Teaching wildlife road-crossing tricks


Do you know the most common question I get about wildlife crossing structures? Surprisingly, it’s not ‘do they work?’. It’s ‘how do you teach them how to use it?’. I understand why people are skeptical. Sure, a big, safe bridge for wildlife sounds like a great idea, but animals aren’t smart enough to know the difference between a safe spot and a dangerous spot. Are they? After all, they can’t even read! said no animal ever Thankfully, we don’t have to rely on wildlife commonsense. We road ecologists have a few tricks up our sleeves to make sure that animals do use these structures and don’t just cross wherever they feel like.

Location location location

Ideally, we’ve had a chance to study the animals living nearby before the road and crossing structures are put in. We spy on them with cameras, track them with GPS collars and generally stalk them about the country-side. If we can’t track them, we often know a bit about where they like to move through – do they travel along gullies or follow forest patches? From this we can build a map that shows their main movement corridors and pathways. Then we overlay where the new road will be built. Wherever the animal path crosses the road path is a good place for a structure. That way the animals don’t have to change their behaviour too much. They were going that way anyway.

A little bit of guidance

Still, animals have minds of their own and ultimately, can cross wherever they see fit. Maybe one day a new family moves in and decide they’d like to make a new path, a few 100 m away. How do we stop all our careful planning going to waste?

The fencing around the bottom to guides these Christmas Island crabs up and over

The fencing around the bottom to guides these Christmas Island crabs up and over

A fence. I know, it’s obvious when you think about it. We can put up fences where we don’t want animals to cross. Fences serve two important functions. First, they stop animals getting onto the road, creating traffic havoc and potentially getting killed. Second, fences guide animals to the structures, so that the structure is the only place the can cross. Unfortunately, fences can’t go on forever (that’s a lot of fencing!) but targeting them around key movement paths and crossing structures can be really effective.

It doesn’t happen overnight

Even with great planning and fencing, there can be a learning curve. Imagine you’re a deer. You’ve woken up in the morning and are heading off to your favourite waterhole for a quick drink before a day of frolicking (I assume this is how deer behave). Trotting merrily along, all of a sudden you come across this…thing, in your path. A strange, hard tunnel. You can see the waterhole on the other side, but the tunnel smells odd, and looks funny and generally gives you the heeby-jeebies. Better not risk it. Next time you come across the tunnel you’re feeling braver. The smell is fading and grass has started to grow around it. You might take a few steps inside before you chicken out. Then you take a few steps more, and more, until one day, you’ve made it all the way through. You think ‘Nothing bad happened. Maybe I’ll try that again… ‘ Anthropomorphism aside, animals usually take time to get used to the structures. How much time depends on the species. Black lion tamarins used a canopy bridge “as soon as it was assembled” (Valladares-Padua 1995), while larger, long-lived animals could take decades to adapt. My own work on squirrel gliders showed took up to 2 years before they started regularly using canopy bridges and glider poles (Soanes et al 2013).

Not just a cute idea

So, that’s how we do it. Scientists, engineers, road planners and environmental managers put a lot of thought into making each one as good as possible. After a structure is built there’s more work to do, figuring out how well it works and perfecting designs to make future structures even better. I’m not saying we’ve got it all figured out yet – there’s still a long way to go – but we’re learning all the time how to make safer roads for people and animals. Although this guy seems to have the situation under control…

"Don't worry, ecologists. I got this."

“Don’t worry, ecologists. I got this.”

References and further reading

Valladares Padua C, Cullen Jr L and Padua S (1995) A pole bridge to avoid primate road kills. Neotropical Primates 3, 13-15.

Soanes K, Lobo MC, Vesk PA, Moore J, McCarthy MA and van der Ree R (2013) Movement re-established but not restored: Inferring the effectiveness of road-crossing mitigation for a gliding mammal by monitoring use. Biological Conservation 159, 434-441.

van der Ree R, Gulle N, Holland K, van der grift E, Mata C, Suarez F (2007) Overcoming the barrier effect of roads – how effective are mitigation strategies?, In International Conference on Ecology and Transportation. eds C.L. Irwin, D. Nelson, K.P. McDermott, pp. 423-431, Centre of Transportation and The Environment, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina and Little Rock, Akansas, USA.

How to spot a late-stage PhD student

one does not simply, finish a phd

Yep, I’ve reached that stage of PhD research. The stage when you suddenly realise your analyses are mostly completed. You have graphs. You have answers. The only thing left is to figure out what the hell you think about them. And then to write it all down.

As a late-stage PhD researcher, you may exhibit some or all of the following behaviours.

