Going in to bat for science


It’s booked! Excited to announce I’ve signed up for my second research expedition with Earthwatch Australia and this time, it’s an overnighter!

The expedition is called Melbourne’s Microbats, and I’ll be working with a small group of citizen scientists (and one actual scientist) to trap and band these miniature creatures in the Royal Botanical Gardens. We’re doing this to record important data about the bats including their species, sex, age, reproductive stage, food supply and habitat.

Earthwatch says:

Eating up 600 mosquitoes an hour is just one of the ways the tiny, fragile microbat helps keep the balance in our ecosystem.

…Information [gathered on this expedition] will establish baseline data on the community composition and critical habitat requirements of insect-eating bats across greater Melbourne, and it will help us develop ways to conserve their populations.

My booking is for the first week of December and I can’t wait!


earthwatch logo


Species profile (dugong)

Meg Bauer

I wrote the following species profile as part of my Marine Megafauna course, and got top marks through peer review! Thought I’d share it here for anyone interested in knowing more about dugongs.
– Meg

Top photo © Jürgen Freund, Indo-Pacific Ocean

Dugong (Dugong dugon)

  • Dugongs are often referred to as “sea cows”, as they graze on underwater meadows of seagrass. They are the only marine herbivorous mammal, as all species of manatee rely on freshwater to some extent
  • Dugongs can spend up to six minutes underwater before needing to surface to draw breath
  • There is a theory that the tales of sea sirens or mermaids originated from sightings of dugongs by seafarers

The dugong (Dugong dugon) is a marine mammal in the order Sirenia. The family Dugongidae consists of only four species still alive today. The word “dugong” translates as “lady of the sea” in both the Tagalog and Malay dialect, from which the term was originally derived. Dugongs are also referred  to as Sea Cows, Sea Pigs and Sea Camels, but are not related to any of these animals. Dugongs are most closely related to the Stellar’s Sea Cow, which, in the 18th century, was hunted to extinction by humans. Their closest living relative is the manatee, which they resemble, with the key difference being the shape of their tails. While the tail of a manatee is round and spade-like, dugongs have tails that are fluked. Both species are actually related to a giant land animal – the elephant – although the behaviour and appearance of elephants and dugongs has diverged dramatically.

Dugongs range in length from 2.4 to 3.5 m, with a weight spanning the 231 – 499 kg range. Their coloration varies; juveniles are a pale cream colour that darkens with age both laterally and dorsally, and adults can be anywhere from a brownish to a dark grey hue. Other factors that affect the colour of the skin include the growth of algae, which can give off a greenish tinge. These large herbivores can be found in warm coastal waters from East Africa to Australia, and span the Red Sea, Indian and Pacific oceans. The preferred habitat of the dugong is shallow tropical and subtropical coastal and island waters. There are estimated to be around 85,000 dugongs in the world, with the largest population found in the waters of northern Australia, from Shark Bay (Western Australia) to Moreton Bay (Queensland).

In the wild, dugongs can live up to 70 years, but have a slow rate of reproduction. Sexual maturity in dugongs does not occur until after 10 years of age, and can take some females until they are 17 years old. One calf is produced after a gestation that lasts around 13-14 months, whereupon the mother will assist the newborn with reaching the surface to take its first breath.

Dennis the Friendly Dugong Rutger GeelingPhoto by Rutger Geerling on Flickr

Dugongs are vegetarians whose entire diet is made up of different species of seagrass. Studies have shown that dugongs prefer grasses that are delicate and higher in nitrogen, such as seawrack (Halophila ovalis) and narrowleaf seagrass (Halodule uninervis). They forage throughout the day and night, uprooting whole plants using their snouts. Because of this behaviour, dugongs create distinctive trails where they have fed. They have also been shown to manipulate the seagrass beds when feeding to facilitate plant growth, a behaviour called “cultivation grazing.”

Dugongs have been long sought after for their flesh, oil, bones, skin and teeth. As they are languid and slow-moving animals, and congregate in coastal regions and around islands, they make easy targets for hunters. Due to loss and degradation of habitat, impacts of fishing, hunting and coastal pollution, the total number of dugongs seems to be in decline, with the populations becoming increasingly fragmented. To counteract this trend, dugongs have become legally protected throughout their range, with further conservation efforts being centred on protecting dugong habitat through the creation of Marine Parks. Currently, the conservation status of dugongs is listed variously as endangered, threatened, and vulnerable to extinction.

