Shake paws with the devil

One of the nice things about working in evolutionary biology (or any of the related, indistinguishable-for-all-practical-purposes Wild Thing Sciences) is that I was connected to a great number of cool people working on a great number of very cool creatures, in a great number of very cool places. Furthermore, the bureaucrats controlling modern-day Wild Thing Science are safety-paranoid enough that everyone doing "fieldwork" (working in the wild) must bring at least one buddy. That's one of the reasons I always brought volunteers on my trips, and why Wild Thing Scientists are constantly advertising for volunteers. If you're willing to work without getting paid there are many cool opportunities to work with a variety of wild animals worldwide. I know one evolutionary biologist who works solely on theory - all she needs to do her job is a working computer, essentially - but she travels the world going to exotic places and seeing incredible animals simply by tagging along with other biologists. It's actually an enviable system, as the "work" parts of fieldwork, like conducting experiments, collecting and preserving samples, and even just finding whatever animal you've decided you'd like to study, can be incredibly challenging, time-consuming, stressful and expensive. But tagging along on someone else's fieldwork? All the cool parts, none of the stresses!

This brings me to Dave. Dave is a friend of mine, and Scottish, which is why, when he got married, I got to wear a kilt. It was among the more exciting experiences of my life:

Dave (L) and me (R) wearing kilts at Dave's wedding. This was my first (and only) kilt-wearing experience.

Dave (L) and me (R) wearing kilts at Dave's wedding. This was my first (and only) kilt-wearing experience.

Dave is doing his PhD on Tasmanian Devils, one of the coolest mammals around. I took the opportunity to be a volunteer during his fieldwork, and for a week I got to go out every day and see Tasmanian devils in the wild!

Dave is working in the far north-west corner of Tasmania, where the facial tumour disease is still spreading into healthy devil populations. If you haven't heard of the devil facial-tumour disease, and the destruction it has wrought on the world's last Tasmanian devils, check this out.

Dave catches devils by setting traps for them. Each trap is a big PVC pipe blocked at one end, with a door at the entrance and a piece of meat dangling at the back of it. Here's what a trap looks like set, ready and waiting for a hungry devil to come along:

Inside the trap, the meat is dangling by a string at the very back. The string is tied to a pin which is holding the door open. The devil enters the trap, grabs and pulls on the meat, the meat pulls the string, the string pulls the pin, the pin lets go of the door and the door falls, trapping the devil inside.

A view inside a set devil trap, with the meat dangling from a string and ready for a big yank by a devil.

To ensure that the devils spend as little time in the traps as possible, Dave and his volunteers get up before the crack of dawn and drive out to his field site to check the traps. This is what they hope to find:

There's a devil in there! There's a devil in there!

Sometimes the initial excitement about a devil in a tube is unfounded: devils aren't the only predators prowling Tasmanian forests at night, and Dave sometimes has to deal with bycatch. If the bycatch is a tiger quoll, that's just icing on the devil's cake. Tiger quolls are another spectacular Australian marsupial currently going extinct, and getting to see one in the wild is just as much a privilege as seeing a wild devil. However, sometimes Dave catches feral cats, which are harbingers of death to native Australian animals and destruction to the Australian wilderness. Dave takes cats to be euthanized by a local veterinarian.

Dave sometimes catches spectacular tiger quolls, like this one, in traps set for devils.

Sometimes traps are closed with nothing inside. I like to think this is the result of Tasmanian tigers, because they'd be so big that they wouldn't fit completely in the trap, which would prevent the trap door from closing on them. More likely than not, though, it's due to trap malfunction or some other mundane explanation.

If the closed trap proves to contain a devil, now, for better or for worse, you have a devil in a tube. This may seem like a challenge, and devils do have a reputation for being scrappy little balls of teeth and claws, but I learned by watching Dave that as long as you handle them with care and precision they're actually really calm. I watched Dave take measurements from a lot of devils and never once did one try to bite him or scratch him. This is as much to Dave's credit as a professional wildlife biologist as it is to the devil's relative docility: handling wild animals, especially ones with sharp teeth and massive jaw muscles, is not for the uninitiated.

The first step of processing a devil is, of course, to get it out of the tube. To do this, the tube is lifted and tilted, the door opened, and the devil slid gently into a burlap sack:

Due to the weight of the devil and the size of the trap, this requires two people: one of the many tasks for volunteers!

Once the devil is in the burlap sack, it generally stays pretty calm. Dave manipulates the devil-within-the-sack into different positions so that he can inspect it, determine how healthy it is, determine if there's any evidence of the facial tumour disease, and take various measurements:

Here's Dave measuring a devil. It'd be extremely cumbersome to both take and record the measurements while controlling and manipulating a devil-in-a-sack, so data-recording is another important task for volunteers.

Among the parts of the devil Dave inspects are its paws:

Cute little devil paw!

Dave also inspects the female's pouch to see if they're currently nursing:

Tasmanian devil pouches: the pouch on the left belongs to a female without pups, the pouch on the right to a female with pups.


