In March this year, I took a giant leap and commenced a PhD in Biological Science at The Unviersity of New South Wales, Sydney. For many months before this I was weighing up this huge decision of whether to continue with more study. A combination of an excellent supervisor, great project ideas and an increasing joy in the process of research brought me to my conclusion. So I decided that doing a PhD was what I would commit to for at least the next three years of my life (I’m crazy, I know).
To fill you in, the general aim of my PhD is to quantify responses of plant species to recent climate change, including changes in temperature, precipitation and extreme weather events such as fire and drought. Specifically, I want to look at already occurring trait changes in a range of Australian species and changes in plant species flowering timing. I can’t wait to reveal more information about this cool and important topic and show you the results I end up with.
Yesterday was a significant day in my PhD as it marked the first day of my fieldwork. I wanted to share a little bit about this day and hopefully impart a few tips on plant ecology fieldwork (they definitely helped me!).
I rose super early (5am) and headed to the PlantBank at the Australian Botanic Garden, Mt Annan, where I met with their awesome seed bank officer, Gavin Phillips. Gavin is an expert in Australian flora, seeds, threatened species, ecological fieldwork and 4WD-ing; and he is kindly helping me collect seeds from a bunch of New South Wales plants for my PhD. We rustled together all the equipment and information we needed and headed down to Nowra, a coastal town just over 2hr South of Sydney. Our field site was in Colymea State Conservation Area. This park is adjacent to Morton National Park and contains numerous threatened animals and plants as well as endangered ecological communities.
We collected seeds in this park from two Australian eucalypt species – Eucalyptus langleyi and Corymbia eximia. Here’s a few interesting facts about each species.
- Common name: albatross mallee (“mallee” refers to a multi-stemmed eucalypt growing from a large, wood rounded out-growth) or green mallee ash
- Listed as a vulnerable species
- Grows to 5-6m tall
- Has smooth brownish-grey bark (can also be green or light pink) and glossy dark green leaves that are lance shaped
- Common name: yellow bloodwood (has yellow bark)
- Grows to 20m tall
- Has fibrous, flaky bark in a tessellated pattern on the trunk
- Thick, curved leaves and creamy flowers
We collected a whole bunch of fruit (which are the little green or brown pods that you see on eucalypts) off a few trees and bagged them up. These fruit contain around 3-5 seeds (depending on the species) that I will use in my experiments. As a protocol of the Australian Botanic Gardens we took some plant samples for identification purposes such as leaves, flowers, buds etc. The rest of the seeds I don’t need for my experiments will be used for conservation by being banked at the PlantBank, to protect native species from future extinctions.
As a bonus to the day, Gavin also pointed out some pretty cool species along the way. This included the threatened Australian shrub Hibbertia stricta subsp. furcatula and a tiny population of vulnerable Acacia plants Acacia pubescens on the side of a road.
A few tips on Fieldwork
- Plan, Plan, Plan
I was once told that every day of field work equates to a whole day of prior planning. This is certainly true. There is no point on going out in the field for a day, a week or a month and coming back only to realise you’ve forgotten to sample things that are crucial to your project! Have a checklist of your targeted communities/species/areas, all your equipment and any other information required (such as soil type, habitat type, photos) prepared in advance. The better prepared you are, the more time you will save in the long run during your project.
2. Get permits and get them early
It is illegal to take anything (whether plant, animal, rock etc) from a National Park in Australia, or even conduct surveys, without acquiring a permit. Permits can take months to be approved, be sure to apply as soon as you are designing your experiment or you could be held back later on.
3. Take a friend/colleague
Whether your going on a month trip or a day trip, two pairs of hands are always better AND safer than one. Advertise your field work to volunteers, chances are there are some undergraduate students or other people in your institution that would be keen to take time out and gain experience on your project. You can split the work load, keep each other safe and have a much more enjoyable experience along the way.
4. First aid
If possible, I highly recommend doing a first aid course or remote first aid course. Especially if you do any fieldwork on your own. Last year I did a basic first aid course and it was then that I realised just how much I didn’t know. Now, if I was ever caught in an emergency situation I can be confident in my ability to respond quickly and rationally and possibly even save my own life. Always take a first aid kit on field trips (this is also a legal requirement) whether you are trained or not.
5. Enjoy it!
It is so cool that some lines of work allow us to get out into the natural world and spend time studying it. Enjoy this while you can (especially during your PhD) because as you go further in your career, field work increasingly turns into desk work.