For the love of field ecology


The first rule for teaching ecology: “Get them outside; early and often”. David Schindler, University of Alberta.

Recent commentary on the ECOLOG-L email list (a US-based ecology discussion group) has been lamenting the decline in field ecology training at several (but not all) universities in the US, and noting similar trends in other countries, such as the UK and India. Among the clamour of concerns, a number of staff at government agencies have highlighted the lack of practical skills that many recent graduates are bringing to their jobs. One commentator decried that at one major US university ‘fisheries students – yes, fisheries students, that graduate with both B.S. and M.S degrees that have never once set a net, measured a fish, or run a boat.’

I had a similar lament during my own undergraduate degree years ago at the University of New South Wales, Australia. I vividly remember looking forward to the field trip in my second year Vertebrate Zoology class. Older students had regaled us with tales of trapping, catching and observing everything with a backbone at the wonderful field station set on Smith’s Lake in the midst of coastal forests and heathland at Myall Lakes National Park. I couldn’t wait! Sadly, due to budget constraints, our year was the first Vertebrate Zoology class where this half-week field trip to ecology nirvana was replaced by a one-day, largely self-guided trip to the city zoo. It was a great zoo, but no match for Smith’s Lake. Desperate to get my field ecology fix, I volunteered for summer field work, which took me to ecology nirvana not just as a helper, but also during my honours research. Happily, my alma mater now has a designated field biology course and other trips for undergrads to Smith’s Lake.

Tim in Christmas Bells


Me in a field of Christmas Bells in heathland at Myall Lakes National Park, during my honours research. The field clothes were ‘cricket tragic chic’. Photo: Vaughan Monamy

Most ecologists well know the benefits of a field ecology course, but it doesn’t hurt to reiterate some of these here (and let me know in the comments if I’ve missed any).

  • It is great fun! Students love it and so do staff. Students often consider field courses to be the best parts of their degrees and staff love to be reminded of why we often chose to be ecologists in the first place. This shared love of the outdoor experience also breaks down barriers between staff and students (enabled by the fact that trips are often overnight and so students and staff will do chores and socialise together, and while away long vehicle journeys chatting about all manner of topics).
  • A key tenet of education is learning by doing: nothing beats actually getting hands on (often hands dirty in ecology!) to learn a new technique, acquire a new skill or to understand theory that much more clearly.
  • It helps students determine their career path. Many students will fall in love with ecology fieldwork and strive to find a job that allows them to continue to do this. Equally importantly though, it allows some students to realise that field work isn’t for them. Field work can seem very glamorous when we read about it in magazines or see it in documentaries, but like all science it is repetitive. Add to that occasional harsh weather conditions and biting or dangerous animals and it is understandable that not everyone will love field research. It is better to discover this early in your career, so you can pursue other jobs, keeping in mind that your experience of field work will nonetheless be relevant to a wide range of vocations in ecology and beyond.
  • Field work enhances time management and problem-solving skills. Time in the field is costly and so we need to be efficient when doing field work. Also, when doing field work you can virtually guarantee that something will go wrong, be it equipment failure, extreme weather, health scares or problems accessing field sites, so a successful field trip often requires excellent problem-solving skills and resilience.

Here at Lincoln University, we are actually increasing our field ecology classes. A big reason for this is a recent university-wide qualifications reform aimed at adding extra practical classes to the curriculum. Where we previously had one field ecology course (ECOL310 Field Ecology) we now have two: ECOL293 Field Ecology Methods, where students learn a range of techniques to survey plants and animals, and ECOL393 Field Ecology Research, where students apply these techniques to address their own field-based research.

I’m writing this blog during our annual field research trip to the Southern Alps and as usual our students are tackling a wide range of interesting projects with dedication and gusto. Tristan Girdwood is assessing the vulnerability of beech trees to drought. Carina Pohnke and Jessica Hughes Hutton are measuring several hundred beech trees and saplings to explore spatial patterns related to competition and disturbance. Michael Hargraves is also working on beech forests and is looking at how woody plant diversity changes with distance from ephemeral creeks.

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Mandy and Ian search for insects preying on daisy seeds above the treeline on Mt Faust. Photo: Jon Sullivan

There are several students studying vertebrates. Bryn Williams is adding to and collating several years of pest mammal monitoring to look at how things have changed with the recent beech mast, Sotir Goxhaj is looking at mammal diets, while Stacey Burnet, Lauren Rodgers and Erica Stokvis are exploring how pest mammal plagues might have impacted bird populations. Zac Taylor and Kendall Sparrow have been doing transects to explore patterns in bird distributions away from human settlement and Mitch Hutson has been walking up hill and down dale recording patterns in deer browse.

