The Great Dying

30 09 2019

Here’s a presentation I gave earlier in the year for the Flinders University BRAVE Research and Innovation series:

There is No Plan(et) B — What you can do about Earth’s extinction emergency

Earth is currently experiencing a mass extinction brought about by, … well, … us. Species are being lost at a rate similar to when the dinosaurs disappeared. But this time, it’s not due to a massive asteroid hitting the Earth; species are being removed from the planet now because of human consumption of natural resources. Is a societal collapse imminent, and do we need to prepare for a post-collapse society rather than attempt to avoid one? Or, can we limit the severity and onset of a collapse by introducing a few changes such as removing political donations, becoming vegetarians, or by reducing the number of children one has?

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University rankings are questionable at best

23 09 2019

university-rankingMeasuring educational performance is difficult at any stage, especially since most school-level performance indicators are based on ‘standardised’ tests of a few select students in particular years. But if you think that is questionable, you can rest assured that it is a hell of a lot more objective and better quantified than how we rank our universities.

In fact, it is rather stunning how superficial the criteria are for ranking universities, for there are no standardised exams or measures of teaching quality that have been applied to a large-enough section of universities across the world to make any meaningful comparisons. Instead, we tend to rely on brute metrics like the number of high-level academic prizes that employees of a university have won, how many citations they received for their academic papers, and other, highly subjective survey questions regarding the perceived ‘reputation’ of an institution.

As a result, a sceptic might in fact think that all the existing metrics are utter nonsense, especially considering how much advertising from universities appears to be incorporated in the online literature (one could be justified in being concerned about the possibility of undue influence and corruption in this regard 🤔).

While there are many types of university rankings, possibly the three most-recognised and reported are the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the (Shanghai) Academic Ranking of World Universities, and the QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) University Rankings. The first purports to Read the rest of this entry »

10 things I wish I knew before doing an Honours degree

19 08 2019



In 2018 I started my Honours degree in biodiversity and conservation at Flinders University. I had completed my Bachelor of Science in 2017, after being accepted in the Honours stream through my Year 12 Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR).

I will not sugar-coat it — I was a bad Bachelor student. I scarcely attended classes and at times submitted sub-par work. I believed that as long as I didn’t fail anything I would still be able to do my Honours, so I did the bare minimum and just got by. However in the last semester I discovered I needed an average GPA of 5.0 to secure my Honours position, regardless of what stream I was doing. Panic ensued, I was already too deep in my final semester of not achieving to pull my grades around. Thankfully, I was eventually accepted, after having to plead my case with the Honours board.

In the end I managed to score myself a First Class Honours and a PhD candidature (and hopefully soon a publication). Honours was definitely a struggle, but it was also one of the best experiences of my life. I just wish I had known these 10 things before I started …

1. You will fail

Not the brightest note to start on, but don’t fear, everyone fails. Honours is full of ups and downs, and at some point, somewhere along the line, something in your project will go wrong. But it’s okay! It happens to every person that has ever done an Honours or a PhD. Whether the failing is small or catastrophic, remember this happens all the time.

More importantly your supervisor or co-ordinator sees it all the time. The best thing to do is tell your supervisor and your co-ordinator early on. It may be a simple case of steering your research in a slightly new direction, changing the scope of your project, or even taking some extra time. It’s okay to fail, just keep pushing. Read the rest of this entry »

Koala extinctions past, present, and future

12 06 2019

Photo by John Llewelyn

Koalas are one of the most recognised symbols of Australian wildlife. But the tree-living marsupial koala is not doing well throughout much of its range in eastern Australia. Ranging as far north as Cairns in Queensland, to as far west as Kangaroo Island in South Australia, the koala’s biggest threats today are undeniably deforestation, road kill, dog attacks, disease, and climate change.

With increasing drought, heatwaves, and fire intensity and frequency arising from the climate emergency, it is likely that koala populations and habitats will continue to decline throughout most of their current range.

But what was the distribution of koalas before humans arrived in Australia? Were they always a zoological feature of only the eastern regions?

The answer is a resounding ‘no’ — the fossil record reveal a much more complicated story.

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11 things academic research and surfing have in common

2 05 2019

Our very own surfing scientist, Dr Katharina Peters

(originally published on the

The last time I went surfing the waves were very slow and between sets I had a lot of time to contemplate life. This was when it occurred to me that the pursuit of a career in academic research was similar, in many ways, to trying to catch waves. Here are 11 surprising things surfing and academic research have in common:

1. It’s a constant struggle and a long, hard slog to get past the white water

Paddling out through the white water, having wave after wave come crushing down on you while trying to turtle-roll through the biggest ones, can be a real challenge. Likewise, in science it takes most people years of study, work (often unpaid), long hours in the lab, the field, and at the desk, to establish themselves and potentially secure employment for a period longer than a year or two. You find yourself working late finishing papers from research you did years ago (again, usually unpaid), or volunteering to get more hands-on experience because you know how important these things are. But you power on, always trusting that, just like paddling through the white water will help get you the stamina and shoulder muscles you need to catch waves, all this work will lay the foundation for your career and make you a better scientist.


2. Women are underrepresented and often treated badly (but it’s changing!)

Whether you look around you in the line-up at your surf spot or at a scientific conference, women are underrepresented. Many women I know have experienced discrimination related to their gender, as women are often not assessed based purely on their ability to shred or do high-quality research. Indeed, reviewers have an unconscious bias against women in science, and in surf competitions men get to compete when conditions are optimal whilst women are relegated to whatever is left. Nevertheless, slowly but surely, things are changing for women. It will still take many years to reach an equilibrium (if there is such a thing), but people are becoming more and more aware of the gap, and female researchers and surfers are pushing that glass ceiling.

