Amy Whitehead's Research

the ecological musings of a conservation biologist

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Three new papers: urban development, agriculture & skua

What do urban development, agriculture and skua have in common? Superficially very little, except that they feature in three papers that I published in the past few weeks. These papers are the culmination of  research projects I worked on at Landcare Research and the Quantitative & Applied Ecology group at The University of Melbourne and it’s super exciting to see them finally out in print. Many thanks to the teams of co-authors who made these possible.

Protecting biodiversity while planning for development


Clever strategic planning can identify land for urban development that minimises habitat clearing and benefits native plants and animals. Picture: WWF-Australia.

As our cities expand due to population growth, development encroaches on the natural habitat of native plants and animals. While developers often have to assess how their new subdivision or industrial park will impact on these populations, this is usually done at the scale of individual developments and often only considers a few species. The consequence of such ad-hoc assessment is that biodiversity can undergo “death by a thousand cuts” where the cumulative impacts of many development projects can be more severe than those predicted by the individual assessments. However, a lack of good tools and guidance has limited  how impact assessments are carried out. We looked at how existing conservation planning tools can use information on the distribution of many species over large areas to identify the potential impacts of a large-scale development plan in Western Australia. We worked closely with government agencies to identify important areas for biodiversity conservation and make minor changes to the development plans that significantly reduced the potential impacts to biodiversity. See our paper for more details on our framework for undertaking strategic environmental assessments.

Whitehead, A., Kujala, H., & Wintle, B. (2016). Dealing with cumulative biodiversity impacts in strategic environmental assessment: A new frontier for conservation planning Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/conl.12260

Can biodiversity, carbon and agricultural development coexist in Australia’s northern savannas?

Irrigated agriculture in the Ord River Development. Developing northern Australia will involve trade-offs with biodiversity. (Image credit: Garry D. Cook)

Irrigated agriculture in the Ord River Development. Developing northern Australia will involve trade-offs with biodiversity. (Image credit: Garry D. Cook)

There’s a lot of talk about developing Australia’s north, of doubling the agricultural output of this region and pouring billions of dollars into new infrastructure such as irrigation. But what about the natural values of this region and its potential for carbon storage today and into the future? Can we develop the north and still retain these other values?  We undertook a spatial analysis which found agricultural development could have profound impacts on biodiversity OR a relatively light impact, it all depends on how and where it’s done. If managers and decision makers want northern Australia’s sweeping northern savannas to serve multiple purposes then they need to plan strategically for them. For more information about how such strategic planning could be done, check out our paper and the associated press release.

Morán-Ordóñez, A., Whitehead, A., Luck, G., Cook, G., Maggini, R., Fitzsimons, J., & Wintle, B. (2016). Analysis of trade-offs between biodiversity, carbon farming and agricultural development in Northern Australia reveals the benefits of strategic planning. Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/conl.12255

Counting skua by counting penguins


A skua surveying potential lunch options at the Cape Bird Adélie penguin colony.

South polar skua (Stercorarius maccormicki) like to chow down on penguins. So it makes sense that they often nest close to penguin colonies. Over the years, we’ve developed a pretty good understanding of the size of Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) colonies around the Ross Sea, Antarctica, so we set out to see if we could estimate the number of skua associated with those colonies.  Detailed surveys of skua at three Adélie penguin colonies on Ross Island confirmed that more penguins (i.e. more lunch) means more skua.  Using this relationship, we predicted how many skua live in the Ross Sea. To find out how many skua live in the Ross Sea and for a more detailed description of the methods, check out our paper online.

Wilson, D., Lyver, P., Greene, T., Whitehead, A., Dugger, K., Karl, B., Barringer, J., McGarry, R., Pollard, A., & Ainley, D. (2016). South Polar Skua breeding populations in the Ross Sea assessed from demonstrated relationship with Adélie Penguin numbers. Polar Biology. DOI: 10.1007/s00300-016-1980-4

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Nigel Latta (& me) in Antarctica (on the telly)

Last season, when I was in Antarctica, we had a visit from Nigel Latta, a criminal psychologist turned comedic documentary-maker who makes humorous shows about serious subjects. He was sent to Scott Base, Antarctica to live among the scientists and to discover what life on the Ice is really like and whether it holds the key to our futures. The first episode airs on March 4th at 8:30pm on TV One (in NZ only) and promises to be an entertaining ride.