Helene_Marsh_Copyright-Andrew-Rankin_Dugong_Skull-compressedPhoto by Andrew Rankin

Dugong Expert: Professor Helene Marsh

Professor Helene Marsh’s research has centred around the population ecology and management of dugongs. Her research has formed the scientific basis for major marine conservation efforts, such as the establishment of Dugong Sanctuary in the Torres Strait. Helene is the current Dean of Graduate Research Studies and Professor of Environmental Science at James Cook University, and a program leader in the Marine and Tropical Science Research Facility.

Web: http://www.helenemarsh.com/index.shtml

Further Reading:

Department of the Environment (July 2013) Dugong dugon in Species Profile and Threats Database, Department of the Environment, Canberra. Available here

Kelly N, Peel D (November 2013) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for Surveying Marine Fauna: A Dugong Case Study. Available here

D’Souza E, Patankar V, Arthur R, Alcoverro T, & Kelkar N (October 2013) Long-Term Occupancy Trends in a Data-Poor Dugong Population in the Andaman and Nicobar Archipelago. Available here

Hey birdbrain! Could you solve this puzzle in ~3 mins?

feathered dinosaur velociraptor

You know that scene in Jurassic Park where the velociraptor uses the door handle to open the door of the kitchen? This is like that only way, way more impressive. Clever Girl.

NB: The real velociraptors had feathers and may or may not have been able to open door handles (if only such objects existed in the Late Cretaceous)

Real-life wildlife warrior

I chat to Ebony from Wildcare Australia about being a volunteer carer for injured and abandoned wildlife, and the best ways to get involved in wildlife rescue in your area.

wildlife carer            wildlife carer
Meet Ebony. All images from Cooked by Stars

Is wildlife rehabilitation a paid job for you or do you do it in your spare time?

Unfortunately, wildlife caring is pretty much always done in a volunteer capacity. The only time you can do it as a ‘career’ is by working with captive animals at zoos or in a medical area at a wildlife hospital which deals with the animals before they go to a carer.

What training / qualifications do you need to look after Australian native wildlife?

It varies depending on which state you live in. You are best off looking up your local parks and wildlife department and seeing what permits are needed. In Queensland, you need to join a wildlife group and then complete training every year on the particular species you want to keep a permit for. Certain speciality species like koalas, cassowaries, tree kangaroos (etc.) have restricted permits which take more training to obtain.

How much of a time commitment is required? Does it vary per species (i.e. possums vs. flying foxes)?

Species play a big role in determining the time you will need to commit each day. Baby birds might need to feed every 15-20 minutes from sun up to sun down, whereas a pinky joey will feed every 2-3 hours. Feeds just go up in lengths of time from there. Aside from feeding, you also have to consider the time spent administering medications, cleaning out cages and washing bedding, as well as vet checks, rescues and food prep (preparing bugs for some species, cutting native leaf every day for others).
flying foxes wildlife shelter rehabilitation

Could someone who is working full time ever be able to do this kind of job?

If you work a 9-5 job you can still be a carer, however it will depend on the species of animal you want to care for. Some workplaces allow animals at work which means you could still care for babies on feeds around the clock (depends if you are okay with minimal sleep too!).
There is also the option of caring for injured adults or juvenile animals that only need growing or recovery time in aviaries. Reptiles often just need feeding once a week. The main thing to remember is the length of time the animal will be in care. If you get a baby animal, you could have it anywhere from a few months (some birds) to over a year for roos. This means you are pretty restricted when it comes to going away on weekends or nights out.

Could you explain a bit about the process?

I rescue for the group Wildcare Australia and also for the RSPCA. In these situations, a member of the public contacts one of the organisations and then their call is directed to me if it’s in my rescue area. A lot of animals also come to me via other carers or the RSPCA Wildlife Hospital. Plus, I’m the ‘Possum Coordinator’ for Wildcare in Brisbane, so all the possums that come into care in our group get called into me and I work out who they need to be placed with (often the ‘homeless’ stay with me).

