What does an Ecologist do?

What does an Ecologist do?

Mat Davis: Founder of Australian Coastal and Marine Ecology, Director of Coastal Protection Core

Here in the tropics you’d think we’d be out at sea enjoying what the amazing Queensland Whitsundays has to offer – the Great Barrier Reef amongst some of the most incredible coral cays and islands in the world.  You’d be wrong.  Not only does Queensland’s tropical coastline boast some of the best coral reefs and Islands in the world, there exists some of the most beautiful rainforests, eucalypt forests, and coastal habitat in the world.  We’ve ended up in the midst of monsoonal weather, significant rain causing flooding, and in the centre of a week-long ecological study in some amazing coastal habitat and rainforest.

A lot of people I speak to wonder what exactly I do as an Ecologist, and ask me what does an ecologist do? Or what is an ecologist? What exactly does that mean?  So I’m writing this to give you an insight into what it is like in the life of an Ecologist.  I am a Marine Scientist and Ecologist, so I get the best of all coastal environments.  I absolutely love what I do, and I do this because I believe we can create a sustainable earth for our future generations by creating solutions to our most complex environmental challenges.  As an ecologist we are looking at the natural living ecosystems, which means all living, and non living things, and the interactions between them.  Sounds simple, think of a basic food web, bug eats plant, bird eats bug, and cat eats bird.  What people don’t think about is the social dynamics between a species and between species, or the interactions between the environment they live in.  A good ecologist can identify a range of species from sound as well as visual, and knows what species are likely to be living in a particular area and how to find them.  In this article I’ll take you on a journey into a week in the life of an ecologist through an ecological survey.

An ecological investigation involves setting a range of traps, undertaking active and passive diurnal and nocturnal surveys, call playback surveys, Echolocation Detection surveys, bird surveys, acoustic recordings, baited camera trap surveys, spotlight nocturnal surveys, and a range of targeted searches.  Don’t worry if this doesn’t make sense, I’ll walk you through the process.  I absolutely love being in nature, which is why I do what I do.  I think it is so important for everyone to reconnect to nature regularly, and even more importantly engage a professional that is passionate about what they do and is actively involved.


Day 1

The scene was set and the pre-fieldwork was done, but there are always unexpected challenges.  There is a long list of equipment, safety checks, pre-start checklists and protocols to follow before you even get into the field.  Electronic equipment, chargers, laptops, cage traps, pitfall traps, Elliot traps, trail cameras, various bait, opera house traps for aquatic ecosystems, binoculars for bird surveys, gps, and a plethora of safety equipment.

Probably the most intense part of the survey is setting the drift fence, or fence, for the pitfall and funnel traps.  For a general ecological survey this involves placing 30m of sediment fence with a 15m at the centre to, and perpendicular to the main 30m drift fence  The trick is to key in the net so that the bottom of the fence is below the natural surface.  We then place a minimum of 4 X pitfall traps at depths of greater than 500mm with the surface of the bucket just below the natural surface with the natural ground falling slightly into the bucket.  We then set 6 X funnel traps on either side of the net to capture other critters.  This completes the pitfall and funnel trap set up.

Next we need to set 20 X Elliot traps per 5 hectares of sample area to allow an accurate representation of species within the patch of habitat.  The 20 traps were baited with a special mix and strategically placed across a transect representing the habitat to be sampled.   Cage traps are used to sample larger species and are set at dusk.

As dusk approached we walked the site armed with binoculars on search of our avian friends.  Birds are surveyed by visual observation and use of binoculars and high powered cameras as well as vocal calls.  It’s imperative to have a good knowledge of the environment you are sampling prior to setting up on site.  After this, we commenced a nocturnal passive survey, where we utilise high powered spotlights to passively observe key habitat areas in search of nocturnal fauna, such as reptiles, melomys’, bats, and other mammals.


Day 2

Right on Dawn was time to check the traps we set from the night before, and look who showed up, Fawn-footed melomys (Figure 1).   Melomys are quite common in the tropics on Queensland’s coast and were prevalent in our study.

After all traps were checked and closed for the day, we continued to complete a diurnal active search survey for fauna, which involves, as the name implies, actively searching for animals in the day time in potential hiding places.

A vegetation meander survey serves as a source of ground-truthing what we have already researched about the site.  Before undertaking an ecological study we research available information, mapping, aerial images, species lists, species reports, and a range of vegetation mapping layers.  So during our vegetation meander survey we document key features of the habitat, tree species, and a range of other data we can then analyse.