Finally, Dave takes a look at the devil's business end: its jaws. Tooth wear is a good way to estimate the age of a devil, as it is to estimate the age of a lot of mammal species. And around the jaws are where any signs of facial tumours will turn up, though the population Dave was working on when I visited had never had any evidence of devils with the facial tumour disease. Here's an inspection of the jaws of a healthy devil:

Dave, and all Tasmanian devil researchers and conservationists, are very concerned about the potential for humans to spread the facial tumour disease between devils. Notice that Dave is wearing disposable latex gloves: those go into the garbage and are replaced in-between each devil. Dave and all the volunteers also use alcohol disinfectant gel in-between each devil just to be safe. A brand new burlap sack is used for each devil. And after the devil is removed from a trap, the trap is thoroughly washed and disinfected before being reset: another job for volunteers!

Finally, it's time for the fun part! After being processed, the devils are released into the woods. The process of getting them free of the sack can be cumbersome, and is an opportunity for pictures to be taken with a devil! Usually, however, the devil takes off like a bat out of hell:

But, there's that rare occasion where the devil pauses for the briefest of moments to say goodbye, and, if you're lucky enough to have a photographer (another volunteer job!) quick on the shutter, it can be captured for all eternity:

Photos by Connie Leon.

Helping Dave work with Tasmanian devils in the wild was an experience of a lifetime. And he's looking for more volunteers!

Backyard Frogpond

Last year, while still living in Australia, my partner and I went to northern New South Wales to visit her sister, Jo. Jo and her family live an enviable quasi-hippy existence in the rainforest. Their house is completely off the grid and powered entirely by solar panels, yet still has wifi. From their patio we watched a platypus forage in the creek below their house and I managed to find a snake and a rare bird within a day of arriving. So, it's pretty close to paradise. There aren't even all that many mosquitos! 

Jo and her daughter Ava investigating the blind snake I found on their property. When I arrive somewhere new my first reaction is often to flip any debris I find lying around the place. Snakes, frogs and all manner of cool creepy crawly critters are to be found under them. I like to think it's an endearing character trait.

Jo and her family had set up a frog pond recently before we visited, and while we were there we heard some frogs calling from it. Excited that their frog pond was attracting its intended residents, we decided to investigate. It turns out their pond had not just attracted frogs, but it had attracted a pair of tusked frogs (Adelotus brevis)! Tusked frogs are not very easy to find, and they're getting rarer all the time. They are listed as Near Threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. They also have weird, freaky little "tusks" that make them look like tiny, slimy vampires when they open their mouths.

A tusked frog in Jo's backyard frog pond!

What was even more exciting was not only was the male tusked frog calling, which is how they try to attract females, but he was also tending to a floating pile of foam, which means he had been successful. The foam protects hundreds of little eggs.

The tusked frog looking quite proud of his foam nest. 

Over the next year, Jo sometimes sent me pictures of the tusk frog family in her frog pond. The pond turned out to be quite successful in making more of this rare species! When I was a kid I used to buy bullfrog tadpoles that were imported accidentally in shipments of goldfish for $1 and watch them develop, so I loved seeing Jo's pictures. I asked Jo's permission to post them here, which she kindly agreed to. Then I lost all the pictures during my move to Montreal (I lost the USB they were on) and she kindly sent them all to me again! So here they are, one year in the life of the tusked frog family living in Jo's backyard frog pond.

Here's the male tusked frog with that dear-in-the-headlights look. He's waiting patiently for the humans to go away so he can resume calling to attract the female. The humans are waiting patiently with their light on the frog so that they can get a picture of him calling. There are many pictures (and videos) like this one.

This is a cute picture of the Mom and Pop tusked frogs together. It's quite hard to get them both in the same shot. Their eggs are in the foam nest in the background.

This is a young tadpole, which you can tell because it is small and not very developed. Basically it looks like just a circle with a line coming out the back of it.

Here are some older tadpoles. They are not quite so black, have a more complex body shape and thicker tails.

These tadpoles are even more developed. They're much bigger and more thick-set, particularly in the tail. Most are at the stage just before they start to grow legs. They grow their back legs first, and there is one tadpole, sixth from the front, that has back legs but no front legs. The two closest to that one have gotten to the next stage; they've grown both front and back legs. At that stage they also start developing the shape and colouration of of frogs. The one in the foreground is even further along than the rest. Its legs are a little more developed and it's starting to look more like a frog with a tail than of a tadpole. There are some much younger tadpoles in the background for comparison.

Here's a better look at a tadpole that's really starting to look like a frog. At this point the tadpole's gills are being absorbed and it's lungs are forming. This is a preteen frog!

This one is not a tadpole, not yet a frog. This is the transition moment, the frog Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Its lungs are formed so it can breath air, its tail is being reabsorbed, and its legs are almost developed enough to get around on land.

And here we have a froglet, a teenager frog that looks just like a mini version of an adult. Like human teenagers, it also think's it's an adult and is ready to leave the water and hop off to find its own pond.

And off it goes! Safe travels, little frog, the world is much more dangerous than you realise. Watch out for that boot!