Filming with Nigel and his team was one of the more entertaining media experiences I’ve had – we defused bombs in a tent, counted (& recounted & recounted & recounted & ….) a constantly moving mass of penguin chicks by trying to name them all, discussed the parenting abilities of penguins and their monogamous (or lack thereof) relationships. I watched (with delight) as Nigel got shat on by a South Polar skua and attacked by angry penguins, we restaged Shackelton’s famous dinner photo and generally had a rollocking good time. I look forward to seeing his thoughts of life On Thin Ice*.

If you miss it (& happen to live in NZ), you should be able to watch it OnDemand.

* Not that I will actually be able to watch it, what with not being in NZ and the restrictions of TV OnDemand….but I’d love to know what you think of it.


A day in the life of a penguin wrangler

By now you’ve probably figured out that I have something to do with penguins and occasionally disappear for months on end into the wilds of Antarctica. I often get asked what we actually do all day when we’re out in the field but my usual response – “oh, you know, count penguins and stuff” – isn’t really that satisfactory. So I’ve tried to document a typical day in the field at Cape Bird…

08:001 Bleep bleep bleep. The alarm goes off and I yank on the piece of string to remove the tightly wedged piece of cardboard in the window and let the daylight stream in. One of the problems of 24 hours of daylight is that it’s hard to block the light out. However, we’ve managed it to overcome that problem so well that we now struggle to wake up because there are no daylight cues to indicate that it’s morning. Hence the string. Eventually dragging myself out of bed, I stumble blindly out to the kitchen and get the coffee pot going. The boys are busy burning the toast while trying to identify a seal drifting past on the sea ice. At first glance, it looked like it might be a leopard seal but, on closer inspection through the binoculars, it turns out to be a weddell seal. They’re pretty common in this neck of the woods, so attention quickly turns back to rescuing breakfast. Then there’s a quick discussion about the plan for the day, which quickly digresses into some random conversation totally off topic!

10:00 We start to layer on the gear in preparation for going outside. It’s not a particularly cold day outside (maybe hovering just below 0°C), so no need to go overboard with the layers. Just a pair of polar fleece trousers, insulated overalls, merino t-shirt, merino longsleeved top, fleece sweater, primaloft jacket and windstopper jacket, topped off with a fleece-lined woollen hat, a neck buff, sunglasses and a pair of possum-merino gloves. Oh, plus a pair of thick woollen socks and insulated boots. It takes a while to get ready! Then it’s outside to start the day’s work.

Peter heads off to start bandsearching – walking the edge of the subcolonies and looking for birds with flipper bands. Once located, he’ll record the band number and the bird is up to. This is usually a straightforward process but there is always someone who flaps their flippers or turns so that you can’t read the band. This usually turns into a frustrating game where you and the penguin dance around each other for five minutes (or more!) until eventually you manage to outwit the bird. Once is tolerable but when you’re doing this for 8 hours or more a day, it can get pretty tedious.  On the other hand, spending this much time walking around the colony means you get to see a lot of interesting things and take a lot of pictures.

Hamish & I head down the hill to the weighbridge colony. This small subcolony of approximately 200 nests is surrounded by a mesh fence, with the only access point into the colony across a bridge. This bridge hides a set of scales that weigh birds as they cross, as well as recording whether they coming or going. Every couple of days we download the data from the weighbridge and record the status of the marked nests – which adults are present and how many eggs or chicks they have – as well as the total number of adults and chicks in the subcolony. This information is used to work out some pretty interesting information about how long adults are out at sea and how much food they bring back for their chicks.  It also lets us compare how the colony is doing from year to year.

11:00 Next we head off to count adults and chicks at two more reference colonies. Unlike the weighbridge colony, these subcolonies are not surrounded by a fence. We monitor 30 marked nests in these colonies from early November when the eggs are laid until the chicks creche in mid January. While we’re walking between colonies, we find a freshly dead chick that has just been killed by a skua. Penguin colonies are filled with death and destruction and it can take a bit of getting used to. But it can also offer some unique opportunities. All dead chicks in reasonable condition (i.e. they are still whole and not super stinky) are weighed, measured and then dissected. Looking at the stomach contents gives us some idea about what’s happening out at sea. This chick has been fed mostly krill but the grey mush suggests that adults are also starting to bring in silverfish. This tends to happen later in the season when the chicks are about three weeks old.


