Insects in decline: why we need more studies like this

Ecological Armageddon is a bit dramatic. But the message from this paper published in PLOS One is important. The study shows an 82% decline in mid-summer flying insect biomass since 1989 over multiple sites in Germany. Mid-summer is usually peak insect activity, so this is weird.

But every ecological study has a context. This context is described in the Methods section – the most important but least-read section of a scientific paper. For this study, most of the media stories glossed over or overextended the context. 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

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

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

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

Goldilocks or Sapphirelocks? The ‘just right’ flower colour for solitary bees

Spring has definitely sprung in the small patch of remnant native vegetation behind our house. The tiny scrap of remaining woodland jammed between McMansions, the freeway and an industrial block is glowing with golden wattle, mauve chocolate lilies and tiny scarlet & yellow peas. Last week, my eye caught an odd blaze of purple amongst the russet, green and gold – an exotic garden escapee swaying quietly in the breeze.


Continue reading

Nature is cooler than the Joneses

Have you noticed the wild flowers are becoming scarcer every year? It may be that their wise men have told them to depart till man becomes more human.

~ Okakura Kakuzō (1906) The Book of Tea

Nature doesn’t depend on Technology. There is not a single natural process or ecosystem that needs artificial technology to function or exist. But much of human society does rely on technology. It is surprising how much ‘artificial’ technologies are increasingly seen to be central to scientific research, by both scientists and non-scientists. This view is particularly mystifying in ecological science, which is arguably the least technological of the sciences.

In a 2010 critical review of using GPS telemetry in field biology/ecology research, Hebblewhite & Haydon ask “what insights into ecology and conservation has all this extra technology really provided us with?” The disadvantages they list outnumber the advantages and they reckon the strongest advantage is being able to collect data that aren’t biased by the human observer’s ability or presence – things like nocturnal animal behaviour, or migratory patterns. Fair enough…but we did collect information like that before the advent of technology. It just required much more patience, and therefore time, than we think we have now. It also often relied on traditional knowledge gathered from indigenous people or past civilisations, most of whom were much more connected to Nature than we are now. Continue reading