Shakespeare knew his insects

Robert Patterson (1802-1872) was a remarkable naturalist you’ve probably never heard of. At the age of 19, he co-founded the Belfast Natural History Society. He also wrote a number of zoology texts and designed a series of zoological diagrams for use in schools. In 1857, he posted a ‘real Irish Rabbit’ across the Irish Sea to Charles Darwin, at Darwin’s request.

Patterson was also a bit of a Shakespearean. In 1838, he published a little book called ‘Letters on the Natural History of the Insects Mentioned in Shakspeare’s Plays.’

‘Shakspeare’ is not a typo, it is spelled this way throughout the book; Patterson was clearly in the Victorian-era camp that thought the Bard’s name should be spelled as he signed it.

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The book consists of 12 papers that were read out on ‘Public Nights’ held at the Belfast Society’s museum during the 1830s. These public events were common at learned societies of the time. For one night, the doors were opened to non-members to listen to the experts talk science (or literature, or whatever the society scholars were into). Clearly ‘science communication’ was just part of the job in those days. 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

Deck the halls: an Aussie Pollinator Christmas

If asked to name a plant that symbolises Christmas, most people would probably think of holly, ivy, mistletoe, or the traditional decorated pine tree. But spare a thought for us Aussies – none of these plants are native to our shores (the traditional Christmas mistletoe is a European species). In fact, some of them, like holly, are actually weeds here.

Historical records tell us that the early settlers loved to decorate their new houses at Christmas with Aussie flowers and foliage. But a short foray into the shops today reveals that our modern Australian Christmas motifs have returned to the European natural history of deer, rabbits, holly and northern hemisphere pines.

But Australia has plenty of genuine Christmas flora that we can substitute for the traditional botany…there are no rules! Continue reading

A Halloween natural history

Before Halloween became a consumption holiday, it had a somewhat ambiguous cultural history. No one is really quite sure where it came from. It appears to be a case of a myriad traditions, rituals and festivals being narrowed over time into one, and then linked back to an apparent history through its calendar date.

Whatever festival you think it stems from, the general theme is death, but not necessarily in the macabre and horrific sense it has become associated with. It’s also about regeneration and the life that comes after a death, whether it be honouring the legacy of saints (eve before All Saint’s Day, the Christian holy day) or celebrating the end of summer fertility and preparing for the bleak winter (the ancient Celtic harvest festival Samhain). Continue reading

Science needs room for creativity

Ecologists: where do your research ideas come from? And does this influence the science you do?

This excellent blog post by Stephen Heard illustrates how observation and creative freedom are such an important part of the scientific method. We all know how to run an experiment to ensure the results are actually ‘science’.

But why do we run experiments or collect data? Where do we get the idea to do the experiment in the first place?

We might not know why we start an investigation, in formulaic ‘null hypothesis’ terms. But our knowledge and experience to date, however limited or vague, has given us the idea that collecting these data in that system is worth doing – there is some level of uncertainty in the system that inspires us to investigate further. Often we can’t clarify that uncertainty in words or numbers…so we put it down to ‘I was bored and just wanted to see what happened’.

But if you already know for certain, through knowledge and experience, that testing an idea is pointless, you wouldn’t waste your time, right? You don’t just suddenly say “Hmm, I wonder what would happen if I pee while standing on my head? I’m bored, so I might try it and see…” Continue reading

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

The dangers of separating science and environment

Does the natural world have any relevance to modern science? Of course it does; but sometimes it seems like that’s not the case. This is a myth perpetuated directly and indirectly through media, policy decisions, academic disciplines, even some science engagement initiatives: that the natural world is somehow separate from science.

Read the rest of my piece published today in Ensia magazine.

© Manu Saunders 2015

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

Yeasts, Neuroscience and the challenges of Interdisciplinary Research

Interdisciplinary research is critical to solving most of our current environmental crises and human problems. It is particularly relevant to ecology (e.g. landscape ecology, environmental humanities, and the ecosystem services (ES) concept). This volume of the journal Ecosystems from 1999 has some great articles on the issue.

One of the biggest challenges involved in interdisciplinary research is the influence of disciplinary silos on science research and communication.

…the public is interested in the big picture painted by science, and that picture is rarely painted by a single discipline. We find, therefore, that communicating interdisciplinary results to the public is generally easier than communicating disciplinary results.
– Daily & Ehrlich (1999)

To non-scientists, interdisciplinary research makes sense, because Life is interdisciplinary. But communicating interdisciplinary results within those disciplines can be a lot harder. Every scientific discipline has its own approach to concepts, methodology, analysis and research generally. That’s what maintains knowledge diversity within ‘science’. But it can cause misunderstanding between disciplines, when we forget that other kinds of scientists may do science slightly differently to what is the ‘norm’ in our own field. Continue reading

Earth Songs

Music is one of the greatest storytelling media. Art can lay claim to being the oldest – but only from a human perspective. Birds, insects and animals were sending messages through song long before we started drawing on cave walls.

Music has the euphoric power to move us in a way that rivals a cliff-top ocean sunset. It connects us to environment, warns us of danger, and inspires us to change.

Because it’s World Environment Day every day (and you can only listen to Rip Rip Woodchip so many times), here is some of my favourite earth music to keep you in an ecological mood year-round. Continue reading