You’ve stopped going to lab meetings. You no longer attend interesting seminars. You forgo group BBQs and faculty morning teas, except to quickly swoop through and pilfer some free food.

You start skipping committee meeting and workshops. At first you respond to invitations with thoughtful apologies. But eventually the list of unread or ignored emails looms large.

Your dependence on performance enhancing substances increases; caffeine, sugar and alcohol, all in your favourite forms (I like redbull, chocolate and wine).

You might even find yourself annoyed when you are forced to attend weddings, birthdays and other social distractions that other (normal) people look forward to.

I could say, ‘Maybe it’s just me…’ But I know I’m not alone. I know you’re out there. Single-mindedly dedicated to finishing your thesis, while at the same time desperately trawling the internet for anything, ANYTHING, to distract you. Perhaps you’ve stared at a word on the screen for so long that you’re sure it’s misspelled. Perhaps that word is your name.

Then again, maybe not. You might be a well-organised and well-adjusted individual. You might work solidly until 5pm then go home, not giving your thesis a second thought until you return at 9am the next morning. I might like to hide thumbtacks in your chair.

Try not to feel guilty about the borderline-antisocial behaviour that comes with late-stage thesis writing. It will pass. You’ll be a doctor soon! It’s right there. Tantalisingly and tortuously close.

In the mean time, take care of yourself and embrace your membership to this club of recluses. You can recognise other members by their complete ignorance of current movies or music and the inability to talk about anything other than their thesis.

Fear not my friends, for this is the stage of finishing! Finally your story comes together. All you have to do, is re-arrange that argument for the 100th time – then delete it entirely.

Further reading
Evidently, for some of us this is also the stage where we can no longer bear the self-imposed embargo on writing anything other than the thesis, and we rebel with a cheeky blog post. I recommend the following:
A letter to my thesis – Samantha Prendergast (One of my favourite reads)
Dear Thesis Whisperer, I’ve got Stockholm Syndrome – Ben from Literature Review HQ (via the Thesis Whisperer)
The nowhere-everywhere place – Maia Sauren (via the Thesis Whisperer)
When are you really finished with a PhD?- Lauren Gawne (via the Thesis Whisperer)

Introducing the Australasian Network for Ecology and Transportation

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know that roads and traffic take a toll on the environment. You’ll also know that there is a whole field of research devoted to understanding and fixing the problem. Road ecology.

ksoanes_wildlife crossing

All over the world, road agencies, environment groups and scientists work to reduce the impacts of roads on the environment. They might build wildlife overpasses, reschedule construction so it doesn’t disrupt mating season, close roads during sensitive times or avoid building roads through protected areas. The details of these stories – successes, failures, and surprises – are often filed away on office shelves and forgotten. That’s the beauty of road ecology organisations like ICOET in the US and IENE in Europe. These networks hold regular meetings and conferences, ensuring that valuable lessons are shared.

Now one more group has set out to make information on road ecology more available – the Australasian Network for Ecology and Transportation, or ANET. To lift text straight from their website:

“We are a professional network dedicated to the research, design and implementation of environmentally-sensitive linear infrastructure (rail, roads and utility easements) across Australasia. ANET acts as a hub, providing links between government, industry, scientists and community groups to ensure all have access to current evidence and best-practice.”

While the network’s focus is on Australia, New Zealand and Asia, it’s open to anyone to join (it’s free) and contribute. In July 2014 the first ANET Conference will be held in Australia, showcasing the latest road ecology research.

Check out their website, Facebook and Twitter (@ecoltransnet) for more info and updates on road ecology, both here and abroad. Full disclosure, while this post isn’t on behalf of ANET, I am involved in the steering committee and run the Facebook and Twitter pages – so I’m not entirely impartial. Even so, I think it’s all pretty great and I’m excited to see how the network grows!

A sexist joke or a joke about sexism?

How do you tell the difference? A sexist joke is at the expense of the victim (for want of a better word). A joke about sexism is at the expense of the perpetrator.

Joe Hanson has a zest for science communication. He makes a series of short, science videos It’s OK to be smart which you can find on YouTube. Great examples of clear, engaging science communication.

In his Thanksgiving themed video, he made an error. He made Albert Einstein sexually harass Marie Curie.

See, the episode hinged on having bobble-head dolls of prominent scientists from the past sit around a table with him and discuss how far science has come since their time. To their dismay, not as far as they thought.

This is where the Einstein-on-Curie action occurs. Einstein repeatedly advances on Curie, then gets his gear off, then mounts her.

