Mega-fun with Melbourne’s microbats

ABOVE: Wood ducks on the lush green grass of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne.
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ABOVE + BELOW: Some of the gorgeous Gardens flora.
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ABOVE: I don’t always drink coffee…but when I do, it’s so I can stay up all night on an Earthwatch expedition.

Expedition recap – Melbourne’s Microbats

The expedition team arrived at the Royal Botanic Gardens in the early evening when it was still light, piled high with pillows and sleeping bags and overnight kit. After dumping our belongings in the common room and running through the introductions, we got straight to work on setting up the harp nets to trap our microbats!

We put up around 7 or 8 nets in total, in various spots around the park. Our lead scientist, Casey from San Francisco, knows the most popular flight paths from previous studies, and the nets we used are designed so the microbats fly into the harp-like strings and tumble down into the canvas bags below.

Once the nets were in place, we headed back to the base for a presentation on our pint-sized research subject – learning about the different species, their basic anatomy, range and so on.

Soon, it was time for the first of three net checks. We donned our head torches, grabbed the Anabat (an acoustic device that picks up on the bats’ echolocation) and ventured out into the night.

ABOVE: Geeking out over my flashy new headpiece.
ABOVE: Me, Ryan, Ben and Sarah. Bat-trappers.
ABOVE + BELOW: See anything yet?! The team inspects a net.DSCN9526
We checked harp net after harp net, trying not to show our disappointment when each one came up empty. After all, there are no guarantees on a scientific expedition – particularly when it comes to wildlife.

Perhaps the weather wasn’t right. Maybe we were too early – night hadn’t quite fallen.

But then, in the final one, success: our first microbat!
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ABOVE: A member of the research team strokes the super-soft fur of a lesser long-eared bat.

We hurried back to base to process the little guy as quickly as possible. He (it ended up being a semi-juvenile male) was definitely less than thrilled with the whole procedure, but managed to shoot me a grin for the picture below.DSCN9532-001
ABOVE: A semi-juvenile male lesser long-eared bat is measured and assessed by the Earthwatch team.DSCN9534
ABOVE: Casey answers questions from the group and talks us through the data collection process.DSCN9543
ABOVE: Get your membranes out: checking the bat’s wings to determine its age.

After we’d released Bat No. 1, we had some downtime until the next round of net checks (there’s a run at midnight and one at three in the morning). To fill in time, we watched some David Attenborough documentaries, chatted amongst ourselves (a Brisbane couple I spoke to had just come back from a National Geographic expedition to the Galapagos!) and shared snacks. We also set up our camper beds – I strategically positioned mine in the kitchen, to be close to the food!

Perhaps due to the weather (we had a storm around five in the morning, and rain threatened throughout the evening), the bat yield was low – but we did get one each time we headed out, bringing the total to two males and one female. We were hoping to see another one of the four distinct species of microbats that inhabit the Gardens, but the three we caught were all the same species (the lesser long-ear).

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ABOVE: Rise and shine! (Shine optional).
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ABOVE: Our expedition accommodations in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne. Not bad, huh?

In the morning, we dismantled the nets and shared a hot breakfast. Casey also gave us the opportunity to go onto mailing lists for other bat research expeditions around Melbourne, which I’d definitely be interested in undertaking.

All in all, it was a great experience – I loved seeing the microbats up close and getting to spend the night in the Botanic Gardens. This is a Melbourne summer activity I recommend to anyone interested in wildlife and wildlife conservation.

Melbourne’s Microbats expeditions run until 28 February 2015. Visit the Earthwatch website to view dates and book.


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!


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Dave of the Antarctic

I chat to Dave, an ocean modeller, about his recent scientific expedition in Antarctica.

dave gwyther interviewee
David Gwyther. Photographs by Dave.

How long was the trip, and how much of that time was spent at sea?

We left Hobart at the end of January aboard the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer and returned to port mid-March. We sailed south from Hobart, towards the Mertz Glacier, where we spent approximately a week conducting science. We then made our transit westward to the Totten Glacier region (which is approximately south of Perth). We spent the rest of the time in the large bay near the Totten Glacier conducting science. In total, we spent close to 6 and a half weeks at sea. As you can imagine, there are very few places to dock down there – the only places we could have pulled into would have been the French research base, Dumont d’Urville, or the Australian research station, Casey. However, these locations were a large way off course for us, and were never in the plan to visit. We had to be self-sustainable for the whole time at sea. When you think about it, this is a pretty significant undertaking! For example, the cooks on board did an amazing job of keeping fruit fresh, even towards the very end of the trip. Apparently, they would go down to the storage room every day and rotate every apple in storage so that it would not rot!

boat view ice antarctica

How did you fare being on the boat? What personal challenges did you face?