12:00 Chick counting done for the moment, it’s off to do some actual penguin wrangling. Since we arrived in mid December we’ve been catching banded adults with chicks and attaching small devices called accelerometers. These collect information about a bird’s foraging behaviour: how long they spend out at sea on one foraging trip, how often and how deep they dive, and the types of movements they are making while under the water. This morning’s task is to look for birds with accelerometers that that have returned from sea. Foraging trips typically last anywhere from 2 – 8 days, depending on the conditions out to sea. This year they seem to be at the longer end of the scale, suggesting that it’s taking longer for birds to find enough food to feed themselves and their chicks.

We aim to recatch birds when they have returned to their nests and are happily brooding their chicks. This is for three reasons:
1) it hopefully gives the adult time to feed their chick(s) before we turn up to disturb them; 2) it’s by far the easiest way to find them (imagine looking for a penguin with a small black device attached to its black back amongst ~40,000 other black-backed penguins!); and 3) adults are much easier to catch if they are sitting on a nest. Grabbing a penguin off a nest is much easier than you might expect – you simply weave your way through the surrounding nests (getting thoroughly pecked and beaten by the neighbours in the process) and pick them up. A second person collects the chick(s) and leaves a cover over the nest to stop the neighbours stealing all the rocks while you’re away. Then it’s onto the business of taking a blood sample, removing the accelerometer and taking a range of measurements such as weight and flipper length. Once the adult has been processed, we weigh and measure the chicks before marking them with a temporary plastic tag. These individually-numbered tags mean that we can follow the growth and survival of these chicks throughout the season. Once we’re done, we release the adult and the chicks back on the nest. The whole process takes less than 20 minutes for each bird and is relatively stress-free for both penguin and wrangler. This morning we manage to retrieve three of the ten accelerometers we have out, which is a pretty good haul.


14:00 Blood samples and accelerometers in hand, it’s time to head back to the hut and process the samples. Vials of blood are loaded into the centrifuge and sent spinning merrily on their way, slides are fixed in alcohol, feather samples are stored away under the bench and the first accelerometer is plugged into the computer to download. It must be time for lunch! This year we’ve become masters of the scone and today’s lunch includes a healthy dose of the chocolate and date variety, with a side of toasted cheese sandwich and some dried apple slices.

It can take up to 40 mins to download the data from each accelerometer. Given that we have three to do today, we have plenty of time to do our daily mammal survey. This involves staring out the window for an hour every day, scanning the beach and water for mammals. We often see Weddell seals on the beach and some days will be treated to a Antarctic minke whale or a pod of orca swimming past. Alas, today is not one of those days and it’s a very long hour staring out the window with binoculars without seeing a single mammal. At least the view isn’t too shabby.

16:30 Blood processed, accelerometers downloaded, lunch eaten and the lack of mammals surveyed, it’s time to head back outside to finish the rest of the day’s fieldwork. We hope to put the three accelerometers that we retrieved this morning back out on some new birds. We have a list of target nests with banded birds of known ages, so it’s simply a matter of walking around and checking those nests until we find somebody at home. Once we’ve located a victim customer, it’s a matter of grabbing the bird and its chicks off the nest and attaching the accelerometer. We do this using thin strips of tape that are layered under the feathers, a technique that is robust enough to stay on for up to three foraging trips. A nice, non-wriggly bird will take about 5-6 minutes to process and return to the nest. A wriggly bird may take a bit longer and will likely result in some strong words from the handler and the tape sticker! Oh how we hate the wriggly birds!

18:00 Three accelerometers deployed, it’s time to go and count some more penguins. As the season progresses, the number of adults at a subcolony decreases as the chicks are left to creche. This leaves the chicks particularly vulnerable to skua predation. We have some small subcolonies of penguins just below the hut that are quite isolated and surrounded by skua nests. These colonies drop in size quite dramatically as chicks start to disappear into the mouths of skuas. [skua swallowing chick photo] The skua effect can be so severe that the smallest of these colonies rarely manages to fledge any chicks. Every couple of days we count the number of adults and chicks to document the skua-induced declines. Today everyone seems to be well and accounted for but there are six hungry skua stalking the edge of the colony, so I suspect that the next counts will be somewhat lower.

18:30 Heading back up to the hut, we dump our packs and pick up some shovels and a wheelbarrow, and head over to the snowbank. Our hut has no plumbing system, so we have to collect snow to melt for water. A couple of times a week, we shovel snow into the wheelbarrow and dump it in a large container in the hut where it slowly melts. We also have to carry all our waste water (including pee) in buckets down to the sea. As such, washing is an event that is much less regular than would be socially acceptable in the real world! Luckily, we all smell equally of penguin.


