The Wilderness: Amy Eleanor Mack

Stories build a relationship between subject and audience that is deeply emotional and personal. Art can enhance the audience’s nature connection, and stories about natural systems and wildlife can determine how the reader connects with those systems. This is particularly true for children.

Australia has a wonderful heritage of nature writers, many working before nature writing was ‘a thing’. The national collection of Australian children’s books about native wildlife is inspiring. Even more inspiring, many of Australia’s best nature stories were written in the early-mid 19th century, and mostly by women.   Continue reading

Natural history mystery: Party lights for nocturnal bees

It’s true, nocturnal bees exist. Bees are generally considered a day-active creature, but there are many species around the world that have evolved to love the night…perhaps because their favourite flowers open at night, or maybe they just prefer to feed in peace and quiet!

Because bee species, like most insects, are very sensitive to cold temperatures, most of these nocturnal bee species are found in tropical and sub-tropical areas. One species is known from Australia and it’s found in north and central Queensland. It’s likely that others exist, but they either haven’t been found or night activity hasn’t been observed yet. Continue reading

Building local citizen science networks

This post was co-authored with Bindi Vanzella, Regional Landcare Facilitator for Riverina.

Citizen science is a great way for non-scientists to contribute valuable information to scientific knowledge. It’s a new term – people have been doing citizen science for centuries under different names. But it’s all the same valuable contribution.

Citizen science isn’t about volunteers doing all the hard work for scientists. Yes, the origins of this recent term are in academia. But many citizen science programs are based foremost on engagement and education, with data collection as a secondary aim.

And engagement and education tend to work best when they are based locally or regionally. Many species have local or regional ranges, and the social and cultural connection of a species can change across larger geographic scales. Continue reading

Unlikely plant-pollinator relationships

When we think about planting for pollinators, the first plants we reach for are often ones with obvious flowers, usually bright and showy, perhaps with an attractive scent, and lots of pollen and nectar. Most of these will be insect-pollinated plants, which is why they are so attractive to pollinator insects – they have co-evolved with pollinators to reap the reproductive benefits of insect visitation.

But pollinators also use plenty of other plants that we wouldn’t think of as being ‘pollinator plants’, particularly plants that are pollinated by wind, like conifers and grasses. Some grasses are pollinated by bees. And some bees feed on fungi. These interactions have been observed by scientists and naturalists for centuries, but are often forgotten when we talk about pollinator conservation.

This is one of the key challenges with the ecosystem services concept. Trying to justify conservation of pollinator insects because they provide us with benefits, i.e. fruits and seeds from plants they pollinate, is not always useful. Partly because this approach overlooks the fact that pollinators also need lots of other resources to survive, some of which we may not benefit from. And separating ‘insect-pollinated crops’ (e.g. almonds, stonefruit, berries) from ‘wind-pollinated crops’ (e.g. wheat, rice, corn) when we talk about managing farms for pollinator conservation, ignores the fact that some pollinators will regularly visit wind-pollinated crops to collect pollen for food.

I’m currently writing a review of records of pollinator species visiting plant species that we traditionally assume to be wind-pollinated, after noticing some of these interactions at field sites and in my own garden (stay tuned!). I didn’t find any records of some of these plant-pollinator interactions in my literature review, so I’m recording them here. One-off ecological observations are rarely accepted by academic journals, because they are not considered scientific studies. But, in conjunction with other knowledge, they can provide important information for future research hypotheses.

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Do field ecologists need field stations to do research?

One of the most limiting factors I have found so far as a field ecologist is getting access to land to collect data. Most of my research is on how insect communities influence ecosystem function. Although I collect a lot of my data on farms, I also work in natural systems.

Finding enough private properties is usually easy enough, depending on the study design. For our recent study of ecosystem services in apple orchards, for which we needed a certain number of specific types of orchard, it took me nearly 4 months of emails and phone calls to find enough suitable orchard growers who were happy for us to visit regularly.

Finding new field sites in natural areas can be a bit harder. In Australia, it can take up to 6 months to get a new research permit for a protected area. Sometimes, the permit is declined, or your application gets lost.

Getting permission is one thing, logistics are another. Balancing the ideal number of site replicates needed to answer the research question, with the funds you are allowed to spend on travel to get there, is one of the hardest tricks in the modern field ecologist’s book. Committing to regular long trips and nights away from home is even harder when you have a family life you want to be part of. Continue reading

Species that are ‘known unknowns’ to science

Last spring, I found a new bee in a tiny urban reserve near my house in Albury. I identified it to genus Megachile, but that was as far as I got. I had never seen anything like it. After some research, and help from local bee enthusiast Karen Retra, we identified it as Megachile semiluctuosa.

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I submitted my sighting to the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), which is the main online, publicly-available database of Australian biodiversity records. My sighting was the first record of M. luctuosa for the Albury region – the nearest recorded sighting was about 200 km north of here.

Yes, I got a bit excited. But this is more likely an indication that few people are out looking for bees, rather than evidence of range expansion. ALA has records of this species from across most Australian states, but nearly 70% of them are from central New South Wales, mostly from a research project conducted by CSIRO researchers. Continue reading

Beyond the Birds and the Bees

The latest edition of Wildlife Australia magazine is out, including an article I wrote on unusual plant-pollinator relationships from Australian ecosystems. I had so much fun writing this piece about Australia’s unique flora and fauna. From nectar-loving lizards to hairy katydids, there are lots of interesting ecological stories out there to discover!

You can download a pdf of the article here. If you enjoyed this story and want to read more like it, I recommend subscribing to Wildlife Australia, one of the best nature magazines still printing.

© Manu Saunders 2016