Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Live Below the Line

I worked out that I eat my way through a minimum AU$25.50 dollars a day. This is before I include comfort foods such as coffee (previously Coke) and nuts into my daily snacks. I am truly living the first-world standard, and in all honesty I am now ashamed that I could've cut back on eating random crap, and with the money I saved, contributed to those less fortunate than I.

Since 2005, the World Bank has defined the extreme poverty line as surviving on less than US$1.25 (AU$2) a day. Money raised through Live Below the Line will be dedicated to those living in extreme poverty. Want to Live Below the Line with me? From May 6th-10th, eat on $2 a day, raise funds and get a better understanding of extreme poverty.

I think this challenge will pave the way for more considerate eating, on my part, for the future. After this challenge, I will most likely go back to my $25.50 a day, but will refrain from so often indulging in coffees and other comforts, and commit those extra savings to Doctors Without Borders, as those under the poverty line can't afford medical care either.
Worker in rice field in Cambodia. Photographer: de Oliver Spalt. Published under cc-by-sa-2.5

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Featured White Evolutionary Lab researcher: Hugh tests the limits of toad invasion in Australia

Hugh and an experimental cane toad
Invasive cane toads are well-known for their deleterious effects on wildlife in Australia: most native animals that consume cane toads die as a result of the cane toad toxin, and the cane toads themselves consume many species of small native animals. This is especially a concern for some of Australia's more endangered animals, such as the carnivorous spotted-tail quoll, and consequently, any means of predicting where the toads are going, and how fast they are heading there, is important for conservation scientists.
The locomotion test involves swimming in fast-flowing water

Portrait of an experimental cane toad - they have beautiful eyes!
Cane toads (Chaunus [Bufo] marinus) were first introduced into Australia in 1935-1937 along a 1200 km stretch of north east Australia. Now, these animals cover up to 1.2 million square km of north east Australia (Urban et al., 2007). This rapid spread over such a wide area, however, has only occurred in the warmer (tropical) parts of Australia: to the south, cane toads only extend as far as the upper regions of New South Wales.

Previous research suggested that cane toads were physiologically limited in their ability to invade the more temperate regions of Australia (such as New South Wales and further south), because the colder temperatures presented a physiological barrier to cane toad invasion. There is now evidence, however, of a slow but gradual creep of the southern cane toad invasion front headed further south.

This poses an interesting, two-part question, and one that Hugh in the White Evolutionary lab of The University of Queensland is researching:
  1. Is this southern invasion slower because cane toads are reaching limitations on their tolerance of colder temperatures, and as such the physiological barrier to cane toads will be upheld? 
  2. Is this a sign of cane toads physiologically adapting to colder temperatures, and the colder regions of Australia no longer present a barrier to the invasion front?
Hugh is in the final stages of his Honours research that asks these questions. What his research entails is looking for whether there are differences in the energetic costs (metabolic rate) associated with locomotion (as a proxy for physiological performance) in cold and warm conditions between a northern population of adult toads (from Cairns), and a southern population of adult toads (from Ballina and Yamba in New South Wales).

Hugh's research will shed some light in determining whether cane toad physiology in the southern population is better suited to cold temperatures, and ultimately, are toads evolving to tolerate colder temperatures and are thus shifting the invasion front progressively more south. Let's hope for Australia's wildlife that Hugh finds the answer is no!

Friday, 19 April 2013

How I overcome writers block

It's all in my head but...

I’ve found that while writing my thesis I tend to stop in the face of writer’s block and procrastinate an awful lot thereafter. This bothers me, as I am pushing onto my thesis review in only a few weeks, and I can’t seem to just sit down and do focused writing.
 As productive as hitting your head on a brick wall

In the past few days, however, I have found a way out of my writing “dead zone”, and I’ll share with you three thought-processes I’ve employed to drag my motivation kicking and screaming into a more productive place.
  • Write a template for a paragraph
 I often find that I know what I want to say, but I don’t know the details. By writing a template up of a paragraph, sentence by sentence, I find that my writing takes on a more logical progression.

Then, when I have the details I need, I can literally “fill in the blanks”. An example template: It is common practice to….. However, this method is out-dated because it is more effective to……. Previous research in this area is scarce, due to ……………, however, ………… The present study examines the benefits of using a ……… approach, which will increase the………… of ………………..
  • Train of thought
 If you can read a heap of relevant papers, take useful notes you keep handy, and know exactly what you want to say, good stuff. I am never in that position: I rarely find my notes, I always read off-topic, and until I get my thoughts down on a page, I have no idea what I want to write about. 

