The Effective Scientist

22 03 2018

final coverWhat is an effective scientist?

The more I have tried to answer this question, the more it has eluded me. Before I even venture an attempt, it is necessary to distinguish the more esoteric term ‘effective’ from the more pedestrian term ‘success’. Even ‘success’ can be defined and quantified in many different ways. Is the most successful scientist the one who publishes the most papers, gains the most citations, earns the most grant money, gives the most keynote addresses, lectures the most undergraduate students, supervises the most PhD students, appears on the most television shows, or the one whose results improves the most lives? The unfortunate and wholly unsatisfying answer to each of those components is ‘yes’, but neither is the answer restricted to the superlative of any one of those. What I mean here is that you need to do reasonably well (i.e., relative to your peers, at any rate) in most of these things if you want to be considered ‘successful’. The relative contribution of your performance in these components will vary from person to person, and from discipline to discipline, but most undeniably ‘successful’ scientists do well in many or most of these areas.

That’s the opening paragraph for my new book that has finally been release for sale today in the United Kingdom and Europe (the Australasian release is scheduled for 7 April, and 30 April for North America). Published by Cambridge University Press, The Effective ScientistA Handy Guide to a Successful Academic Career is the culmination of many years of work on all the things an academic scientist today needs to know, but was never taught formally.

Several people have asked me why I decided to write this book, so a little history of its genesis is in order. I suppose my over-arching drive was to create something that I sincerely wish had existed when I was a young scientist just starting out on the academic career path. I was focussed on learning my science, and didn’t necessarily have any formal instruction in all the other varied duties I’d eventually be expected to do well, from how to write papers efficiently, to how to review properly, how to manage my grant money, how to organise and store my data, how to run a lab smoothly, how to get the most out of a conference, how to deal with the media, to how to engage in social media effectively (even though the latter didn’t really exist yet at the time) — all of these so-called ‘extra-curricular’ activities associated with an academic career were things I would eventually just have to learn as I went along. I’m sure you’ll agree, there has to be a better way than just muddling through one’s career picking up haphazard experience. Read the rest of this entry »

Save a jaguar by eating less meat

8 10 2018

My encounter with Kaayana in Kaa-Iya National Park in the Bolivian Chaco. Her cub was around but cannot be seen in the photo

I was trapped. Or so I thought.

The jaguar came towards me on the dirt road, calmly but attentively in the dusky light, her nearly full grown cub behind her. Nervous and with only a torch as defence, I held the light high above my head as she approached, trying to look taller. But she was merely curious; and, after 20 minutes, they left. I walked home in the thickening darkness, amazed at having come so close to South America’s top predator. We later named this mother jaguar ‘Kaayana’, because she lives inside Kaa-Iya National Park in the Bolivian Chaco. My fascination with jaguars has only grown since then, but the chances of encountering this incredible animal in the wild have shrunk even since that night.

A few years after that encounter, I’m back to study jaguars in the same forest, only now at the scale of the whole South American Gran Chaco. Jaguars are the third largest cats in the world and the top predators across Latin America. This means that they are essential for keeping ecosystems healthy. However, they are disappearing rapidly in parts of their range.

Understanding how and where the jaguar’s main threats — habitat destruction and hunting — affect them is fundamental to set appropriate strategies to save them. These threats are not only damaging on their own, but they sometimes act simultaneously in an area, potentially having impacts that are larger than their simple sum. For instance, a new road doesn’t only promote deforestation, it also increases hunters’ ability to get into previously inaccessible forests. Similarly, when the forest is cut for cattle ranching, ranchers often kill jaguars for fears of stock loss.

Kaayana & kittens

Kaayana was seen years later by Daniel Alarcón, who took much better photos of her and her new cubs

However, the interactions between these threats are still not fully understood. In our new study, just published in the journal Diversity and Distributions, we developed a new framework to quantify how and where habitat destruction and hunting risk acted together over three decades, at the expense of highly suitable jaguar habitat in the Gran Chaco. We also analyzed how well the different Chaco countries — Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina — and their protected areas maintained key jaguar habitat. Read the rest of this entry »

Sex on the beach

2 10 2018
Female green turtles (Chelonia mydas) spawning (top) and diving (bottom) on Raine Island (Great Barrier Reef, Queensland, Australia) — photos courtesy of Ian Bell. This species is ‘Endangered’ globally since 1982, mainly from egg harvesting (poaching conflict in Mexico for olive ridley Lepidochelys olivacea featured by National Geographic’s video here), despite the success of conservation projects (39). Green turtles inhabit tropical and subtropical seas in all oceans. Adults can grow > 150 kg and live for up to ~ 75 years. Right after birth, juveniles venture into the open sea to recruit ultimately in coastal areas until sexual maturity. They then make their first reproductive migration, often over 1000s of km (see footage of a real dive of a camera-equipped green turtle), to reach their native sandy beaches where pregnant females will lay their eggs. Each female can deposit more than one hundred eggs in her nest, and in several clutches in the same season because they can store the sperm from multiple mating events.