20:00 “Scott Base, Scott Base, this is Cape Bird”. Every night we check in with Antarctica NZ at Scott Base on the VHF radio to let them know we’re okay and haven’t been eaten by skua or drifted away in a boat2. It’s our only opportunity to talk to someone outside of our group of three, hear some news from the outside world and get a weather report. Then it’s time for dinner – usually some sort of stirfry/pasta/curry dish. Today it’s a variation on lamb stirfry, followed by a special treat – passionfruit cheesecake! As far as field food goes, we have it pretty good out at Cape Bird. We have a freezer, so we can have frozen meat and vegetables, and there is a large well-stocked pantry with most of the things you need. Like most field huts though, Cape Bird is the place the food goes to die and expiry dates are treated more as a game (“Guess how many years since tonight’s dinner ingredients expired!”3) than a guideline for edibility. And you definitely start to crave fresh food – what we wouldn’t give for a simple salad.

21:00 Fed, watered and dishes washed, we all sit down at our computers and enter the day’s data, download photos, and work out a plan for tomorrow. This year Peter is trialling a new approach to data entry by entering it directly into a tablet in the field. It seems to be working well and saves having to enter up to 14 pages of data at the end of the day but there is still room for improvement. I spend some time in the lab sorting out the bleeding kit; finding more needles, pre-labelling sample bags.

00:00 How did it get to be this late already?! It’s hard to keep track of time when it never gets dark outside and we often find ourselves working much later than we intended. The light at this time of day is often stunning and it’s tempting to head back outside to take pictures. Tonight we set up the timelapse camera to try and capture the moving sea. Then it’s time to wedge the cardboard back in the window and drift off to sleep, counting penguins…


1 This hour of rising may be somewhat optimistic and is purely here for the benefit of my boss (who I’m hoping doesn’t read footnotes!). Even this is much later than the season when he was there but that’s what happens when you leave me in charge!

2 This happened to a group of researchers at Cape Bird in the 1970s. It took five days before they were rescued. Needless to say, we are no longer allowed boats!

3 I think 2004 was the oldest expiry date encountered this year, although there were a couple of items that I think actually pre-dated expiry dates!

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Wildlife Wednesday: Nesting Adélie penguins

Unlike their cousins the emperor penguin, and despite what most people expect, Adélie penguins do not nest on the ice. In fact, they need ice-free areas of gravel to breed on over the summer months. This is largely because they build nests of small stones in which to lay their eggs. Stones are a valuable resource in a penguin colony and it’s not uncommon to see birds stealing stones from their neighbour’s nest when they think no one is looking. This stealing behaviour means that the nests are often very evenly-spaced, at a distance that is slightly beyond the reach of the neighbour.

Occasionally someone will branch out into alternative building materials. For some reason, this bird decided that the dessicated remains of dead penguin chicks are better than stones. Unfortunately, the ladies didn’t agree and he wasn’t successful in finding a mate.  Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be different!

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Wildlife Wednesday: Adélie penguins

I know I’ve featured Adélie penguins on Wildlife Wednesday before.  But it’s been a while and I have seen quite a few of them since last time. So over the next few weeks, I’m going to feature a series of Adélie penguin photographs that highlight different aspects of their natural history.  Please forgive me my penguin indulgences!

Adélie penguins at Cape Bird feed mostly on krill and silverfish, diving down to over 100 m to catch their prey. They have backwards pointing “spines” on the roof of their mouths and their tongues to stop the prey items escaping once they have managed to chase them down.


Wildlife Wednesday: Antarctica

Now I realise that Antarctica technically isn’t wildlife. But it’s full of wildlife, albeit of a somewhat limited variety (we saw a total of 10 species of vertebrates, plus a couple of crustaceans and some algae in two months). And it only seems fair that I share some of that wildlife with you. I haven’t had time to properly edit the ~65GB of photos we took at Cape Bird this year, so here is a photo for every one of the 56 days we were in Antarctica. I hope you’ll forgive me the odd non-wildlife photo!  Hovering over a photo will give you some inane caption, while you can click on one and enter slideshow mode for a better view.  Enjoy!

More southern stories will follow soon….