To kick-start myself to write, I just sit down and write whatever comes to my head. It’s easier to work with words on a page than to imagine how you will structure your sentences before you write. Which leads me to my next point:
  • You don’t have to commit to the words on the page (and realise that what you write will be crap)
The train-of-thought has made words appear on your page. Well done! Then you read what you have just written and……… it is terrible. There is little logic, and most of it is repetitive. There are spelling and grammatical errors everywhere. 

That’s ok, because now you have words on the page, you can trim them down, use a thesaurus to make a few words sound fancy and then just add a few references! Done! At best, you may get a 200 word paragraph from a 1000 word burst of writing.

So writing is a creative process, get those creative juices flowing onto the page in front of you and you’ll probably surprise yourself.

I’ll also share some great blogs I follow that helps (and motivates) me with my academic writing: 

The Thesis Whisperer
The Three Month Thesis
To Do: Dissertation

Monday, 25 February 2013

Frog fungi gone feral

(Image: Taryn Crispin, 2013)
Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), or "Chytrid", is the fungi responsible for one of the most dramatic examples of vertebrate species decline present-day. 

The target class of vertebrates, amphibians, are typically bound to moist habitats in order to survive and successfully breed, and their skin is permeable to water, air and electrolytes. The physiological importance of the skin in amphibians makes them particularly vulnerable to skin infections, and their tight association with moist habitats makes them susceptible to Bd skin infection, as this fungi is believed to transfer and duplicate in water. 

The specific mechanism by which Bd causes fatality in amphibians is unclear, but it is generally agreed upon in the scientific community that it impairs the regulatory functioning of frog skin. 

Bd infection is spreading world-wide at an alarming rate, and it is believed that the global trading of frogs (as food for human consumption, and previously for pregnancy testing in humans) is responsible for this spread.

Countries where amphibian skin samples have tested positive for Bd, number of incidences of Bd per country shown as colour shematic. (Image: Global Bd-Mapping Project)

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Nightwatch: a guide to finding animals after dark

I get great pleasure from seeing animals in the wild. Not only is it a great experience to be standing close to something untamed, but it is also a great opportunity to observe interesting quirks in an animals’ behaviour. But let’s face it: in Australia, most of our animals are active at night. I’m sure you’ll all agree with me that running around in the dark to find these nocturnal natives is not very appealing (or safe). But for those of you who, like me, have the desire to look for Australia’s charismatic wildlife in-action, here are a few pieces of information you may find useful in having a successful (and safe!) night-search.

The gear
First of all, you need the right equipment:
  •  a buddy to accompany you
  •  a decent spotlight or head-torch (preferably 75 lumens)
  •  water
  •  appropriate footwear (closed-in shoes)
  •  a map of the area you are going to
  •  a compression bandage (in the very unlikely event of snake-bite)
  •  a mobile phone (make sure you have reception in the area you are going to
 With this equipment, you are now ready to hit the trail and look for night-life!
What can you see at night?
Depending on what animals you want to see, bushwalks are typically the best for mammals and owls. After recent rains, you are likely to encounter some very colourful frogs in the bush as well. I recommend you pick an area you are familiar with after a day-walk, and stick to the trail. Make sure that when you go out at night you scan the trees – that’s where the possums, gliders, and birds are!

The skills required
Spotting animals is actually quite easy once you learn this one trick: hold the spotlight at eye-level, beside your face.

What you are looking for is not so much the movement or silhouette of an animal, but what is called “eye-shine”. This is the same as the reflection of light, or “glowing”, in the eyes of dogs or cats when a light is shone near their eyes at night. 

The theory behind holding the spotlight at eye-level
Because wild animals are excellent at camouflage, and typically freeze when they hear a person approach, the best way to spot them is to catch a glimpse of eye-shine, then you can head over and get a closer look! The reason your spotlight or torch has to be held at eye-level is because the light in the animals’ eyes are reflected back at the same level as your torch or spotlight, so you can only see eye-shine if your eyes are level with the light source.
An example of what eye-shine looks like. Bilbies only emerge from their burrows at night, so here’s a reason to go spotlighting in the Scotia National Park, NSW, Australia (Jeremy Ringma, 2012. Photo with permission)

Final words
Spotlighting for animals can be a real fun (and cheap) activity for amateurs and professional naturalists alike. When I was young, my father would take me to the beach to go spotlighting for ghost crabs! I was always amazed at how many animals scuttle across the beach at night when the area was such a popular attraction for swimmers during the day. What experiences have you had with spotlighting for wildlife?