Jo's frog pond has been really successful, not only with the tusked frogs. It has also attracted some other frog species:

Here is a calling striped marsh frog (Limnodynastes tasmaniensis) in Jo's frog pond. The tusked frogs and the striped marsh frogs both seem to be residents of the pond, but they've divided the territory. The tusked frogs hang out near the edges of the pond, while the marsh frog occupies the middle.

Here's the striped marsh frog's foam nest. The little black dots are eggs!

The frog pond has also attracted visitors like these green tree frogs (Litoria caerulea). They spend most of their lives away from frog ponds, in trees, mailboxes and toilets, and venture to the ponds on rainy nights to breed.

Backyard ponds can be really successful, not just for entertaining kids and providing ambience and aesthetics, but also for helping species at risk from urban development. Here's a guide for converting backyard pools (which are awful) into frog ponds (which are glorious).

Thoughts on leaving

Nothing lasts forever, not the process of getting a doctorate, and especially not the process of getting a doctorate in Australia. So recently I had to wrap up my research at the Australian National University (ANU), hand in my thesis, and find a new job. I’ve updated my contact page and my Twitter bio, and I’ll have to do the same with my about and research pages. I’ll get to that eventually, but at the moment I’m feeling a lot of mental inertia towards anything that cements my move or announces it to the world. I’m feeling rather down about my move. Moving cities, even countries for work is thought of as common, even normal, and certainly I hear about it a lot. My parents did it forty years ago. If the impression I’m getting from Facebook is accurate, just about all my friends are doing it now. However, in reality it’s really rare. The average American lives 30 km from their mother. And more people are homebodies now than in previous generations: moving cities during one’s lifetime is actually becoming rarer over time. Most people are born, grow up, live, work, and die in the same place. 

This is not true of academics. Generally, if you want to work in the Ivory Tower, you have to be willing to travel far and wide from tower to tower to tower. This is because even the largest cities generally have, at most, five or so academic institutions (towers), which are usually universities and colleges but can also include museums, government research organisations and even some privately-run research organisations. There is no such thing as a Jack-of-all-Trades academic, all of us have to specialise, and the longer you’ve been doing research, the more specialised you become. Each academic institution is going to have very few positions in any particular area of specialisation, and that makes it near-impossible to choose a place to live and then find a job in academia. Usually, the process is reversed: you have to scour the world for available positions, then go wherever will have you.

I was actually really lucky. I didn’t have to scour the world for positions, and I didn’t have to beg and plead, go through umpteenth interviews and continually update my CV. I was offered a position in a lab that I had worked in before. The lab leader wanted someone she knew and trusted, and I wanted a job doing what I love: trying to figure out why the brain is structured the way it is. Turns out she needed someone to ask just that question within the context of her overall research subject. Lucky me! That was the good part. There’s also a bad part: leaving.

My personal opinion, based on absolutely no research and incorporating many unjustifiable assumptions, is that humans are not made to move. We are pack animals, family-oriented and social, and have not evolved to easily change social groups and reintegrate. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t feel that way. There is a sense in academia that if you want to survive, to have a career, you must be so devoted to the research, to the questions, to the quest for knowledge that you’d be willing to give up everything else in your life to continue your pursuit. Wherever is best for answering your particular question, that’s were you have to move to, if you want to be a scientist. Being sad about it means you aren’t devoted enough to the work and you should probably quit now, before you’re denied tenure. The choice is increasingly move and have a chance at staying on the academic career path, or stay and get off the academic road. Giving up your career to stay in a place you love? In academia that’s the same as failing the profession.

In Australia the process of getting a doctorate is particularly fast-paced. You are expected to complete your thesis in three years, although most people take three and a half years, the maximum amount of time you can get Australian funding for. Four years is the absolute maximum time you can take to hand in your thesis, and that’s the amount of time I took. Funding from Canada allowed me to support myself those last six months. At the end of that time I handed in my thesis, but the journey to getting a doctorate was not over. My thesis was sent away to be marked, a process that can take up to six months, and rarely even longer. I was lucky, my thesis was marked in less than two months. Once the marking process is over, the university allows a year to make any corrections the markers demand and hand in a corrected thesis. So, the whole process can take up to five and a half years. In my case, it took four years, ten months. This was tricky for me because my Australian student visa was valid for only four years, so I had to leave the country and return as a business traveller just to finish the darn thing.

Maybe my move would have been easier if I had just up and moved, ripped off the bandaid the way adults always told me to when I was a kid. Instead I moved the way I ripped off bandaids when I was a kid, slowly, painfully, millimetre by excruciating millimetre. First, I moved from Canberra, where I’d lived for five years, to Sydney, where my girlfriend lives. This step involved the painful process of leaving my friends behind, as well as my academic mentor. The Department of Evolution, Ecology and Genetics at the ANU is a phenomenal place to work, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The group of people there is incredible. Not only are they amazing scientists who do an incredible array of very interesting things, but they are also all genuinely great people who quickly and easily became my friends. I credit this in part to building design: the department is housed in a building that makes sure we have many opportunities to meet each other. I’ve written about the courtyard before, but this also includes the phenomenal tea room where we have discussion groups, meetings, social events, and lunches when it’s raining or cold, and the first-year PhD office, which makes sure each new PhD student in the department has ample opportunity to be integrated into the PhD community. But it’s also the people themselves. The researchers in the department, from PhD students to senior academics, work hard to make sure newcomers feel welcome and comfortable. The result of this is that we form strong friendships, friendships that feel like they could last forever. And so it is difficult when friends leave, as they always do because this is academia, and are replaced with new people, who then become friends, and then they leave, and the cycle continues. Until, finally, I was the one who left, and it felt like all those friendships ended at once. Yes, there’s Facebook, Twitter, and Skype. If I’m lucky I’ll see some people again at conferences or by chance. But it’s nothing like being part of a tight-knit community.