We also managed to fit in another bird survey before heading back to calibrate the Anabat, which detects microbat vocal calls that are generally not detectable by humans, as well as some data download, analysis and reporting.

 In the evening prior to dusk we reset all baited traps for the night ahead, and placed the Anabat in a strategic location, which is within a potential flight path for bats hunting at night.

Another nocturnal survey was completed, and a spotlight survey targeting arboreal species (those that climb or inhabit trees) was undertaken.


 Day 3

Day 3 began as did the day prior by checking our baited traps at dawn, the best part of the day.  It’s amazing the number of furry friends we see in our Elliot Traps.  It’s important to ensure baited traps are closed during the day so that animals aren’t trapped in the hot sun.  The trap check was followed by another dawn bird survey when birds are most active.  Most of the time in dense rainforest canopy we identify birds by their calls, and when you really listen it is amazing how many different birds you can hear.  We always try to confirm with a visual sighting, but this is not always possible.

Another Active diurnal search generally reveals reptiles under humic and rock layers, then back for more data analysis and downloads.

In the evening it’s time for a call-playback survey, which involves playing pre-recorded animal sounds and waiting for a return call from the targeted species or any species responding to the calls.  These surveys are structured in sequence so as to ensure lower order species in the food chain are not scared off from the higher order species.  After this, follows a spotlight survey targeting arboreal species and then a late nocturnal survey, which is generally undertaken at least 1 hour after sunset and involves walking throughout the site and passively observing with a high-powered spotlight.

As an Ecologist, I absolutely love finding a diverse range of species and seeing natural ecosystems thrive. Some of the most incredible experiences and observations of nature at its best are in isolated bushland environments.  At University you learn theories, methodologies, procedures, and general theories of ecology and evolution, but it is when you are in nature and experience the joys of our natural environment that you truly respect the interactions and intricacies of our natural world.  Don’t get me wrong, there are challenges.  Most people when they find out exactly what we do, say we have an amazing and interesting job.  This is true, but what they don’t realise is that we deal with challenges and have to make quick decisions at the whim of a hat.




Day 4

The same start to the day as the last two with checking of all the traps and closing them for the day, ensuring no animals are trapped in the traps throughout the day.  Throughout all fieldwork extensive notes are taken on inadvertent animal calls, sightings and observations.  Data is then added to our final report to provide a comprehensive account of the site.

In the evening new baits are added to the traps and traps are set.  A call playback survey is done at least one hour after sunset followed by another spotlight arboreal survey.  Of course there are a lot of intricate details I haven’t included that we have to capture.  For example scat (poo) is a great way of detecting presence of animals, as is for example scratch marks in non juvenile koala habitat trees, or as we say NJKHTs, for the potential presence of koalas.



Day 5

Time to check and close the traps for the last time this trip.  What an amazing week, we’ve searched, trapped, spotlighted, recorded, documented, and explored an incredible site in the tropics of Queensland, but the clean-up is not a lot of fun and sometimes quite taxing, particularly carrying equipment long distances.   All of our equipment is retrieved, cleaned, and packed away for the many ecological studies ahead of construction projects to come.  In our profession we are isolated, cold, wet, in the darkness, exposed to the elements, walking with some of the deadliest species on earth (eastern brown snakes, taipans, red belly black snakes, funnel web spiders, crocodiles, sharks, jellyfish, and so many more), but we love every minute.  Both myself and the Ecologists and Scientists in the ACME team absolutely love our jobs and are passionate about conserving our natural environments.

This is only one piece of the puzzle.  From here we have a lot of desktop investigations to continue and reporting to do as part of a broader environmental impact report.  The Ecological Assessment is one component of a range of environmental considerations we have to incorporate into our broader assessment.  Often our work is for construction or development and we need to cover legislative requirements in the local area, mapping, fire management, acid sulfate soils, water quality, groundwater, groundwater dependent ecosystems, soil and geotechnical qualities, air quality, contaminated land, erosion and sediment controls, and any specific elements pertaining to the site.

At the same time, we understand that urban development is essential and that infrastructure will continue to be constructed, but we believe that we can do this better, in a more ecologically sustainable way. By inspiring our future generations to develop solutions to our most complex environmental challenges we can truly make a lasting impact.  This is why we do what we do.  I hope you have a better understanding of what exactly it means to be an ecologist and that you can become part of the solution to a sustainable future.  Let’s inspire future together!

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