One of Joe’s points is that huge challenges still exist for women in science. As he explains to Curie in the video, only 14 women have won the Nobel Prize since she did, one of them her daughter. There are still major imbalances between men and women in senior positions, truly mind-boggling instances of sexual harassment and rampant implicit bias. All of these things need to change.

But Joe had to explain most of this in his post-video-backlash apology .

Why didn’t it come across in the video? Because, I’m sorry to say, the joke wasn’t well executed or funny. Jokes about ‘isms’ are tricky. The vulnerable party can’t be the butt of the joke. If you’ve ever watched The Office (you really should have), Ricky Gervais does this brilliantly as David Brent. Brent does and says some truly horrific things. But he’s always the one who looks bad. You know he’s in the wrong. The rest of the characters make it clear.

In the Thanksgiving video, no one calls Einstein out. Joe actually praises one of his pick-up lines. For it to work, Einstein had to be the butt of the joke. Curie could have kicked him off the table (I certainly would have). Any of the other scientists could have ridiculed him. Joe, as the moral, modern scientist could have called him out. Better yet, why not have a woman scientist co-host and give Einstein what-for? It had to be abundantly clear that Einstein’s behaviour was not OK.

Sexism should always be called out. Loudly and with gusto. I also think there’s a difference between someone who sets out to tell a sexist joke and someone who failed at making a joke about sexism. The end product was sexist, but the intention was not. I don’t think heads need to roll.

Instead, it’s a great opportunity to get the right message out there. That so many people immediately shouted, ‘That’s not OK!’, is brilliant (here, here, and here). Like others, I think this needs to become part of the video. At the end, explain the fall out. Explain why people were rightfully angry. Explain what you meant to do. Try again.

Getting the most out of the grant gauntlet

I’ve been meaning to write a post on research grants available to ecology and conservation students for a while now. In fact, I’ve been meaning to do it for so long that somebody else did it instead. Tim Doherty, quite thoughtlessly and, I think it’s clear, selfishly*, scooped me and published an excellent list here. Do read it.

It got me thinking about the first grant application I ever wrote. I didn’t finish it until the day it was due and only then did I realise it needed to be posted, not emailed. And printed on university letterhead signed by my supervisor. And include a copy of my academic transcript. In a blind panic, I faxed it (without those things) and hoped for the best. Needless to say, I was not successful. I’ve had a few more trips around the block since then, so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned as a student chasing funding. There’s a slight ecology focus, but I think most points are universal.

slowly lower in the grant money

Give them what they ask for
Address the criteria. On time. In the right format. With the correct attachments. It’s OK to ‘recycle’ material from other grant applications – you’ll often be applying for multiple grants at once to fund your project – but make sure you spend time putting it in the required format.

This means you need to…

Grant applications shouldn’t, and often can’t, be written and submitted the afternoon they’re due. Not only should you spend a bit of time thinking about and crafting your application (see this Research Whisperer post on half-baked grants), but there are logistic issues. They often ask for signed statements and references from supervisors, heads of school or industry partners. They might need to be printed on university letterhead, include scanned copies of academic transcripts or, heaven forbid, need to be submitted in hard copy. That all takes time. Supervisors will generally bend over backwards to help you, but if you start demanding things at the drop of a hat on a regular basis you will lose points very, very quickly.

Try and try again
Re-apply if they’ll let you (they usually do). I learned my lesson from that first dismal attempt and was awarded a grant in the next round.

Let them be the judge
You are not the judging panel. So don’t be the one to decide your work isn’t good enough, relevant enough or won’t win anyway so there’s no point in applying. That’s not up to you! Just address the criteria, be passionate, be honest, and let them decide. Which brings me to my next point…

A project can wear many hats. When applying for a grant, think about the parts of your work that are most interesting and relevant to their mission. Is it a conservation focus? A science focus? Are they keen on community outreach? Then frame it accordingly. You’ll be amazed at just how many different groups could be interested in your work. Be sensible about it though. If the grant is for work in arid ecosystems and you study coral reefs it might be best to look elsewhere.

Not just about the money
Whether you’re pursuing a career in research or will be an ‘on ground’ practitioner, you’ll need money to fund your projects. Learning to apply for grants is a critical skill. You won’t always succeed, and you won’t always enjoy it (rejection sucks), but you will improve with each attempt.

Grants are also a great opportunity to develop relationships with people and organisations in your field. In my experience they don’t just hand you a wad of cash, pat you on the head and send you on your way. They’re keen to hear about your progress, your findings and love to share your work with their members. This is a great opportunity to engage a new audience.

