Give some flair to your scientific presentation

18 11 2014


As the desert spring came to the great Centre Red,
Scores of sandalled folk from tin birds descend-ed.
Alice Town had been invaded,
Bearded alike and unshorn-legged.
They sat and stared at words and the odd trend.
Billies boiled to get them through to day’s end
They swapped bush stories that made good sense,
Trying to understand Aussie environments.
One bloke‘s tales caught the punters’ attention,
So this bush poet deserves special mention.
To standard rules he would not kowtow,
So his special science verse I present to you now.

If none of that made any sense, then let me help you out. At the last Ecological Society of Australia meeting in Alice Springs, I witnessed a rather unique way to give a scientific presentation – via bush poetry. Dr. Dale Nimmo of Deakin University was particularly engaging, and he agreed to have his presentation poem reproduced here. Who said scientists were boring? Honourable mention too to Simon Watson for another audience-engaging, bush-poetry seminar (but I don’t have that to reproduce here). There also might be a slidecast of Dale’s presentation coming soon. For now, please enjoy the poetic delivery of science in text.

The Old Grey Box of Heathcote Town

Dale Nimmo

Down around old Heathcote town, just east of Bendigo,
A big old grey box tree casts an eye.
The sallee fills the understory bright as sunlights glow,
As the silvereyes and thornbills flitter by.
This landscape, bruised and battered from 200 years of change,
Holds the secrets of a time lost somehow.
One of Jaara land, where lowan dug and dingoes howled,
The latter two, here, just distant memories now.
The gold rush came like bushfire, ring barked trees fell like boughs
Of the red gums scattered on the old flood plains,
That made way for sheep and cattle, while, fighting a losing battle,
rufous bettongs were never seen again.
When a man of English gentry, Professor Bennett was his name,
Found the woodlands to his aristocratic tastes.
Many days he’d venture in, binoculars under his chin,
He never let a single bird call go to waste.
While at the old St Arnaud Inn, over a couple pints of gin,
Bennet and a bloke called Radford got to talking.
Stealing horses was his game, but he’d give it all away,
To join Bennett in woodlands, bird walking

So the two took up the mission, they’d survey birds near and far,
From Donolly to Shep and beyond.
But they often sat and wondered if they somehow had blundered,
A nagging feeling that something was wrong.
It was a fine day on Mt Black, a billy boiling on the fire,
Bennett, Radford sitting, peering across the land.
So vast it was that suddenly, greeted by epiphany,
The two men came to understand:
We’ve been surveying these sites, but what of the stuff around them?
Surely that affects our birds while on the wing.
Radford furrowed his brow, it was all so clear now,
To study landscapes, we must sample the whole damn thing.
So they replicated landscapes, some cleared and some intact,
They chose 24, just like a slab of beers.
But this task was so gigantic that it made them rather frantic,
So they ended up employing Garry Cheers.
The data now collected, cleaned, entered, and inspected,
Radford analysed the dataset to show,
Landscape properties are key, they drive bird diversity,
Tree cover’s critical, that much we know.
But far off in the ocean things were brewing catastrophic,
The Aussie bush was in for one hell of a fight.
A drought of new proportions would cause the region torsions,
And impress upon it would with all its might.
This was not just thirsty country, it was truly polydipsic,
The cockies lost their grain and cotton by the tonne.
The streams ceased flowing with nobody really knowing
When an end to this big drought would finally come
The two bushies grew concerned, what would drought mean for the birds?
So they called on Cheers and planned a new survey.
They’d go back to every site to check if everything’s all right,
Jim stole some horses, and they left the next day.
Now creeping through the sallee they met a drover called Mac Nally,
And learned he’d been surveying birds too.
Jim offered him some horses and the three men then joined forces,
Combining data meant they’d see a trend or two.
And then a fourth man, Jimi T, fresh form a penal colony,
Joined the gang with mathematics on his brain.
He summoned Reverend Bayes and then he analysed for days,
As the four sat around a table, he explained;
The birds we hold so dear are in grave trouble I fear,
The two datasets tell us of their plight.
Half the species have declined, and adding to this slow grind
You know there is no end of this drought in sight.
Bennett jumped upon his horse and made his way to Melbourne town,
He would spread the news from Burrombuttock to Homebush.
This fight was dirty so he appeared on 7.30,
Telling Kerry about the trouble in the bush.
And then when least expected, finally a reprieve,
The miserly skies finally forgave,
And rained the bush for months, until that rain became a flood.
The drought was broken, but had the birds been saved?
So into the bush again, went the bushies with new friends,
Who had taken up the task alongside them.
Through flooded river banks and overall flowing farmers’ tanks,
Each site was surveyed four times once again.
The data were collated, and the team, they held their breath,
Wondering if the bush chorus had returned.
Jimi T got out his abacus and quickly did the numbers,
And here’s a summary of what we learned:
The Big Wet had an effect and it was clear to see
That there had indeed been some recovery.
Around a quarter of species had recovered since the rain,
So there was good news, or at least it seemed.
But on the other hand, many species did not recover,
14-29% declined again.
And so compared to the first days of the woodland bird surveys,
Around half are scarcer than they were then.
Well such findings left despondent many members of the crew,
But an answer, they so desired.
Jim offered to raise funds by stealing horses once again,
Bennett appreciated the offer, but declined.
These birds are declining for reasons outside our control,
We can’t stop droughts or the flooding rains.
But remember our whole landscapes? How their patterns changed the birds?
Maybe we can learn from them once again.
We could look back at the data and ask whether,
For example, landscapes with certain patterns retain more birds.
Or perhaps landscape properties can hasten recovery,
Or allow stable communities to form.
Resistance, we will measure, as the proportion of species
That a landscape retained during drought.
From 0 to 1, I am sure it can be done,
This is something we simply must find out!
Resilience we will measure as the ratio of species
Found during drought compared to after rain.
Landscapes with high resilience are able to ‘bounce back’,
Whereas those with little tend to stay the same.
Stability is a coefficient of variation,
Adjusted for bias caused by sample size.
Communities that fluctuate score little on this scale,
And those that change less would score quite high.
Next, we asked how does variation in these measures
Relate to the landscape properties,
Such as composition, configuration, and habitat extent,
Landscape context and primary productivity.
Invoking Akaike and multi-model inference
For each hypothesis we summed predictor weights.
Productivity was supported as particularly important,
So we best check out the parameter estimates.
Effect sizes confirmed that landscapes with much tree cover
Positioned specifically on riparian strips
Tended to retain more species throughout the whole landscape
Even when it was within a drought’s firm grip
And when the drought had broken, we found the opposite effect
Those with less riparian veg bounced back more.
But that’s just because of need, as you don’t need recovery
If you retained most of your species before.
High resistance, low resilience also led to high stability
In landscapes with trees on moist and fertile soil.
The mechanisms, likely many, food and water are aplenty,
Microclimate also helps avoid the broil.
But these benefits go on, you could write a bush poem
About riparian strips and what they do.
Disproportionately important for woodland bird conservation,
They clean water, retain carbon, and provide nectar too.
So now, with this directive, we are saying in this world
With increasing intense droughts and flooding rains,
That we need to get revegetating on our river banks,
And perhaps our unique birdlife can be saved.
So next time you pass by a cleared floodplain or river bank,
Plants some trees to show we have a choice.
And you won’t see it, you won’t here it, but I’ll guarantee it happens,
The old grey box of old Heathcote town will rejoice



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