The biggest challenge I faced was seasickness. I had only been on a large ship once before – the Interislander across the Cook Strait between the South and North Island of New Zealand. I got pretty sick, even though it was a short trip. So I had a fairly strong expectation that I’d get sick again this time! I visited the GP then the pharmacy in Hobart and got all of the seasickness meds I could. Following medical advice, I started taking the medications almost a day before we left port. However, almost as soon as we were out of the Derwent River I began to feel ill. As we sailed south, I just got sicker and ended up spending almost 3 days between the bathroom and bed! I wasn’t getting any better, and one of my mates decided he’d go and find me a seasickness patch. These patches aren’t sold in Australia but one of my friends had brought some from the USA. I put the patch on behind my ear, and within 2-3 hours, I was up, very hungry and feeling SO much better! Luckily, much of the voyage was spent within the sea ice, where most of the swell and waves were diminished. I learnt my lesson for the transit back to Hobart across the Southern Ocean – I put a new patch on, and actually had a fun time in the BIG waves on the way back!

boat view ice antarctica

Were there any hairy moments – storms, thick ice – where you were concerned for your safety?

There were obviously very strict safety procedures on board as it’s a dangerous work environment. There are high voltage electricity sources, compressed air, very heavy metal objects which if not secured could fairly easily tip over on top of you, metal winch cables under extremely high tension and so on. Also, almost everything on the boat is metal, so if you trip down the stairs, or lose your footing because you’re not holding the rail while the boat rocks, it’ll definitely hurt. I suppose the hairiest moment was on the transit back to Hobart. There was a big storm out to our west, and it was really delivering on the reputation of the Southern Ocean (‘Roaring Forties’, ‘Furious Fifties’, ‘Screaming Sixties’, etc). We had some big swell (something like 50 ft waves) which made it almost impossible to use the shower (you’d get knocked all around the cubicle) and very hard to eat dinner (the plate would slide around the table). Luckily by this point I had the seasickness patch on, so I actually enjoyed the rocking! But the crew and the marine technicians (who handle most of the difficult operations on board) were so experienced and so safety-conscious that I never really felt in danger.

What wildlife did you spot down in the Antarctic?

We were incredibly lucky with the wildlife we saw. We saw countless penguins; both Adélie and Emperor penguins. The Adélie penguins in particular are quite hilarious to watch as they comically shuffle over the ice. We also saw lots of seals – thousands of Crabeater seals and a few Leopard seals (which are one of the top predators in the region, so it was great to see them). We also saw lots of whales – mostly Humpback whales, but I was lucky enough to see a Killer whale. It breached just portside of the bow (front) of the boat and dived below the boat. That was a pretty exhilarating experience, as it was probably only 10 metres away. We also saw lots of other birdlife – Snow Petrels, Cape Petrels and Great Petrels, as well as Sooty and Wandering Albatross. Seeing the Albatross in the wild was pretty amazing. Interestingly, even when we were in the middle of the ocean, it seemed these birds would come and visit us. It was like they were just curious about this massive orange and yellow thing floating in the ocean! 

What was the most amazing sight you observed?

For me, hands-down the most amazing sight was the Aurora Australis. We saw several good Aurorae on our voyage, but one in particular stood out in my memory. We were on the nightshift, which meant we worked from a bit before midnight until just after noon. As you can imagine it was a very long ‘work day’, and made especially hard in that we didn’t get a whole lot of daylight. However, one benefit was that we saw some amazing aurorae! One particular aurora was incredibly bright and vividly green – we sat out on the bow of the boat and just stared at it. The other benefit of nightshift was that we had both the sunset and sunrise on our shift. Consequently, I got some amazing photos of the sun setting and rising over icebergs, penguins, sea ice and/or the Southern Ocean!

Aurora Australis Antarctica Southern Lights

In terms of the reasons for your scientific expedition, what were you there to observe/measure?

Well, the cruise was a collaborative, multi-disciplinary cruise. Some of the main focuses were on marine geology and sedimentology (to try to understand the geological history of the region, including the dynamics of the ice sheet in the last glaciation); oceanography (to try observe the properties of the water in the region like water temperature, and whether it could possibly be causing increased melting of the Antarctic ice shelves); seismic geology (to observe the sub-bottom layering and determine the past history of deposition) as well as marine biology and plankton studies. We even had a ‘yo-yo camera’, which we’d winch to the bottom of the ocean and tow. It would ‘yo-yo’ up and down and each time it came close to the seafloor it would take a picture. There were some amazing photographs of cold water corals, crabs, fish and octopuses. They were even lucky enough to get a picture of a fish hiding inside a coral. Getting this research done and photographing these things is pretty amazing when you consider the bottom of the ocean was perhaps 500 or 600 metres below us! 
I’m an oceanographer and so I spent most of my time either working on the back deck deploying oceanography equipment, or analysing output from the ocean model that we’re running. This was my first occasion working with oceanography equipment in the field and I feel that I gained a huge amount of experience from the opportunity. For example, we were deploying a small probe off the back deck, which we’d let sink to the bottom of the ocean. As it sunk, it would measure the temperature, salinity and depth. This data grants us an understanding of the structure of the water column, potentially answering the following questions: What is the density of the water present? Where did the water originate (is it from somewhere close to Antarctica, or is it water that has traveled from the North Atlantic)? How strongly stratified is the water column? Is this water that could be driving increased melt of the Antarctic ice shelves? It was a lot of hard (cold) work out on the back deck, but at the same time it was a lot of fun. It’s also rare for someone that spends most of their time on computers (such as an ocean modeller like myself!) to actually get hands-on experience, but I’m so pleased I did!