Generally in our department when someone leaves there is a big farewell party. I’ve attended many and I’ve always left early because I find them too sad, and I can only mask that for so long (each drink brings it closer to the surface). When I moved away I purposefully avoided a farewell of any sort because it’s not really possible to duck out of your own farewell party early, and I didn’t really want to bawl my eyes out at some nice restaurant or the house of a well-respected professor. So I tried to go quietly. People still noticed and walked me to my car, and that was almost enough to set me off. Having “Boys of Summer” come on the radio during a particularly scenic part of the drive out of Canberra wasn’t helpful, but felt appropriate for the moment. It’s funny how the radio can do that sometimes.

The next stage of leaving was to spend five days in Sydney with my partner, to say goodbye to her and a few friends of mine who live in Sydney. Though my partner was there, she was living in a place I’d never stayed at before, with roommates I’d never met before, so I felt like I was mostly gone from my life of the past five years, and only hanging on by one thread. We tried to make the most of my short interlude between lives, but ultimately time goes way too fast. On my last day in Sydney, and in Australia, for the foreseeable future, we rented a car and went somewhere I hadn’t been in a very long time. When I was 18 I came to Australia as a backpacker. I stayed with some family friends in north Sydney for my first five days in the country, and the very first sightseeing I did was to the America Bay trail in Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park. I hadn’t done that walk since December 2004, so it seemed somehow fitting to bookend my time in Australia this way. My partner and I did this walk and found a nice, secluded place next to a water hole to have a picnic. A water dragon, a member of the same group of lizards I spent my PhD studying, tried to steal our food, something that is a regular occurrence in my department at the ANU. It seemed appropriate.

The America Bay walk is very short, and we spent the rest of the day further exploring Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park. We saw Sydney’s most spectacular lizard, the lace monitor, and even ran into an old friend of mine that I hadn’t seen in years. I went swimming in the ocean one last time, had one last dinner at a “modern Australian cuisine” restaurant and took one last opportunity to look for some of Sydney’s spectacular snakes. The pictures interspersed in this post are from that last, great day exploring the Sydney wilderness with my best friend.

And then I had to do the rest of the leaving. The following morning I had to get up early to get to the airport on time. I said one last goodbye to my partner, then another, and another, and another after that, and then I drove off with all my worldly possession that aren’t currently in a container somewhere on the Pacific Ocean. The Sydney airport, without getting into specifics, was a shitshow. Suffice to say that at one point I wound up being that guy running while pushing a cart of bags through the airport crowds yelling things like “Excuse me!” “Coming through!” and “Sorry!” I didn’t want to leave, and I almost wasn’t able to. But I did. I spent 14 hours on a plane over the Pacific, and another seven on two more planes over the continental United States. My total transit time, Sydney-door to Montreal-door, was 33 hours. When I left, I left home. When I arrived, I arrived home. It’s a strange feeling. Montreal at the beginning of March is a desolate, freezing place. The job I’ve arrived to is exciting, stimulating and exactly what I want to be doing. For that, I’m grateful. The city it’s in needs a couple more months to warm up.

Practical thoughts on leaving:

Leaving a country in order to apply for a new visa to reenter the country you just left (known as a “visa run”) is generally frowned upon, though it’s not illegal (and I personally don’t see the problem). Generally the way this is done is to drive to a neighbouring country, spend the weekend at a hotel, and drive back. Australia, being an island, is a little trickier. Flying to New Zealand, Fiji or Indonesia (particularly the resort island of Bali) for a quick holiday and renewing your visa while over there may seem like a good idea, but non-advertised agreements between Australia and these countries mean that if you don’t have a valid visa to reenter Australia, you won’t be allowed to enter any of these countries if you’ve got a return ticket to Australia. You won’t even be allowed on the plane! The best and most reliable way to do a visa run is to go back to your home country for your holiday. Your family probably misses you anyway. However, I was able to do a successful visa run to New Caledonia in March 2015. What other countries it’s still possible to do a visa run to from Australia, I do not know.

The things I packed with me from Sydney to Montreal included a 27-inch iMac. I had saved its original box from all those years ago, and I used that to ship the computer in. I used clothing to cushion it on all sides. Because Delta bans computers in checked luggage, I simply labelled it as “fragile” and had it wrapped in protective plastic. When airport employees asked me what was in it, I said “all my worldly possessions” and when that wasn’t good enough, “electronics”. The computer seems to still work fine, though if I’m not mistaken it’s louder than before. I'm curious to know if anyone has an idea of what could have happened to it so that it still works fine, but is louder.