Where to look
If you’re in Australia, the JASON website is a great resource for post-grads, and if you’re working on conservation or ecology, definitely check out Tim’s list. Other good places to look are your university’s scholarship website, societies in your field, even local council or government departments. Also, don’t underestimate the power of a good Google search. Finally, chat to your supervisors and other students in the department and see where they find their money. In my experience, people’s desire to help overrides any competitive streaks they may have.

Happy hunting!



How social media helped my PhD

It’s been about a year since I launched into the blogo- and twitterspheres. So now I feel qualified to list the ways it’s been awesome for my PhD.

Developing a writing culture
Blogging feels a little bit like being let off the ‘writing leash’. You can be casual, emotional and even bend some traditional writing rules. But blogging isn’t just about enjoying a bit of literary delinquency. It helped me fall back in love with writing. I enjoy it, so I do it more, it gets easier, so I do it more, and so on and so forth. It’s a great way to practice writing early in your thesis when you’re not a the ‘chapter drafting’ stage. Write about your field, write about fieldwork adventures or write about PhD life (some great examples from my lab group here and here). Pick a topic, any topic, and just write. Sitting down to write thesis chapters becomes less of a chore and more of a habit.

Engage or be ignored
This cold, harsh reality forces your writing to get better. And by that I mean clear, brief and engaging. Writing a blog forces you to find the story in your research and tell it in a way that is so interesting that people feel compelled to; 1) finish reading and, 2) share it. This means using active language, avoiding jargon and cutting nominalisation . Tweeting forces you to do the same thing using only 140 characters. I don’t care what anyone says, that takes skill.

Big picture thinking
When setting up a blog, you inevitably develop a publishing schedule – an overview of the content you want to deliver. Mine is of the sketchy, back-of-a-napkin variety, but still exists. What topics do you want to cover? Do they need to be presented in a certain order? How do they relate to other articles on the same topic?
Can you think of any other document that would benefit from the same approach? Oh that’s right, a dissertation. Developing a blog has helped me think about the most logical structure for the epic tale that is my thesis. Perhaps Peter Jackson will turn it into a trilogy one day…

Stay informed
I used to leave our weekly lab meetings feeling completely out of the loop. How did everyone know about that upcoming policy debate, the paper that was released online five seconds ago, or the research opportunity in Fiji? HOW MUCH READING DO THESE PEOPLE DO?!?! Turns out you just need to be on Twitter. Follow government departments, journalists, non-profit organisations and others in your field to get the latest. It’s like having an online newspaper tailored specifically to your interests.

Just kidding, but in a brave new era of virtual networking it helps to at least be google-able. Even a short ‘about me’ page with your name, research interests and contact details. You’d be amazed at the opportunities that come knocking (from media stories about your work to job opportunities!) And you can reach an astonishingly wide audience. My blog is small, but has been viewed by people in over 80 countries. 80 countries! That’s 78 countries more than I would have expected.

Truly the most difficult part of blogging

Truly the most difficult part of blogging

Science communication
But my favourite thing is that people who want to know about your work will find you. When someone types ‘what are the rope crossings over the Hume Freeway?’ into Google and ends up on my blog, I feel like I’ve done my job. Although I’m fairly confident the people who found my blog through the following searches left unsatisfied:
-‘can a magpie eat a possum?’
-‘burning galah’
-‘phd oboe projects’

Still not convinced?

Two common reasons for students not getting involved are 1) lack of time 2) potentially saying the wrong thing with horrendous consequences. First, blogging and twittering (tweeting?) have never taken time away from my thesis. If you’re truly in the mood to procrastinate, you will find a way to do it. Facebook, YouTube, the sudden urge to organise the Tupperware drawer – never underestimate how creatively you can avoid working on something important. Blogging or tweeting about your research topic is closer to ‘extra-curricular professional development’ than it is to procrastinating.

As for the second reason, personally, I think it disappears if you follow one simple rule: be honest. Don’t blog or tweet anything that you’re not prepared to say in a room full of real, live people. Yes, you might still get some disagreement, but so what? If you’ve thought the argument all the way through and really believe what you’re saying, go ahead and defend it. People love a good academic back-and-forth. Always be respectful. Avoid engaging with trolls.

So that’s it. That’s been my year on social media. The sky didn’t fall in, my thesis hasn’t imploded, and no rotten tomatoes have been hurled. It’s all good. You should try it.

Just do it

Just do it

Some links to get you started

A reflection on academic blogging and advice for newbies by Pat Thompson

A balanced take on Twitter from Research Voodoo

Why grad schools should require students to blog, from Scientific American

Advice for starting your own blog from Get a Life, PhD.