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This is just a super quick post to say bye for now & have a great (antipodean) summer. Yesterday I flew south from New Zealand to Ross Island in Antarctica to begin an eight week fieldtrip to monitor Adelie penguins.  This is the fourth year I’ve been luckly enough to be involved in this research and it’s always a hectic but exciting time of year.

We don’t have internet out at Cape Bird this year (as we shouldn’t at a remote field camp on a remote island at the bottom of the world), which means I can’t keep you posted with what we are up to.  However, it will mean that I have plenty of time to hone my blog posts for when we get back in early February, so expect a flurry of photos and posts then.  In the meantime, you can find out more about the work that we are doing and meet some of the wildlife out at Cape Bird.

Adélie penguin

Adélie penguin



Weddell seal

Weddell seal

Crabeater seal

Crabeater seal

Leopard seal

Leopard seal



I’ll be back in 2014 – have a fabulous christmas & new year!


Researching Adélie penguins

Today is World Penguin Day (not to be confused with Penguin Awareness Day on January 20 – who makes up this stuff?!) and what better way to celebrate than a look at how I spend my summers, researching Adélie penguins.

One of the perks of being an ecologist is that you often get to go to some pretty amazing places and work with amazing animals.  And I’ve definitely had my share of these experiences.  But one of the coolest (quite literally) projects I have been involved with has been researching Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) at Cape Bird on Ross Island, Antarctica.

Penguins on ice

It started out as one of those being in the right place at the right time sort of situations.  I had a gap in my workload as a private consultant and a colleague at Landcare Research asked me to volunteer three months of my time to chase penguins in Antarctica.  Needless to say, I immediately said yes and started on a journey that has been a fascinating experience.  I’ve just completed my third field season at Cape Bird and I’m still pinching myself – it seems unreal to be paid (sometimes good things happen if you volunteer) to spend my summers hanging out with 40,000 Adélie penguins.

The research we do is diverse and multi-faceted, with simultaneous studies occurring at three Adélie penguin colonies varying in size by two orders of magnitude.  Most of the work revolves around studying birds of a known age.  Every year we mark up to 1000 chicks with individually numbered metal flipper bands, with the first bands deployed in 1996.  This enables us to identify how old each banded bird is and to work out survival and recruitment rates.  It also means we have a pretty awesome long-term dataset.

26306 was banded as a chick in 2002.

26306 was banded as a chick in 2002.

Male Adélie penguins start to arrive at the colony in late October and establish nest sites.  Nests are built from small stones and are just far enough apart that your stones can’t be stolen by your neighbour.  The females will arrive a few weeks later and pairs will go through a process of courtship display to establish or renew pair bonds.  After mating, the females will lay 1-2 eggs and then head back out to sea, leaving the male to incubate the eggs for a few weeks.  By the time the female returns again, the males have been at the colony for 3-4 (or more) weeks and are getting fairly hungry!  But from now on in, the males and females will switch roles every 2-5 days or so, with one going out to feed while the other takes on incubation duties.  Eggs will start to hatch after ~31 days and the chicks grow pretty rapidly, gaining over 3 kg in just 6 weeks.

These two chicks are from the same nest and would have hatched within a few days of each other. Clearly somebody has been eating all the pies!

These two chicks are from the same nest and would have hatched within a few days of each other. Clearly somebody has been eating all the pies!

We typically arrive in early November and are straight into monitoring the activities of banded birds.  Each day we walk around a subsection of the colony looking for banded birds and checking out what they are up to.  All nests with banded birds are gpsed and marked with a numbered tag.  These marked nests are checked every five days or so to try and determine the fate of the eggs or chicks through until the end of January.  The primary causes of nest failure seem to be incompetent parenting, fighting neighbours knocking eggs or chicks from the nest, bad weather or skua predation.  Because we spend so much time out in the colony, we often observe some pretty interesting behaviours and it’s hard to not anthropomorphise (but they totally do run around and behave like little people!).

Little penguin "people"

One of the more hands-on projects I’ve been involved with has been conducting the field sampling for a physiology and foraging behaviour study that looks at differences between birds of different ages and breeding experience.  We’ve been catching a subset of the known-age birds and attaching a small device on their backs that records information about their diving behaviour; where they travel to, how long and deep they dive, the water temperature and sudden changes in direction that indicate they might be foraging.  This year at the Cape Crozier colony they were even following the tagged birds around with a remotely operated glider to check out what they were feeding on.  All very technologically cool!