Pack food in your carry-on. I never used to do this, but airlines have significantly cut back on the amount of food they give out. On the 14 hour flight from Sydney to Los Angeles we were only offered two meals: one right after take-off and one just before landing. Mid-way through we were offered a "snack". If you're lucky the flight will have a self-service snack-bar as well, but the snacks aren't very good. I was lucky enough to have fresh-baked cinnamon cookies made by my girlfriend as well as left-over trail mix from our Ku-Ring-Gai Chase adventures and some fresh fruit. It made a world of difference on that seemingly endless journey.

For the love of God, please please please don’t pee standing up in an airplane, especially not on a 14 hour flight. Also avoid peeing standing up on buses, trains and any other moving vehicles. It’s disgusting and completely avoidable. Sit down and pee, your sense of manhood will survive.

Here are some monotremes

A few days ago I posted an essay about my summer travels to conferences, linked by my incessant search for otters. Included in the post was a truly terrible picture of a platypus. The photo was taken from a platypus viewing hide in Yungaburra, Queensland, about an hour outside of Cairns. We sat patiently for quite a while at dusk, waiting for the platypus to show. By the time it did, the sun was so low there was not enough light to take a decent picture.

Platypus aren't just easy to see in Yungaburra. Canberra, where I live, happens to be one of the easiest places to see platypus in Australia. At the Tidbinbilla Nature Sanctuary there is a boardwalk over a wetland where wild platypus are active during the day. With a little patience and, ideally, some binoculars, platypus can be viewed well at anytime. I thought I'd post some better pictures of platypus taken at Tidbinbilla to offset the terrible one I posted last week. I am not, however, a professional photographer, and professionals could get much better photos than these!

Platypus are monotremes, the last mammals on Earth that lay eggs. The only other monotremes still around are the echidnas, of which there are four species. Three are critically endangered animals that only live on the island of New Guinea, and the fourth is the reasonably common short-beaked echidna, which lives on both New Guinea and Australia. Canberra is also a great place to see echidnas, though they are by no means as easy to see as the platypus. Some of the best places to see them around Canberra are Black Mountain and Mulligan's Flat.

The Australian National University, where I work, is the only university in the world (as far as I know) that is home to both platypus and echidna, which is pretty special.

A Journey of Many Otters

Part of doing science is going to conferences where people present their research and everyone gets updated on the state of the art, as well as the identity of the artists. At an ideal conference a broad cross-section of researchers attends, from grizzled veterans who wrote their PhD theses on typewriters to undergraduate students who address everyone as Dr-so-and-so and generally act like they're attending extended office hours for their advanced biology course. This is what makes conferences so wonderful. Not only do you get to see the latest research, but you also get to meet people you admire from all professional levels at what approaches an even playing field. No polite knocking on office doors, no staying up until 1am to Skype with someone on the other side of the world. Last (Northern Hemisphere) summer I went on a 'round-the-world conference tour. This was made possible because three conferences I wanted to attend were taking place in the Americas in quick succession: the International Behavioural Neuroscience Society conference in Victoria, Canada at the beginning of June, the Evolution conference near Sao Paulo, Brazil at the end of June, and the International Brain Research Organization conference in early July in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Finally, the Behaviour conference was at the beginning of August back in Australia.

Otters are charismatic members of the weasel family, Mustelidae. They're well known for their personable, funny behaviour such as sliding down waterfalls, play-fighting, and generally being pretty cute. When I was a kid my parents would take me to the Buffalo Aquarium, where their river otters were among my favourite exhibits, and I always loved watching them slide down their artificial river. Although otters are probably the most well-liked members of the weasel family, they're not the easiest things to observe in the wild. I'd been lucky enough to see wild otters only three times over the course of my life, despite North American river otters (Lontra canadensis) being native to my native southern Ontario. I'd seen the aforementioned river otters once in the wild, during a spring break trip to the Everglades in Florida. I'd also seen a neotropical river otter (Lontra longicaudis), a closely related species native to Central and South America, once while surveying birds in Panama. Finally, I got a fleeting glance at a family of spot-necked otters (Hydrictis maculicollis) on safari in the Maasi Mara in Kenya. That's three otter sightings in 28 years. I would get just as many sightings of otters in the two months I spent attending conferences across the Americas. 

An Otter Surprise

Conference number one was the International Society for Behavioural Neuroscience (ISBN) conference in Victoria, Canada. Victoria is the beautiful capital of British Columbia, the westernmost province of Canada and is located on Vancouver Island. The conference was held at a particularly spectacular waterfront hotel in Victoria (picture below). Each conference has its own flavour, and the Behaviour Neuroscience conference was a strange mix of low-key and formality. The low-key aspect came mostly from the younger attendees, the graduate students and early postdocs. The conference started with a student-mixer, and I was surprised by how easy it was to meet new people and make quick friends amongst the students attending the conference. There weren't too many people and everyone seemed quite approachable and friendly. Smaller conferences and student-only mixers are good for this sort of thing. Meeting people is one of the main benefits to attending conferences, and the way this conference was organised really promoted getting to know people.