Did you happen to spot any vessels belonging to the Sea Shepherd or Japanese whaling fleet while you were passing through the Southern Ocean?

We didn’t see any Sea Shepherd or Japanese whaling fleet vessels. However, we did see the French research vessel (L’Astrolabe) and the Australian icebreaker (Aurora Australis). The fact that we happened to pass by these vessels – literally and figuratively in the middle of nowhere – is just astounding. The Southern Ocean is a ridiculously BIG place!

 icebergs antartica pink sunset prettyicebergs shadows antartica sunset pink pretty

Would you do it again?

I would absolutely do it again. I learnt so much from my time on board. In particular I gained a large amount of field work experience, which I feel has improved my understanding of how the ocean works. Next time however, I’ll make sure that one of my US mates brings me some of those seasickness patches!

 icebergs Antarctica scientific expedition

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.


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

All in the name of science & conservation!

waders citizen scientist earthwatch turtlesYep, that's me - looking as attractive as ever in a pair of waders, smelling 
like 'pond'...

While my one-day Earthwatch expedition was certainly dirty work and more than a little tiring, I had a great time learning from scientist Lee and actively participating in her research with fellow volunteers Emma and Gabriella. Our mission: to gather data on turtle habitat and turtle populations in the greater Melbourne region!

It was an early start, compounded by the fact that we’re still in daylight saving mode here in Melbourne, which meant waking up in total darkness, waiting at the bus stop in total darkness, travelling in total darkness (I am aware that some people do this every day) and waiting at the rendezvous point in – you guessed it – no you didn’t – semi-darkness. 

earthwatch expedition turtles melbourne uni school of botanyFirst to arrive! Showing my supreme eagerness to get the day underway. 

After a quick PowerPoint to bring us up to speed on the project, the vollies split into two groups of three and jumped into a car with one of the scientists. Each team had two sites to monitor; ours were in Mill Park. We spent the day in waders: setting up eight turtle traps, collecting and anlaysing dip-netting samples, assessing the quality of the water and checking and removing the traps.

earthwatch expedition turtles melbourneearthwatch expedition turtles melbourneMy team hard at work
earthwatch expedition turtles melbourne
While my team is hard at work analysing and documenting water samples in the 
background, here I am conducting my own analysis/documentation...

Unfortunately for us, we didn’t catch any turtles – unsurprising perhaps because this is the last day in the season (Earthwatch will run sessions again starting in January). However, the team stationed in Doncaster managed to nab three, which would have each been measured, weighed and tagged. We didn’t come up entirely empty-handed though…have a look at what we found in one of our cathedral nets:

All in all, it was a great day outdoors 🙂

Scientist for a day!

Melbourne freshwater turtle earthwatchLast week, Earthwatch came to my company as part of a volunteer expo, and, inspired by the representatives and the materials they proffered, today I signed up for my first expedition. In mid-March, I’ll be a citizen scientist for a day, collecting data on freshwater turtles with a small group of other volunteers and Earthwatch scientists. $95 well spent!

If you’re interested in signing up for one of these short (one day) volunteer sessions, check out their website. I’ll definitely be doing the microbat one when it’s offered again in November-December!


Turtles on the Move – Schedule for the day:

07:00 – 07:30 a.m. Overview of research project & safety briefing
07:30 – 08:30 a.m.
Travel to research site 1
08:30 – 10:00 a.m. Set up nets + quick break for morning tea 
10:00 – 12:00 p.m. Travel to research site 2 & set up nets
12:00 – 12:30 p.m. Lunch
12:30 – 02:30 p.m. Travel to research site 1. Conduct dip-netting + habitat assessment (vegetation and water chemistry). Remove nets & process turtles
02:30 – 05:00 p.m. Travel to research site 2. Conduct dip-netting + habitat assessment (vegetation and water chemistry). Remove nets & process turtles
05:00 p.m. Depart field & return to university

Earthwatch Turtle expedition