3. Others always seem to be performing better than you

This is probably true for many areas in life! It always looks so much easier when others do it, and we tend to only see those who do better than us (also, imposter syndrome, anyone??). I guess it’s a lifelong task to learn not to compare yourself to others, to stay focused on your path and try to take inspiration from the achievements of others, rather than letting them demotivate you. Read the rest of this entry »

How to improve (South Australia’s) biodiversity prospects

9 04 2019

Figure 2 (from the article). Overlaying the South Australia’s Protected Areas boundary data with the Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia layer indicates that 73.2% of the total protected area (excluding Indigenous Protected Areas) in South Australia lies in the arid biogeographic regions of Great Victoria Desert (21.1%), Channel Country (15.2%), Simpson Strzelecki Dunefields (14.0%), Nullarbor (9.8%), Stony Plains (6.6%), Gawler (6.0%), and Hampton (0.5%). The total biogeographic-region area covered by the remaining Conservation Reserves amounts to 26.2%. Background blue shading indicates relative average annual rainfall.

If you read regularly, you’ll know that late last year I blogged about the South Australia 2108 State of the Environment Report for which I was commissioned to write an ‘overview‘ of the State’s terrestrial biodiversity.

At the time I whinged that not many people seemed to take notice (something I should be used to by now in the age of extremism and not giving a tinker’s about the future health of the planet — but I digress), but it seems that quietly, quietly, at least people with some policy influence here are starting to listen.

Not satisfied with merely having my report sit on the virtual shelves at the SA Environment Protection Authority, I decided that I should probably flesh out the report and turn it into a full, peer-reviewed article.

Well, I’ve just done that, with the article now published online in Rethinking Ecology as a Perspective paper.

The paper is chock-a-block with all the same sorts of points I covered last year, but there’s a lot more, and it’s also a lot better referenced and logically sequenced.

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Thirsty forests

1 02 2019

Climate change is one ingredient of a cocktail of factors driving the ongoing destruction of pristine forests on Earth. We here highlight the main physiological challenges trees must face to deal with increasing drought and heat.

Forests experiencing embolism after a hot drought. The upper-left pic shows Scots (Pinus sylvestris) and black (P. nigra) pines in Montaña de Salvador (Espuñola, Barcelona, Spain) during a hot Autumn in 2015 favouring a massive infestation by pine processionary caterpillars (Thaumetopoea pityocampa) and tree mortality the following year (Lluís Brotons/CSIC in InForest-CREAF-CTFC). To the right, an individual holm oak (Quercus ilex) bearing necrotic branches in Plasencia (Extremadura, Spain) during extreme climates from 2016 to 2017, impacting more than a third of the local oak forests (Alicia Forner/CSIC). The lower-left pic shows widespread die-off of trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) from ‘Aspen Parkland’ (Saskatchewan, Canada) in 2004 following extreme climates in western North America from 2001 to 2002 (Mike Michaelian/Canadian Forest Service). To the right, several dead aspens near Mancos (Colorado, USA) where the same events hit forests up to one-century old (William Anderegg).

A common scene when we return from a long trip overseas is to find our indoor plants wilting if no one has watered them in our absence. But … what does a thirsty plant experience internally?

Like animals, plants have their own circulatory system and a kind of plant blood known as sap. Unlike the phloem (peripheral tissue underneath the bark of trunks and branches, and made up of arteries layered by live cells that transport sap laden with the products of photosynthesis, along with hormones and minerals — see videos here and here), the xylem is a network of conduits flanked by dead cells that transport water from the roots to the leaves through the core of the trunk of a tree (see animation here). They are like the pipes of a building within which small pressure differences make water move from a collective reservoir to every neighbours’ kitchen tap.

Water relations in tree physiology have been subject to a wealth of research in the last half a decade due to the ongoing die-off of trees in all continents in response to episodes of drought associated with temperature extremes, which are gradually becoming more frequent and lasting longer at a planetary scale (1). 

Embolised trees

During a hot drought, trees must cope with a sequence of two major physiological challenges (2, 3, 4). More heat and less internal water increase sap tension within the xylem and force trees to close their stomata (5). Stomata are small holes scattered over the green parts of a plant through which gas and water exchanges take place. Closing stomata means that a tree is able to reduce water losses by transpiration by two to three orders of magnitude. However, this happens at the expense of halting photosynthesis, because the main photosynthetic substrate, carbon dioxide (CO2), uses the same path as water vapour to enter and leave the tissues of a tree.

If drought and heat persist, sap tension reaches a threshold leading to cavitation or formation of air bubbles (6). Those bubbles block the conduits of the xylem such that a severe cavitation will ultimately cause overall hydraulic failure. Under those conditions, the sap does not flow, many parts of the tree dry out gradually, structural tissues loose turgor and functionality, and their cells end up dying. Thus, the aerial photographs showing a leafy blanket of forest canopies profusely coloured with greys and yellows are in fact capturing a Dantesque situation: trees in photosynthetic arrest suffering from embolism (the plant counterpart of a blood clot leading to brain, heart or pulmonary infarction), which affects the peripheral parts of the trees in the first place (forest dieback).

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