Talking to preschoolers about ocean conservation on World Oceans Day 2017

This week I put on my ‘business suit’ and gave a talk to our daughters’ Montessori school on World Oceans Day about the oceans, especially coral reefs, and what we can do to help them. I told them about all the things the oceans do for people, and how, for example, lots of people all around the world depend on coral reefs to feed their families. “Why aren’t we taking care of the corals, then?” one of them asked. A pretty obvious question, but one that isn’t easy to answer. If more people understood the connection between their carbon-producing daily activities (e.g., driving, flying, air conditioning, food choices, etc.), AND the same people had an emotional connection of some sort with reefs, perhaps humanity would collectively be doing a better job of curbing our impacts on coral reefs. Talking to children like this is one way I can make a teensy tiny difference in both of those regards. Hopefully by the time these children are old enough to make their own decisions, saving coral reefs will still be an option.

Marching for science…with the next generation

We took to the streets in Sydney this past weekend, along with hundreds of thousands of other concerned people all over the world, to call for evidence-based policy decisions in the best interest of humanity and the planet. Worryingly, as we all know, science and even basic truthfulness is currently under heavy attack in US politics. We nearly didn’t make it out the door to get to the march in time, thanks to a series of pretty standard parenting mishaps…but we persisted nonetheless, both for the sake of making out voice heard and teaching our children to do the same. Hopefully, in the coming years, the pendulum will swing back towards fact- and evidence-based decision making. But if not, at least we’ve primed our personal next generation to get out there and keep on shouting until it does.

On International Women’s Day 2017, what does gender equality really mean?

This year on International Women’s Day, I was invited by our Faculty of Science and Engineering to speak at their event to celebrate the day and launch Macquarie University’s Workplace Gender Equity Strategy. I was asked to talk about the kinds of support I’d received that had helped me succeed in my career up to now. It was all the more relevant given that that day just happened to be my first day back at the university after seven months of maternity leave.

In thinking through what to say, I realised that the support I’ve received is actually only half of the equation. The support my husband had received, which in turn has allowed him to support me, is the equally important other half. Indeed, I firmly believe that one of the keys to having been able to maintain my career, and indeed flourish, since finishing my Ph.D. and having our first child eight years ago is the flexibility we’ve both been fortunate enough to have.

I’m blessed with an incredibly supportive husband. When we first had children, my husband – who’s a fellow academic – and I decided that although our careers were very important to both of us, we also wanted to ensure that one of us was caring for our children as much of the time as possible. I feel really fortunate that our university and funding agencies’ willingness to be flexible with parental leave leave and part-time work for both of us has meant these aren’t mutually exclusive goals.

As many professional women who have championed the cause of gender equality in the workplace have said – including Annabelle Crabb, Cheryl Sandberg, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, to name just a few – a critical part of the equation for women continuing their careers while raising families is more equal roles for men and women in caregiver roles. And this often means men taking a step back from work, just as women have traditionally done. Now, after having lived it, I believe 100% that supporting men in doing so is just as important as supporting women.

These policies have collectively had a hugely positive impact on:

  • our children’s lives, by having both parents very present with them,
  • my and my husband’s overall happiness, by decreasing the stress associated with achieving work-life balance…allowing us to be more creative and productive in our work,
  • and, importantly, my professional development, by allowing me to continue to pursue my career while being actively engaged in raising our young children.

Sadly, this is still quite exceptional. When I tell friends and colleagues in other institutions, professions, and countries about how I’ve been able to work over the past 8 years while raising small children – i.e., various levels of part-time, interspersed with multiple bouts of parental leave, with a husband who’s also taken parental leave when I went back to work – they’re often incredulous. This quote from Cheryl Sandberg’s excellent book, Lean In, sums it up all too well for many of us:

Today, despite all the gains we have made, neither men nor women have real choice. Until women have supportive employers and colleagues as well as partners who share family responsibilities, they don’t have real choice. And until men are fully respected for contributing insider the home, they don’t have real choice either. Equal opportunity is not equal unless everyone receives the encouragement that makes seizing those opportunities possible. Only then can both men and women achieve their full potential.

Of course, not everyone wants children, but during the courses of our lives many of us will face some sort of carer’s responsibility, for example, caring for elderly parents, or even ourselves…so this is not just an issue that’s relevant for parents of young children. It will matter to just about everybody at some point.

In the future, I hope that more and more people – and in particular, my own children – will have the kind of support that we’ve had that allows them to both be present with their own family while pursuing their career passion, rather than having to make a choice between the two. Everyone – both institutions and employees alike – will be better off this way.

The ocean as workplace and playground

I really appreciate that, as marine ecologist, the ocean is both my workplace and my playground. As a collaborator once said, “my wetsuit is my business suit.” I was recently interviewed for a little blurb in an all-female issue of White Horses surf magazine by the very talented surfer and writer Alicia Trout of Tumble and Hoot and photographed by Leonie Blignaut, an amazing fellow surfing mama. When asked what the ocean means to me, there were so many things that came to mind…everything from passion to fear to adventure to comfort. I work there. I play there. I teach my children there. And then it occurred to me: nearly every aspect of my life is somehow intertwined with the ocean. For this I am extremely grateful.