When sex is determined by the thermal environment, males or females might predominate under sustained climatic conditions. A study about marine turtles from the Great Barrier Reef illustrates how feminisation of a population can be partitioned geographically when different reproductive colonies are exposed to contrasting temperatures.

Fortunately, most people in Western societies already perceive that we live in a complex blend of sexual identities, far beyond the kind of genitals we are born with. Those identities start to establish themselves in the embryo before the sixth week of pregnancy. In the commonest scenario, for a human foetus XY with one maternal chromosome (X) and one paternal (Y) chromosome, the activation of the Sry gen (unique to Y) will trigger the differentiation of testicles and, via hormonal pathways, the full set of male characteristics (1).

Absence of that gene in an XX embryo will normally lead to a woman. However, in just one of many exceptions to the rule, Sry-expression failure in XY individuals can result in sterile men or ambiguous genitals — along a full gradient of intermediate sexes and, potentially, gender identities. A 2015 Nature ‘News’ feature echoes two extraordinary cases: (i) a father of four children found to bear a womb during an hernia operation, and (ii) a pregnant mother found to host both XX and XY cells during a genetic test – with her clinical geneticist stating “… that’s the kind of science-fiction material for someone who just came in for an amniocentesis” (2). These real-life stories simply reflect that sex determination is a complex phenomenon.

Three ways of doing it

In nature, there are three main strategies of sex determination (3) — see scheme here: Read the rest of this entry »

South Australia’s broken biodiversity legislation

24 09 2018

It might come as a bit of shock to some who might give more than a shit about our State’s environmental integrity that there is no dedicated legislation to protect biodiversity in South Australia today.

What? Well, ok, we do have the Native Vegetation Act that is supposed to restrict the clearing of existing native vegetation (of which there is precious little left), and the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 to legislate protected areas and species endangerment. We also have the Wilderness Protection Act 1992 that addresses wilderness protection and land restoration, and the Natural Resource Management Act 2004 that is designed to promote sustainable and integrated management of the State’s natural resources. Finally, the South Australia Environment Protection Authority operates under various acts1 to limit environmental damage.

However, South Australia has no act specifically focussed on biodiversity conservation, and the legislation that does exist does not even consider invertebrates (like insects) as animals — because most animals are in fact invertebrates, this means that most of South Australia’s species are ineligible for official threat listing, even if they have a high risk of extinction.

If you recall, I reported in July this year that in 2017 we had a Parliamentary Inquiry into Biodiversity2, which concluded that existing environmental legislation in South Australia “… lacks cohesion and consistency, particularly regarding enforcement and compliance provisions”.

In my judgement, therefore, an entirely new, biodiversity-focussed act would add legislative teeth to biodiversity conservation in South Australia. As it turns out, that very same Parliamentary Inquiry into Biodiversity I mentioned above recommended3 the creation of a Biodiversity Expert Panel to reform the legislative framework of environmental protection. Thus, the new Government of South Australia has the perfect opportunity to do so under their proposed changes to natural resource management legislation. Following these calls for reform and the new direction of Nature of SA, there is a real opportunity here for statutory reform that includes integrated biodiversity legislation analogous to the New South Wales Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016.

Read the rest of this entry »

Legacy of human migration on the diversity of languages in the Americas

12 09 2018

quechua-foto-ale-glogsterThis might seem a little left-of-centre for subject matter, but hang in there, this does have some pretty important conservation implications.

In our quest to be as transdisciplinary as possible, I’ve team up with a few people outside my discipline to put together a PhD modelling project that could really help us understand how human colonisation shaped not only ancient ecosystems, but also our own ancient cultures.

Thanks largely to the efforts of Dr Frédérik Saltré here in the Global Ecology Laboratory, at Flinders University, and in collaboration with Dr Bastien Llamas (Australian Centre for Ancient DNA), Joshua Birchall (Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, Brazil), and Lars Fehren-Schmitz (University of California at Santa Cruz, USA), I think the student could break down a few disciplinary boundaries here and provide real insights into the causes and consequences of human expansion into novel environments.