Attaching an accelerometer

Attaching an accelerometer to the back of a penguin using strips of tape.

Once the device is attached, we let them go out for one foraging trip which usually last for 1-4 days and then we catch them again.  This is where my vampire-ish tendencies come in handy as we’re taking blood from the jugular vein for the physiology part of the study.  It’s a pretty quick and easy process but it does involve sticking a one inch needle in the neck of wriggling penguin to extract 5 ml of blood.

Blood sampling

Vampires at work.

Not surprisingly, they aren’t very happy about this and try and extract chunks of flesh from person holding them.  Luckily this isn’t me!  After taking blood, we weigh and measure the chicks.  Then everybody is put back on the nest to continue playing happy families.

weighing chick

Weighing an Adelie penguin chick.

There’s a whole lot of other work that goes on throughout the season, including:

  • counting a subset of the active nests and chicks at each colony to work out the annual productivity rate (the mean number of chicks raised per pair).
  • fencing a small subcolony at each site, where the adults have to cross a weighbridge to get to and from their nests.  This tells us how long they go out to sea for and how much food they are bring back to their chicks.
  • watching adults feed their chicks, and dissecting dead chicks, to work out what they are eating.
  • weighing and measuring 50 randomly selected chicks once a week to look at how chick mass and condition vary within and between seasons.
  • taking photos of all of the Adélie penguin colonies in the Ross Sea and counting the penguin dots to look at trends in population size over time.
Penguins crossing the weighbridge after feeding their chicks.

Penguins crossing the weighbridge after feeding their chicks.

It’s always a very busy season and the fact that the sun never sets means it can be hard to switch out of work mode.  But it’s such a spectacular place with some stunning scenery and wildlife that I sometimes wonder how I managed to get a job like this!

You can find out more about our Adélie penguin research at Landcare Research and, listen to some of the researchers talk about life at a penguin colony or check out some recent publications.

Related articles

Dugger, K., Ainley, D., Lyver, P., Barton, K., & Ballard, G. (2010). Survival differences and the effect of environmental instability on breeding dispersal in an Adélie penguin meta-population. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (27), 12375-12380 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1000623107

Lyver, P., MacLeod, C., Ballard, G., Karl, B., Barton, K., Adams, J., Ainley, D., & Wilson, P. (2010). Intra-seasonal variation in foraging behavior among Adélie penguins (Pygocelis adeliae) breeding at Cape Hallett, Ross Sea, Antarctica. Polar Biology, 34 (1), 49-67 DOI: 10.1007/s00300-010-0858-0

Lescroël, A., Ballard, G., Toniolo, V., Barton, K., Wilson, P., Lyver, P., & Ainley, D. (2010). Working less to gain more: when breeding quality relates to foraging efficiency. Ecology, 91 (7), 2044-2055 DOI: 10.1890/09-0766.1

Ballard, G., Dugger, K., Nur, N., & Ainley, D. (2010). Foraging strategies of Adélie penguins: adjusting body condition to cope with environmental variability. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 405, 287-302 DOI: 10.3354/meps08514

Dugger, K., Ballard, G., Ainley, D., & Barton, K. (2006). Effects of flipper bands on foraging behavior and survival of Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae). The Auk, 123 (3) DOI: 10.1642/0004-8038(2006)123[858:EOFBOF]2.0.CO;2

Ainley, D.G. (2002) The Adélie Penguin. Columbia University Press, New York.

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My academic history (in a word-cloud)

Earlier this week, the postdocs in the QAECO lab presented a short talk about their academic life: past research, current research and future aspirations.  Limited to three powerpoint slides and eight minutes, it was an interesting exercise in brevity and finding ways to clearly communicate the major themes of your research.

My research history hasn’t really followed any obvious themes.  In fact, it’s really been driven by a series of happy accidents and crap-portunities*.   I started out as a field ecologist; studying the habitat use of freshwater fish, and working as a ranger for the Department of Conservation managing threatened bird species.  This was followed by more freshwater fish research, this time on rainbow trout in the United States, before I veered off (due to a crap-portunity) into the mysterious world of modelling (of the mathematical kind).  This fortuitous deviation led to an investigation of the sustainability of harvesting shovelnose sturgeon for caviar for my Masters and greatly influenced my research interests.  Returning to NZ, more ranger work for DOC led to a PhD looking at ways to improve the effectiveness of whio conservation: a glorious combination of fieldwork with spatial, demographic and population modelling.

