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.

P1070598

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

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!

map
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

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?

******

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

Artisan insects and scicomm

One of the positives of our modern dependence on technology and the Internet is their ability to allow us to connect and engage with more people. This is a common argument for open access publishing: because we now have the technology to make scientific articles freely available to all, we should embrace it and make it happen.

Does making information freely accessible online automatically make the material more accessible? Not necessarily. Scientific articles are not a ‘mainstream’ medium. They use language that only peer-group scientists and specialist science communicators can understand. Just making an article free to view doesn’t make it more accessible or useful to a general audience.

Take the Law, for example. Australia’s Commonwealth and State government legislation are online for everyone to access for free, whenever they want. But, seriously, when was the last time you sat down with a cup of tea to read the Albury-Wodonga Development Act 1973?

For science to have impact beyond its peer audience, it usually needs to be translated through a common language. So publishing open access is not a replacement for science communication, it is complementary to it.

I recently acquired the wonderful ‘Insect Artizans and their Work’ (1919) by Edward Step. Step was a naturalist who contributed a number of beautiful books to the natural history literature. His works were considered popular at the time, although his account of a mouse-eating grasshopper from the Congo in ‘Marvels of Insect Life’ may have subsequently blacklisted him with the scientific community. Continue reading

10 minutes with Nature

(Or Ode to Ecology Part 2)

We have a cicada plague* at home. The house we rent is bordered on two sides by a tiny patch of remnant eucalypt woodland. It is infested with cicadas, which started singing here around September. At first it was an occasional chirp, almost unnoticeable. But the heat of the last few of weeks means the chorus has swelled. At peak cicada, we can no longer hear traffic on the Hume Freeway, about 300 metres away. Thankfully, cicada chatter is much less offensive to the ear…although some claim it can damage your hearing, and the cicada boom has unfortunately resulted in the disappearance of most of the birds we see very morning.

Continue reading