Interested? See below for more details?

Languages are ‘documents of history’ and historical linguists have developed comparative methods to infer patterns of human prehistory and cultural evolution. The Americas present a more substantive diversity of indigenous language stock than any other continent; however, whether such a diversity arose from initial human migration pathways across the continent is still unknown, because the primary proxy used (i.e., archaeological evidence) to study modern human migration is both too incomplete and biased to inform any regional inference of colonisation trajectories. Read the rest of this entry »

Minister, why is the dingo no longer ‘fauna’?

7 09 2018

dead dingoSo, a few of us have just submitted a letter contesting the Western Australia Government’s recent decision to delist dingoes as ‘fauna’ (I know — what the hell else could they be?). The letter was organised brilliantly by Dr Kylie Cairns (University of New South Wales), and she and the rest of the signatories have agreed to reproduce the letter in full here on If you feel so compelled, please voice your distaste of this decision officially by contacting the Minister (details below).

CJA Bradshaw

Honourable Stephen Dawson MLC
Minister for Environment; Disability Services
Address: 12th Floor, Dumas House
2 Havelock Street, WEST PERTH WA 6005

cc: Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (
cc: Brendan Dooley (

Dear Minister,

The undersigned welcome the opportunity to comment on and recommend alteration of the proposed section (9)(2) order of the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 (BC Act) that changes the listing of the dingo from “fauna” to “non-fauna” in Western Australia. Removing the “fauna” status from dingoes has serious consequences for the management and conservation of this species and other native biota it benefits. Currently, dingoes are classed as A7, or fauna that requires a management policy. The proposed section (9)(2) order will move dingoes (as “non-fauna”) to the A5 class, meaning that dingoes must be (lethally) controlled and there will be no obligation for the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions to have an appropriate management policy (or approval).

Currently, under the Wildlife Conservation Act 1950 (WC Act) the dingo is considered “unprotected” fauna allowing management under a Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions management policy. A section (9)(2) order demoting dingoes to “non-fauna” will remove the need for Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions management policy and instead mandate the lethal control of dingoes throughout Western Australia.

As prominent researchers in top predator ecology, biology, cultural value and genetics, we emphasise the importance of dingoes within Australian, and particularly Western Australia’s ecosystems. Dingoes are indisputably native based on the legislative definition of “any animal present in Australia prior to 1400 AD” from the BC Act. Dingoes have been present in Australia for at least 5000 years. On the Australian mainland they are now the sole non-human land-based top predator. Their importance to the ecological health and resilience of Australian ecosystems cannot be overstated. Read the rest of this entry »

South Australia doesn’t value its environment

5 09 2018

how we treat our environmentThe South Australian State Budget was released yesterday, and as has been the trend for the last ten years or so, the numbers are not good for the State’s environment.

While it has been reported that the budget includes the loss of 115 full-time staff from the Department of Environment and Water, the overall cuts run much deeper. They also herald a new era of not giving a tinker’s cuss for the sorry state of our environment.

I took the liberty of amassing the budget data with respect to environmental spending in this State since 2002-2003 (the earliest year I could find budget papers), and now I’ve just added the 2018-2019 data.

If I’ve selected the appropriate amounts, — side note: someone desperately needs to teach these budget bean-counters how to standardise, report, itemise, and organise data much, much better than they do (my first-year students could do a better job drunk and blindfolded) — then this is what environmental spending (including environment, biodiversity, water, and the Environment Protection Authority) has looked like since 2002: Read the rest of this entry »

Journal ranks 2017

27 08 2018


A few years ago we wrote a bibliometric paper describing a new way to rank journals, and I still think it is one of the better ways to rank them based on a composite index of relative citation-based metrics . I apologise for taking so long to do the analysis this year, but it took Google Scholar a while to post their 2017 data.

So, here are the 2017 ranks for (i) 88 ecology, conservation and multidisciplinary journals, and a subset of (ii) 55 ‘ecology’ journals, (iii) 24 ‘conservation’ journals. Also this year, I’ve included two new categories — (iv) 38 ‘sustainability’ journals (with general and energy-focussed journals included), and 19 ‘marine & freshwater’ journals for you watery types.

See also the previous years’ rankings (2016201520142013, 2012, 20112010, 2009, 2008).

Read the rest of this entry »