Once the animals are with me it really depends on their age, condition and species as to how long they will need to stay. A possum that is on 4 hour feeds will take about 6 months to get released back into the wild. As they grow, you give them more independence by placing them in larger and larger cages and having less and less interaction with them, until they are in an aviary and you are putting in the foliage for them to eat before they wake up.

An adult with an injury will be kept for medicating and then released back into its territory as soon as possible.
Some species, once they’ve reached a certain age, will go to a ‘crèche’ which will assist them in making new family groups before release (such as bats).
flying fox babies caring for wildlife

What’s the hardest part of the process?

There are a lot of times filled with sadness and heartbreak. Realising the amount of love and time you give to an animal does not always transfer into restoring health. Having to know when euthanasia is the kindest option.

What do you love the most about what you do?

Furry fluff balls!!

What’s the most common reason that native animals are sent to your care?

The main reason animals come in is due to human activity. Cars and domestic animals are the cause of most injuries. Keep pets inside at night! Well fed pets still hunt!.
possums wildlife rehabilitation

Of the animals you receive, how many are injured, and how many are orphans needing to be raised to maturity?

The majority of animals that come into care will be babies or juveniles. This is purely because most injured adult animals have to be euthanised due to the severity of their injuries. In Queensland, we have a policy that animals that are not able to be released back to the wild have to be put down. Most native species are very territorial and have only a very short amount of time they can be away from their home turf before another animal will move in. A male brushtail possum or kookaburra (for example) has about 9 days until he needs to go back to his home, so only injuries that can heal in this time are viable for treatment. Even some species of reptiles are affected by this. Unfortunately, there is no option of just hoping they find another home or kick out the new inhabitants, as these animals are already compromised and will actually die without a secure home.

What’s your most memorable wildlife rescue experience?

I don’t really have just one that I can pinpoint. Mostly just feeling really lucky to spend so much time seeing how wild animals grow up and witnessing so much that most people will never see. It is sad knowing babies lose their mums but really amazing being the closest thing to a replacement.
Possum wildlife shelter

What tips would you give to someone interested in contributing to wildlife rescue?

Get in touch with a local wildlife group and see where you can start. Even if you’re just interested, you can always attend courses and start learning. If you know a wildlife carer – spend some time with them! Then you can get an idea of what area of caring might fit with your lifestyle.

More than a meme

(Also not just an excuse to post sloth pics because who needs an excuse to post sloth pics?)

If you missed this article in the NY Times on Monday, there is something very important you need to know about sloths and moths and algae. And it’s this: they’re friends. They get along. They help each other out. 

Why does this matter? Perhaps it only matters to those that find biology and symbiosis fascinating, but it does remind us that there is so much we’re still learning about the natural world and its myriad, ingenious methods of survival.

I just hope mother nature has enough tricks up her sleeve to survive her biggest threat…us.

sloth moth algae relationship

Volunteering Update

Only three weeks into my New Year’s resolution the ball is rolling so fast I’m struggling to keep in front of it, kinda like this scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark (just imagine I’m Indiana Jones):

You get the picture!

Here’s a quick look at how things are tracking on the volunteer front:

 ♦ Checked a box to say that I’d be interested in volunteering with the Wilderness Society, and was contacted over the phone a few days later for an interview ♦ Went for the interview, where I was given a brief overview of the organisation & the types of volunteer work available in light of my skills and experience ♦ Emailed through my CV and some examples of past communication work ♦ Have been invited to attend an induction day to get a greater understanding of the current campaigns (awaiting date confirmation) ♦  Really hoping that I might get to work on designing some print materials for these guys!


♦  Registered to attend the next Wildlife Victoria Information Session, which goes for 2 hrs and outlines the different volunteer roles  ♦  After reading the brief descriptions on their website, I think I want to start by being a Wildlife Volunteer Transporter, for a set period each weekend ♦  One day I’d love to assist with the rehabilitation of wildlife, but as this tends to be a full-time job I think I’d best leave that until the retirement years!


♦  One volunteer day already completed at Edgar’s, & the next is in the works! ♦  I also discovered that our local farm (the Collingwood Children’s Farm) accepts volunteers too, so onto the to-do list it goes.