The more formal aspect of the conference came from the more senior attendees. I find people working in neuroscience have a higher level of professional dress, in general, and suits, ties, pleated pants and dress shoes were common amongst the attendee's attire (notice all these items, save the shoes, are stereotypically men's formal wear; science is still very much a male-biased profession). The talks also felt more formal, both in their structure and their delivery.

Behavioural neuroscience is a broad field to which I am only tangentially related. I would call what I do more evolutionary neuroscience or, if you want to get more specific, evolutionary neuroanatomy. I do try and relate my work to the behavioural work of others, but it's still not directly what I would consider "behavioural neuroscience". I like attending these conferences because they are significant horizon-broadeners. I come away from them feeling like I know better where I fit into the rest of the neuroscience field, even if nothing presented was directly what I work on.

Victoria is a spectacular place to hold a conference, and my jet-lag resulted in my being awake bright and early, allowing for scenic strolls along the waterfront each morning before the conference started. Along Victoria's waterfront there's a particularly kitschy wharf where tourists can buy raw fish to feed a particularly friendly and obese seal (picture above). I'd heard that they've been having problems recently with sneaky otters stealing the fish meant for the seal. I wasn't so interested in seeing the seal, harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) are common along both of Canada's coasts and seeing one being fed by tourists didn't sound like a particularly wild experience. I was, however, very interested in trying to find the sneaky otters. Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) were, until recently, extinct in British Columbia due to over-harvesting for the fur industry. However, they had recently recolonised the coast of Vancouver Island and I was eager to see this endangered species in the wild. I walked down to the seal-feeding spot around sunrise, expecting to find some wily sea otters because, after all, this was the Pacific Ocean. However, I was surprised to find North American river otters instead! This just goes to show that you shouldn't make assumptions on the biology of animals based on their names. River otters can actually be found in lakes, streams, marshes and even coastal shorelines, as well as rivers.

An Otter Disappointment

Because of my failure to find sea otters in Victoria, I joined some friends I had just made at the Behavioural Neuroscience conference on a quick road trip up to Tofino, a small town popular with hippies and surfers on the seaward coast of Vancouver Island. This trip was good for me because I was able to cement some friendships with people I had just met at the conference in Victoria. I came to the conference knowing only one person, and yet I was able to mingle, make friends, and establish new contacts, particularly with people at the same career stage as I am.

I wanted to go to Tofino because it is a good place to see two mammals, both spectacular conservation success stories. In additional to the recently-recolonised sea otters, I was hoping to see Pacific Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus). The gray whales, or at least the population that lives along the Pacific coast of North America, is believed to be the first whale population to have completely recovered from whaling. The number of gray whales is what it was before humans started hunting all the great whales to extinction. Conservation success stories are relatively rare - much rarer than species in dire situations in need of conservation - and it's always nice to see a wild animal that represents human's ability not to kill animals, but to save them (as long as we care to). To have the opportunity to see two such species in one place is a rare treat.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. The sea was too rough and we weren't able to get out to the rafts of sea otters, who live quite a ways out from shore. This caution on the part of our captain was definitely a good thing. Just a few months later a boat capsized and six people died doing exactly what I was doing. The gray whales, however, were also sheltering from the rough seas. They were in a (relatively) calm bay and we were able to see five of them up close, including a calf playing around its mother. The whales almost made up for the disappointment of missing the sea otters.

An Otter Success (but Jaguar Disappointment)

The next conference on my tour was the Evolution conference in Guaruja, Brazil. Guaruja is a coastal resort-city get-away for the wealthier residents of Sao Paulo, Brazil's biggest city. It's also, I learned later from some Sao Paulo residents, not the safest place on Earth, or even in Brazil. Rumor had it that on the first day of the conference a few attendees were mugged, and it's the only conference I've ever attended with police and an ambulance stationed out front. 

Out of all the conferences I attended last summer, the Evolution conference had the most people I knew. Entire labs from my department (Evolution, Ecology & Genetics) at ANU were attending, and there were additional people from my department and from around Australia whom I was friendly with. It was surprising, therefore, that this was the conference at which I felt the most like an outsider. Many people come back from conferences, particularly conferences at which they are the only members of their lab in attendance, reporting feelings of isolation and loneliness. Although that doesn't necessarily have to be the case (see my experience at the last conference), it was my experience at this conference. When I think of the two conferences, and compare their structure and my experiences, I think a lot of the differences in my experience can be found in the size of the conferences, and in their organization.

The Evolution conference was much larger than the ISBN conference, and had in attendance many more "Big Cheeses". The Evolution community is a relatively small one, however when everyone is at the same conference it can feel huge, and moreover most people are already friends with each other. I'm a relative outsider in the field of evolution, and I found this conference relatively cliquey, with most people sticking to their previously-established social groups and not much room for new interactions.

This brings me to my second point. There weren't many opportunities for socializing set-up by the conference organizers. The ISBN conference's very first function was a meet-and-great for PhD students only, and those sorts of socials can help outsiders find their way in. In their absence, I was overwhelmed and lost.

That's not to say I didn't meet anyone interesting. I made a point of looking people up and talking to them if their work related to mine or was something that I was particularly interested in. On a few occasions I was able to connect people with other people I knew who were interested in the same things, which I hope was useful. However I left the conference feeling like I hadn't been able to integrate or become part of the evolution society.