Tropical cleaner wrasse changes its clients as it moves poleward

A large portion of the ocean has undergone significant warming as a consequence of ongoing climate change. Tropical marine species, from corals to fish, are expected to move polewards, keeping track of seawater temperature increase. However, species differ in their dispersal abilities. For example, species that have highly specialized food or habitat requirements may shift their distribution slower than species that use a broader array of resources. The cleaner wrasse, Labroides dimidiatus, is a tropical coral reef fish that ‘cleans’ other fisNewFig1h by removing and eating parasites from other fish, which are called the cleaner wrasse’s ‘clients’. This interaction involves highly specialized signalling behaviour from both the cleaner wrasse and client fishes, which is assumed to have evolved together. Recently, the high specialization level of this interaction has been challenged by some of our recent work, led by Osmar Luiz and colleagues [article], which photographed cleaner wrasses cleaning seven typical temperate fish species during a couple of expeditions to the Solitary Islands, a tropical-temperate transition zone on Australia’s east coast. The previously unreported ability to clean temperate fishes has important implications, as it turns the table on the cleaner wrasse’s potential for warming-induced distribution shifts. Transition zones between tropical and temperate zones are ideal ‘natural laboratories’ that can be used to further our understanding of species traits’ plasticity. Suboptimal environmental conditions and mixed assemblages comprising species from both tropical and temperate regions may push specialist species to their limits, revealing variability in ecological and behavioural traits that are only apparent in such areas. These areas may, therefore, inform predictive models of future species distributions for other specialized tropical guilds.

Bridging the science-policy gap

From left to right: Dr. Selma Klanten (University of Sydney), The Honourable Mark Butler (Parliamentary Shadow Minister for the Environment, Climate Change and Water), Prof. Dave Booth (University of Technology, Sydney), Dr. Elizabeth Madin, and Mr. Steve Doo (university of Sydney)

From left to right: Dr. Selma Klanten (University of Sydney), The Honourable
Mark Butler (Parliamentary Shadow Minister for the Environment, Climate Change and Water), Prof. Dave Booth (University of Technology, Sydney), Dr. Elizabeth Madin, and Mr. Steve Doo (University of Sydney)

This week I had the pleasure of being part of a small contingent from the Australian Coral Reef Society to brief The Honourable Mark Butler, the Parliamentary Shadow Minister for the Environment, Climate Change and Water on the threats facing Australian coral reefs and possible policy-based solutions. It was a rare and welcome opportunity to do my part to help bridge the science-policy gap! Mr. Butler was well-informed and interested in what we had to say, asking great questions and likewise helping us to understand the political considerations surrounding coral reef conservation policy. Hopefully this will be the start of an ongoing dialogue between the Shadow Minister’s office and our scientific society.

UPDATE: Now, two weeks later, the Labour Party has announced that it will pledge $500m over five years to support scientific monitoring and science-based management of the Great Barrier Reef. Labour leader Bill Shorten said the GBR is now one of party’s ‘highest priorities’. Hopefully we had some role in helping make that the case!

The Guardian UK: “Labor pledges $500m over five years to support Great Barrier Reef”

Night vision on the reef

We’ve just returned from a week on Heron Island on the southern Great Barrier Reef. On this trip,  we did some highly experimental work with night-vision type equipment to allow us to see what happens on the reef at night when no one is around. Specifically, we were interested to find out who’s making the grazing halos we’ve been studying there – beyond the players we’ve observed from our daytime remote videos. To do this we used a fleet of modified, infrared-sensitive GoPro cameras, as well as unmodified GoPros, and red lights mounted on a custom-made rig designed by Osmar Luiz. Despite some hiccups (i.e., flooded cameras) and some eerie lagoon snorkels at dusk (i.e., dinner time for some of the reef’s larger inhabitants!), the trip was a great success. A huge thanks goes out to the awesome team of field assistants, too: Vincent Raoult from Macquarie University, Veronica Radice from the University of Queensland, and Nathan Caromel from Griffith University. We also had the good fortune of working with Morad Ait-Habbouche, a veteran French filmmaker working on a climate change documentary.

We’re just starting to process the nighttime videos now and are excited to see what we find…

Unravelling the extinction risk of poorly-known groupers

_MG_7385The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List classifies species into categories of risk of extinction. Assessments are mostly based on quantitative data and evaluate if the population of a given species is either declining or stable. Species for which insufficient data are available to make an assessment of extinction risk are termed ‘Data Deficient’. The groupers are commercially important marine fishes for which approximately one-third of species are data deficient. However, since species in the Data Deficient category could fall into any of the other Red List categories of risk, conservation programs may neglect genuinely threatened species due to their uncertain conservation status. In a new paper published in Conservation Letters, Osmar led a team of researchers from the Quantitative Ecology and Evolution and Marine Ecology and Conservation groups at Macquarie University to analyze the biological traits of grouper species that were classified into a risk category and generated a statistical model to predict in which category each of the Data Deficient species is more likely to be classified. Among 50 Data Deficient grouper species, seven stand out either as vulnerable to extinction or as endangered. This model provides a way to prioritize the so often limited resources available for the conservation of poorly-known species.

Great Barrier Reef is severely bleaching

Due largely to the record-breaking high temperatures we’ve had lately, large sections of the northern Great Barrier Reef have begun bleaching (i.e., expelling the symbiotic algae that live within coral tissue and serve as a life-support system for corals). This is very bad news. In past bleaching events like this, some coral reefs never recover and become seaweed-dominated reefs lacking coral. Most experts agree that the root causes of the high temperatures (and the resulting coral bleaching events) include the burning of fossil fuels and release of other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (e.g., through beef production)…which are both ultimately driven by human overpopulation and overconsumption.

Below are some recent photos taken by coral reef scientists Wen-Sung Chung and Justin Marshall (University of Queensland) from Lizard Island on Australia’s northern Great Barrier Reef. They tell a sad, rapidly-unfolding story of desperate corals.