Drones, kites and blue carbon at Heron Island

Our recent trip to Heron Island was a great success, despite a minor drone crash and some trying winds…the team was great and we had lots of fun in the process! One of the products arising from this work will be an open-source, best practices-type manual to serve as a toolkit to help other researchers, conservation practitioners and resource managers use drones to survey reefs and other marine environments. We also collected lots of samples to see how predators may indirectly affect blue carbon storage as part of the Global Change Institute grant. Stay tuned! (All photos are by Brian Sullivan unless otherwise noted.)

Team Halo 2014: Emily Darling, Edd Hamill, Trisha Atwood, Quinn Olivier, Elizabeth Madin. Also part of the team but not shown: Brian Sullivan (the man behind the camera), Alastair Harbourne, Andy Goodwin.

Team Halo: Emily Darling, Edd Hamill, Trisha Atwood, Quinn Olivier, Elizabeth Madin. Also part of the team but not shown: Brian Sullivan (the man behind the camera), Alastair Harbourne, Andy Goodwin.

Heron lagoon as seen from RV Boult. Photo: Elizabeth Madin

Edd Hammill working hard...

Edd Hammill and Trisha Atwood working hard…

One of the drones we used to get aerial imagery of the lagoon reefs. Elizabeth Madin and Andy Goodwin. Photo by Brian Sullivan.

One of the drones that Andy built to get aerial imagery of the lagoon reefs. Elizabeth Madin and Andy Goodwin.

Brian Sullivan recovers the drone after a flight… Photo: a selfie, perhaps?

The eagle ray kite we used to fly the camera post-drone crash. Photo: Emily Darling

The eagle ray kite we used to fly the camera post-drone crash. Photo: Emily Darling

Elizabeth learning how to take Underwater Street View imagery.

Elizabeth learning how to take Underwater Street View imagery.

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.

A great time at the 2016 Gordon Conference on Predator-Prey Interactions

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I’ve just returned from the 2016 Gordon Conference on “New Frontiers in Understanding Predator-Prey Interactions in a Human-Altered World” in Ventura, California. It was an excellent meeting! This is the second meeting in this series (the first was in 2014) and it will be happening every other year into the future. This is one of my favourite meetings – it’s nice and small (with a cap of 200 participants), there’s plenty of time to have meaningful discussions with new and existing colleagues, and there’s a general sense of integration across disciplines that’s not often found at more system- or discipline-specific meetings. I presented our work on how human activities change marine ecosystems by altering predation risk (see poster above) and got some great feedback. Looking forward to the next meeting in 2018!

Swimming amongst the seagrass beds and grazing halos off Key West

While in Key West recently, we also had a chance to get a quick look at the grazing halos that are about 8 kms offshore within the Western Sambo Ecological Reserve. Years ago, Dr. Tom Adam pointed these out to me on Google Earth, and they’re still some of the clearest examples of grazing halos we’ve seen anywhere in the world. I’ve always been curious about what the patch reef communities within the halos look like. It turns out they’re quite beautiful, with lots of sea fans and sea whips and fairly high live coral cover (though no staghorn or elkhorn, at least at the ones we visited). There were also more predatory fish than I expected to see for a place as heavily fished as the Keys. The halo itself was as clear as you’d expect from the imagery, with essentially bare sand adjacent to the reef. This bare area extends for about 6-8 metres, at which point the seagrass becomes increasingly dense and tall – just as we’d expect from theory and the satellite imagery.