Following the conference I decided to visit a place that was always very high on my "must-visit" list: the Pantanal in far western Brazil. Circumstances had conspired to force me to miss the Pantanal on both my previous trips to Brazil, and I wasn't going to let that happen again! I rented a car in Cuiaba and spent a week driving up and down the Transpantaneira, the only road that penetrates deep into the Pantanal, looking for animals.

The Pantanal is not the Amazon. It's a giant, flooded grassland very similar to the Everglades. The Amazon is full of animals but they are very difficult to see owing to all the massive trees that are in the way. As a grassland, the Pantanal is a much easier place to see animals, and it is well-known particularly for mammals. I went to the Pantanal seeking four animals in particular: hyacinth macaw, lowland tapir, jaguar and giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis). The Pantanal is definitely the best place to see all four, and the only place to reliably see hyacinth macaw and jaguar.

To find jaguar and giant otter I drove to the small village at the end of the Transpantaneira called Porto Jofre. Porto Jofre is idyllically located on the bank of the Cuiaba River. There's a campground there, and I have to admit that camping on the edge of the river looked pretty spectacular, especially as the sun went down. However, after dark I discovered the dark side of this particular campground. For no discernible reason the campground had massive lights that bathed all the campsites in artificial light all night long. To power these lights they ran a diesel generator, a very noisy machine, for the WHOLE NIGHT. What could have been a spectacular experience listening to the river flow as I fall asleep admiring the stars through the mesh of my tent turned into a horrible experience in which a face mask and earplugs were necessary to get any sleep at all.

One of the benefits of the generator was that I had no trouble getting up in time to watch the sunrise. I also discovered that there was a giant river otter den right next to my tent. I got to watch four of the massive animals play and catch fish as the sun rose and I drank my morning coffee. Giant river otters are not only the longest of the otters, but are the longest of the Mustelids, and can get almost 2 meters long! They are huge.

Unfortunately, I was not nearly as lucky with the jaguars as I was with the otters. I hired a boat to take me looking for jaguars all day on the banks of the Cuiaba River. Porto Jofre is known as the only place in the world to reliably see jaguars in the wild, but even there it's not easy. The jaguars are seen when they come to the banks of the river to sunbathe, drink, hunt and bathe. They often don't hang around very long, so the trick is to be in the right place at the right time to see them. Working to the advantage of hopeful jaguar-spotters is the sheer number of people who want to see them. Many boats patrol the river ever day, looking for jaguars. If one is seen, the driver of the boat that spotted it gets on the radio and lets all the other boats know where it is. All the other boats race over to where the jaguar is to try to get a glimpse of it before it disappears back into the bush. Two jaguars were spotted the day I hired a boat to go looking for them. Unfortunately, I had not thought about horsepower when I hired the boat. My boat had the weakest horsepower motor available (60 hp, I think) and it was depressing watching all the other boats zoom past us on the way to see the first jaguar. My boat was left far behind and by the time we got to where the jaguar had been, it was long gone. By the time the second jaguar appeared, in the late afternoon, we had already run out of petrol and had returned to Porto Jofre. Credit to the driver of the boat, though, he really tried to find that jaguar. He searched for so long that we ran out of petrol in the middle of the river and had to wait for more to be brought from Porto Jofre. Hiring that boat cost R$600, more than I was expecting. I would have hired a (faster) boat again the next day, but I hadn't taken out enough cash before heading down the Transpantaneira. There is no ATM, and no credit card facilities, in Porto Jofre.

An otter that belongs in the sea, but not the one I wanted to see

After a week in the Pantanal I flew to Rio de Janeiro for my second Brazilian conference, the world congress of the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO). On paper, this conference and the last conference I attended, Evolution, were very similar. Both were large international conferences put on by big academic societies in large Brazilian cities. However, they couldn't have felt more different. 

I think the major difference between the two stems from their relative importance to their fields. The Evolution conference is probably the biggest, most important conference in the field of evolutionary biology (though there are other conferences that would argue this point, it's definitely one of the biggest). Because of this, I think it attracted a great majority of the players in evolutionary biology from around the world. Had the conference been held in America, Europe or Australia, most of the same people probably would have shown up.

The IBRO conference, by contrast, was noticeably made up of mostly researchers from Brazil and around South America. I think this is because the IBRO conference is definitely not the principle neuroscience conference. That would be the annual Society for Neuroscience (SfN) conference, which takes place every year in one of three American cities and attracts over 30 000 attendees. The IBRO conference was big, but not even close to THAT big. 

I also think it has to do with the number of people in the field. Neuroscience is one of the largest academic fields period and so the pool of people that can be drawn on to attend the conference is huge. Evolutionary biology is a much smaller field and even its largest conferences struggle to have an attendance a tenth as big as SfN. So a neuroscience conference could be decently sized and still only host mostly researchers from South America, while an evolution conference of only South American attendees would be noticeably smaller. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing; many people prefer smaller conferences and I know lots of people who refuse to attend SfN due to its overwhelming size.