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Erica (left) and Lauren do a five minute bird count at a pest mammal tracking station (note the tacking tunnel and wax tag). Photo: Jon Sullivan

Keeping with the beech mast/rodent plague theme, Paula Greer is comparing invertebrate richness and composition in grassland in mast and non-mast years, while Kate Curtis and Sherry Hannah are showing their love for spiders with comparisons across years, habitats and survey methods. Mandy Black and Cecilie Svenningsen are climbing mountains and peering down microscopes to see what insects are eating native and exotic daisy flowers to test the enemy release hypothesis and to see how altitude influences this. Hayley Dalton has been out at night with light traps catching moths in beech forest and grasslands. My colleagues (Jon Sullivan, Nathan Curtis, Mike Bowie, James Ross, Ian Geary, and Kevin Maurin) and I have the best job of all, flitting between groups like NZ fantails, helping whenever needed.

light-trapping ECOL393


Like moths to a flame: Sherry (left) and Kate (centre) help Hayley (right) with her light-trapping. Photo: Mike Bowie

Our students are already excitedly explaining their preliminary findings to all and sundry. I can’t wait until we start to crunch the numbers more thoroughly, uncover the patterns in their data and see them present their findings. Based on ongoing field trips to wonderful places like the New Zealand Southern Alps and Australia’s coastal heathlands, arid zone and forests and heathlands, it seems that the future of field ecology training is not all bad news.

UPDATE 23 March 2015

I was recently asked to submit this blog to the NZ Ecological Society newsletter. In doing so, I decided to look into other field ecology courses being taught in NZ universities. There are many! So here is the last sentence above updated to include links to many of these other wonderful field courses. Many thanks to Stephen Hartley, KC Burns and Nicky Nelson (VUW) and Jarrod Cusens (AUT) for answering last minute queries about this.

Based on ongoing field trips to wonderful places on Lord Howe Island, New Zealand’s North Island (including Pureora Forest Park, Great Barrier Island, and elsewhere, see here, here, here, and here), the Lewis Pass, Mt Cass and elsewhere on the South Island, and Australia’s coastal heathlandsarid zone and forests and heathlands, it seems that the future of field ecology training is not all bad news.

6 thoughts on “For the love of field ecology”

  1. Lachlan says:

    Nice post. I also would not have stepped foot on a boat during my undergraduate degree if I hadn’t volunteered on some post grad projects. It seems bizarre that a marine science student can go through a whole degree without being out on the water but it happens fairly regularly it seems.

    1. Tim Curran says:

      Thanks for your comment, Lachlan. Yes, it does seem bizarre and to the disadvantage of all concerned (the student, staff, future employers). Here’s hoping that most unis recognize that!

  2. Lincoln Kern says:

    I was lucky to enough get my Bachelors degree at Antioch College in Ohio USA in the 80’s and my science lecturers loved taking their students outside to work. Our Field Botany course included one field trip a week (it helped that we had a large nature reserve a 200 m away from the Science Building) and we did a week long field trip at the end of term to a national park. Ironically, our transport broke down in a city along the way so we botanised for half a day in vacant lots which was great fun. My ecology lecturer did extended field trips every term (and often brought his family along) and we were required to do formal vegetation studies in the field. I didn’t realise how lucky I was to have such committed lecturers until I later met students from other universities who barely did a field trip or ecology field work. It seemed that many lecturers elsewhere didn’t want to put in the extra time and effort it took to do field work. And now I run an ecological consultancy and I find students and graduates are desperate for real experience rather than theory. So, if practical experience in university ecology courses has actually decreased over time this is a huge concern. Isn’t the core task of ecology to actually measure flora and fauna in the real world even if much of the work is analysis in the office?

    1. Bob Whyte says:

      Amen for Glen Helen! Sadly it’s use by the college gradually declined as did the university’s interest in it. Lack of interest in field ecology? Don’t know, but there was certainly a lack of understanding from the administration of the Glen’s benefits. I would hope that most universities today would love to have a 1,000 acre nature reserve across the street.

      1. Tim Curran says:

        Thanks for the comment, Bob. I know I would LOVE to have a big nature reserve across the street. In a previous job of mine, working for the School for Field Studies, I was lucky enough to live and work on the field station set in Australia’s Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. The students, my family and I lived in cabins in the rainforest and so the walk to class each morning was a field experience in itself, with plants, mammals, birds and snakes doing their thing. It was the best commute to work that I have ever had!

        The trick is to ensure students in other institutions get a chance to have similar experiences. This requires commitment from university administrators to fund expensive field courses and lecturers who want to teach them (which I expect most do).

    2. Tim Curran says:

      Hi Lincoln, that field botany course sounds fantastic! You were indeed very lucky. I agree wholeheartedly that we need to be getting students out in the field learning how to identify plants and animals. Even if they don’t end up doing that in their future careers they learn many important transferable skills simply from being out in the field. And if they end up working in a job in ecology that is mostly in an office they will likely need to know what goes into a good field project so that they can properly evaluate a consultant’s report or scientific manuscript.

      I do wonder if much of the pressure to reduce field course offerings comes from administrators rather than the lecturers. Field trips are costly, not just in travel and accommodation, but also in the extra staff time needed to provide proper guidance and safety standards.

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