamy-white urn-shaped blooms. Each individual flower is only a couple of mm in size. But a shrub in full bloom will stop you in your tracks.

Albury urn heath

This is what happened last July, as I took my regular afternoon walk through a local urban nature reserve. The reserve (Eastern Hill in Albury, NSW) is a tiny fragment of the Box-Gum Grassy Woodlands that were once common across the region. Continue reading

Goodies v baddies? Why labelling wild animals as ‘pests’ or ‘friends’ is holding farming back

It’s hard to keep wild animals out of farms. Birds, mammals and insects all affect crop yields, in positive ways (such as flies pollinating flowers) and negative ones (such as when birds damage fruit).

Agricultural research and management programs often deal with these interactions by focusing on simplistic “good” and “bad” labels: aphids are annoying pests, for example, whereas bees are little angels.

Read the rest of our piece at The Conversation.

And see the papers behind the article here:

Saunders ME, Peisley RK, Rader R, Luck GW (2016) Pollinators, pests, and predators: Recognizing ecological trade-offs in agroecosystems. AMBIO 45:4-14.

Peisley RK, Saunders ME, Luck GW (2015) A systematic review of the benefits and costs of bird and insect activity in agroecosystems. Springer Science Reviews 3:113-125.

The Good, the Bad and…the Ecology

There are very few (if any) true ‘wilderness’ areas left, those completely untouched by human influence. This isn’t a tragedy – it’s an opportunity to grow, learn and discover more about the amazing planet we live on. Many ‘natural’ ecosystems have become social-ecological systems, where humans and nature can co-exist, not out-compete each other.

Agricultural systems are a perfect example. It’s hard to keep wild animals out of agroecosystems. They affect crop yields directly and indirectly across the growing season through positive (e.g. insects pollinating flowers) or negative (e.g. birds damaging fruit) interactions with crop plants. Because humans tend to label and categorise things (labels are easier to manage, justify or remove) we generally label these animals as either ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – aphids are annoying pests, bees are little angels. That’s all there is to it.

In reality, no organism is completely ‘bad’ or ‘good’ to the extreme; the effect it has on other organisms around it, including us, varies with context. All the individual plant-animal interactions happening in a single crop system are influenced by seasons, landscapes, management practices, and the social, cultural and economic values of the local farming community. Continue reading

On the importance of Observations to Ecology

We need rules and norms, but we also need records about apparently irrelevant things that, in non-linear systems like ecological ones, might become the drivers of change and, thus, the determinants of history. Ferdinando Boero (2013)

 

I’ve just had a personal career highlight…one that will most likely go unrecognised on my CV. Last month, I had an observational note published in the Victorian Naturalist, an excellent peer-reviewed natural history journal that has an impact factor of 0.00. As most academic career processes focus on quantifiable ‘impact’, it is pretty unlikely that this publication will be recognised in any of my future career or grant applications. So why did I bother?

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One cold weekend last July, I took a day trip with my partner to Lawrence’s Lookout in north-east Victoria – one of the best spots to view the snow across all the alpine ranges that straddle the NSW/VIC border. I wasn’t on work time, and it wasn’t an ecosystem I knew much about. But as an ecologist (a.k.a naturalist), I’m in ‘work’ mode 24/7. Continue reading