Another happy accident saw me end up at Landcare Research, where I became the person that analysed all the random data living in the bottom of people’s filing cabinets.  I  investigated the effects of removing livestock from high country farmland, modeled disease transmission in Tasmanian devils, and looked for relationships between rabbit breeding and grass growth.  A short break in contracts provided an opportunity to do volunteer work in Antarctica.  This led to three seasons monitoring Adélie penguins and skua; and research looking at the effects of environmental conditions on Adélie penguin chick condition and the relationship between skua populations and penguin density.  I also spent time estimating the number of burrow-nesting petrels across a group of islands by identifying relationships between burrow density and habitat, burrow occupancy and breeding success.  And I briefly branched out into scary maths when I constructed a virtual model of masting trees to assess the impacts of herbivory.

I summarised all this in my talk by producing a word-cloud (in R because that’s how I roll) that showed the relative importance of keywords from each of these projects (and some pretty pictures of my study subjects to keep people interested).

academic wordcloud

So I guess you could say the central themes of my research to date are the management and conservation of populations threatened by invasive pests.  There will almost certainly be modelling involved, probably in (but not limited to) R, and I’d be keen on doing some fieldwork if possible.  I’m good at sorting out your horribly stored dataset (although I’d rather not) and I can put my hand to most forms of analysis (provided it is google-able and preferably done in R).  I’m currently branching out into yet another new field: conservation planning in the face of regional and urban development in the QAECO lab at the University of Melbourne but that’s another story for another time.

* When new opportunities arise out of the shitty things that happen.

Photo credits
I’d like to claim credit for these amazing photographs but, the truth is, I never actually saw some of my study species  (one of the downsides of being a modeller).  So thanks to the following contributors of the photographs I acquired from the internet.
Anticlockwise from bottom left: kokopu – Steve Moore; tussocks; rabbits; devils – Ian Waldie/Getty; drylands; masting; Adélie penguin – Amy Whitehead; whio – Amy Whitehead; oi – Mike Danzenbaker; kaki – Glenda Rees; shovelnose sturgeon – Konrad P. Schmidt; rainbow trout; kakapo – Mark Carwardine/; skua – Amy Whitehead; takahe

Wildlife Wednesday: Comb Jelly


One of the traditions at Cape Bird is the annual polar plunge.  Swimming in such waters isn’t for the faint-hearted.  Sea water freezes at about 1.9°C and when you’re swimming amongst the icebergs (and the penguins), the water can’t be that far from freezing.  I do, of course, use the word “swimming” somewhat loosely!  Everyone has their own technique:  I’m all for the wade out far enough to duck dive, while I’ve seen others leap from icebergs or walk out to ankle depth and lie down.  However you do it, it’s a very rapid dunking, typically accompanied by much squealing and swearing.

You need very specific conditions for swimming: it needs to be sunny, dead calm and “warm” – above zero is ideal.  But you don’t want it to be too warm or you get a lot of melt-water from the icecap behind the colony, which brings with it a spate of penguin poo.  You also don’t want too much pack ice drifting past, bringing with it lurking leopard seals.  Christmas Day 2011 dawned calm, clear and perfect for swimming.  Well, it didn’t dawn – we have 24 hours of daylight but you get the picture.  Three intrepid swimmers set off to commune with the penguins and enjoy an icy dip.  The first brave soul stepped out into icy water and began to wade out*.  Squeals of horror at the water temperature turned to squeals of something else as my colleague spotted something in the water.  A leopard seal?  An orca?  No, she’s running back with something in her hands!?! A comb jelly!**

“Ctenophores have been described as the most beautiful, delicate, seemingly innocent yet most voracious, sinister and destructive of plankton organisms.” (Mianzan et al., 2009)

Comb jellies (Ctenophora) are gelatinous marine organisms that are similar to jellyfish.  They have eight rows of cilia (little hairs) that run along the length of the body and beat rhythmically, allowing the animals to move through the water.  Comb jellies are typically transparent and glowing cilia you can see in the video (the cause of all the discussion) are caused by the refraction of light.  Unlike jellyfish, comb jellies don’t have stinging cells and engulf their prey of zooplankton whole. They range in size from 2mm to 2m – this fellow was about 10cm in length.

* All three intrepid researchers did indeed go for a Christmas dip.  However, proof of this would affect the PG rating of this blog.

** No comb jellies were harmed in the making of this post