I really enjoyed the IBRO conference. The only neuroscience conference I regularly attend, SfN, is dominated by North American and European researchers, and it was great to see all the interesting but relatively unsung work that's being done in South America. Rio de Janeiro is also home to one of my favorite research groups, the lab of Prof. Suzanna Herculano-Houzel. This lab is consistently coming out with cool research in the field of evolutionary neuroscience, and is one of the few labs in the world doing so. Dr. Herculano-Houzel herself is an excellent speaker and advocate for Brazilian academia, and has written several books on neuroscience-related topics in Portuguese. I am lucky to be friends with several of the people in her lab and was invited to her lab's celebratory dinner before the conference's closing party. In addition to Dr. Herculano-Houzel's lab I got to visit with a future lab-mate. It's always nice to make friends with lab members before joining a lab, as joining itself can be a jarring and disorienting experience. It's nice to have people that already know you and can help you adjust.

It was weird, and a shock to the system for me, that two conferences that looked so similar on paper, held in almost the same place and only one week apart, could have produced such opposing experiences for me.

After the IBRO conference it was time to head back to Australia for the final conference on my tour, the Behavior conference in Cairns. The only flights from South American to Australia are from Santiago, Chile to Sydney, Australia. I could have gotten a flight from Rio to Santiago, but they are shockingly expensive and the flight from Santiago to Sydney was already expensive enough. Instead, I got a much cheaper flight from Rio to Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, and spent the next two weeks traveling overland to Santiago and my flight home to Australia. I think that entire two-week trip cost less than the Rio-Santiago flight, and produced many more memories. 

Some of those memories were produced at the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve north of La Serena, Chile. The reserve is not only an excellent place to see Humboldt penguins (of which we saw several) but is also probably the best place north of Santiago to see one of the world's least know otters. The sea otter of North America is the most well-known otter-that-lives-in-the-sea, and it's the only one that has a truly pelagic existence, where it needs little to no contact with the land to survive, but there is another otter species, much less well known, that lives primarily in the sea. The marine otter (Lontra felina) is native to the Pacific coast of South America and lives in the littoral zone (the area close to shore) of the coast. It's very specialized to this area and rarely enters fresh or even brackish water. And yet it looks almost identical to the two American freshwater Lontra otter species. That it's internationally listed as endangered just adds to its air of mystery. Seeing the marine otter in the wild was an excellent way to end my overseas conference tour that started with a failure to see the sea otter.

An Otter Australian

The final conference on my tour was the Behavior conference in Cairns, Australia. Sadly, Australia is otter-free, the closest otters living across Wallace's Line in places like Borneo. However, I went to Cairns the weekend before the conference to try and see some of the cool wildlife that does live there, such as tree-kangaroos, green ringtail possum, and golden bowerbirds. To see these animals I travelled to a town not far from Cairns called Yungaburra and hired Alan Gillanders of Alan's Wildlife Tours to help me find these amazing but hard-to-find critters, which we did successfully. Particularly spectacular was the nighttime spotlighting portion of Alan's tour. Rare possums and gliders were illuminated in bright red light from special spotlights. Red light is used instead of normal white light because the possums and gliders can't see it, and so are not disturbed by our tour.

However, one animal that I didn't need Alan's help to find was Australia's version of an otter, the spectacular platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus). Yungaburra has its very own platypus hide, and at dusk I visited it along with some backpackers and was able to watch as a platypus emerged from its burrow for its nighttime forage. Now, platypus are very easy to see in the wild in Canberra, where I live, but it's shocking to see just how much smaller they are up Australia's north compared to the south. Up in Yungaburra they're like adorable mini-platypuses.

After my wildlife tour it was time for the Behavior conference. Behavioral ecology and evolutionary biology are ostensibly different fields, but the people who do them are generally interested in both to the point that I don't think I could tell the attendees of the Behavior conference from the attendees of the Evolution conference in Guaruja based on research topics. 

Interestingly my experience at the Behavior conference was the opposite of mine at the Evolution conference. At Behavior I felt integrated, got to know people, and had great conversations with a wide variety of people about lots of science topics, including with people that I had not known previously. Here, I think the big difference was that I not only had friends in attendance, but also more senior academics who knew me and had an interest in my academic progress. In particular, my co-supervisor Prof. Martin Whiting, chief of the Lizard Lab, was in attendance. Martin made sure that I met people who had interests relevant to mine and opened doors in terms of talking to the right people. And it wasn't only him. Other senior academics in attendance were great in helping me meet people and feel included in the society. This made me realize how important it is to have good supervisors. Especially in the absence of the right social functions at conferences, they are key to meeting the people you need to meet as an early career researcher in order to become part of the academic world.

Epilogue: An Otter Jealousy

After the Behavior conference my tour was over. I had to get back to my office, to the grind of analyzing data, making sense of the results and writing papers. However, at the same time my partner got her first taste of conference travel when her supervisor sent her to a conference in the United States. After the conference she went to visit her aunt who has a house near Monterey Bay, California, and low-and-behold she sent me the picture below. They may just look like little specks in the ocean, but she made sure I knew what they were: real, live sea otters!