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!

On-campus wildlife

As a wildlife lover, I'm lucky that the places I work are full of wildlife. Throughout my PhD I've been primarily based at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, Australia. Canberra is known as Australia's "bush capital" because of the extensive natural areas that penetrate the urban environment here. As Canberra was a planned city, it was planned from the beginning to have large tracts of natural forest throughout the city, and so has largely avoided becoming the urban wasteland that has enveloped a lot of cities. I've also spent an extensive amount of time at Macquarie University (MQ) in Sydney. Sydney is older, larger, more densely populated and more ramshackle than Canberra, but still has managed to maintain an impressive amount of green space for a city of its size. Both MQ and ANU have benefitted from these efforts to maintain urban green spaces as they are both directly connected to extensive natural areas. 

The ANU butts up against the Australian National Botanic Gardens and Black Mountain Nature Park, a large area of dry sclerophyll forest. MQ is adjacent to Lane Cove National Park, a long, narrow national park running through northern Sydney that protects the banks of Lane Cove River and consists mostly of wet eucalypt forest.

In addition, both universities are making concerted efforts to be eco-friendly and both have characteristics that help attract wildlife: streams running through them, including wetland habitat,patches of forest, and artificial habitat-enhancers, such as nesting boxes for possums. Both ANU and MQ take great pride in promoting the native wildlife that can be found on campus. MQ has posted on its website a list of wildlife known to live on or visit the campus. ANU, to my knowledge, does not have such a list on its website, but did post this article about the wildlife that can be found there. I e-mailed the author of that article and she courteously sent me a list of the animals known to live on or visit ANU. The lists aren't compiled in the same way. The ANU list is based off of systematic surveys of the ANU campus and surrounding area done by a campus group called ANUgreen. ANUgreen uses consistent and repeatable survey techniques - different kinds for each vertebrate group - and conducts surveys regularly. The MQ list, on the other hand, seems to be more haphazardly put together, the result of asking enthusiastic wildlife observers on campus what they've seen. However, MQ is apparently in the process of designing more rigorous survey methods similar to those in place at ANU.

 Since ANU and MQ are quite close to each other, by Australian geographical standards anyway, the lists have a lot of the same species. And since I've spent a lot of time on both campuses and like to watch wildlife, I wanted to see how my own observations at ANU and MQ stack up against the "official" lists.


These echidna (L) and eastern grey kangaroo (R) pictures are from the ANU Instagram page, which posts many great pictures of wildlife on campus.

ANU's mammal list is short but it's got some cool stuff in it. The macropods, the eastern grey kangaroo and swamp wallaby, are both common just over the road on Black Mountain. Neither lives on the ANU campus, but both make regular visits. I've never come across swamp wallabies on campus, but I've seen quite a few across the road at the botanic gardens. I've seen a few eastern grey kangaroos on campus, though, including one standing patiently at a campus bus station. Echidnas also don't live on campus but are common on Black Mountain and make regular campus visits. In fact, I can't think of a place on mainland Australia where wild echidnas are more common than Black Mountain. If visitors at ANU mention that they want to see an echidna, Black Mountain is where we send them. Sometimes it takes a few morning hikes, but it seems everyone comes across one eventually.

Adorable ringtail (L) and brushtail (R) possums live on ANU campus. ANU encourages them by provided artificial nesting boxes (R).

As opposed to macropods and monotremes, common ringtail possums and common brushtail possums are resident on campus. In fact, they are so common here that when a research group needs some subjects for their possum-diet-preference studies, they don't need to go off campus to get the number of animals necessary for their experiments. After the experiment is over, the possums are released back into their on-campus territories. Artificial possum boxes around campus provide convenient daytime resting spots, and whenever it's dark by the time I head home (which is, depressingly, almost all nights) I see at least one brushtail possum along the way. Ringtail possums are not as easy to see as brushtails, but are still common. We had a pair of ringtails take up residence in a banksia tree beside the biology building and while they were living there we saw them almost every day. Unfortunately for us they seem to have moved on.

The same banksia that hosted our pair of ringtail possums also attracts grey-headed flying-foxes when it's flowering. There's a balcony at the height of the banksia's canopy from which you can get really good eye-level looks at the adorable flying-foxes as they feed on banksia nectar. White-striped mastiff bats are on the list likely because their echolocation call is audible to the naked human ear, making them much easier to identify than other species of insectivorous bat. There's almost certainly a wider diversity of bats at ANU than is currently represented by this list, we just need to get someone in to do a proper bat-detection survey.

Some animals on the list I find suspicious. There are no wombat populations close-by and one would have to wander quite far, and survive several perilous road crossings, to get here. I've also heard that the wombat records for ANU are the result of incidental reports, not evidence having been detected during an official survey by trained individuals. Seeing as their burrows and scats are rather distinctive, if there were wombats living in or around ANU I would think they'd be pretty readily detected. But I could be wrong. I also thought the platypus seemed suspicious, but I'm inclined to believe the Australian Platypus Conservancy and not only because I like the idea of my home university holding the title of the only university in the world that's home to platypus.

European rabbits (L) and domestic cats (R) are unfortunately common across Australia, including on university campuses. The rabbit picture comes from MQ's Instagram page, while the cat picture (the only picture I have of a feral cat in Australia) was taken by Angus Kennedy in 2011 during fieldwork in South Australia.

ANU is unfortunately home to invasive mammals as well as the wonderful native ones. We have European rabbits here in plague proportions, as well as the much-maligned invasive predators, cats and foxes. I'm surprised cats are on the ANU's list but foxes are not because I see more foxes on campus than cats. I'm also surprised at the absence of black rats (Rattus rattus) on ANU's list. Though I've never personally seen one, I have seen evidence of them - in the form of their droppings - including in my office! 

MQ doesn't yet have a mammal list. The only wild mammals I've seen at MQ are grey-headed flying foxes, though I did see a road-killed common ringtail possum just across the street from MQ and I've heard reliable reports of black rats on their campus, too!


These bird lists are long! Bird lists are always long. ANU's list is 90 birds long while MQ's is 60. Bird lists for any area are almost always longer than mammal and herp lists for several reasons. Birds are often genuinely the most diverse vertebrate group, especially in human-disturbed environments to which birds, in general, are better at adapting than mammals or herps. Furthermore, birds are easier to detect than mammals and reptiles, and often a single survey technique is sufficient to detect the vast majority of bird species, if they are present. In contrast, several different survey techniques are necessary to get at the full range of mammals and herps. In ANU's case, their survey methods for mammals and reptiles are limited and unlikely to detect the full diversity of species present, while their bird and frog surveys are more thorough.

Despite the length of the lists, ANU's and MQ's bird diversities are definitely underestimated. On their website, MQ has two bird lists: one of birds seen regularly on campus, and a second list for old records or unusual vagrants that were probably lost individuals. Since MQ's list is based on the observations of local bird enthusiasts, the number of unusual bird records is likely to be very high because bird enthusiasts tend to go out of their way to find unusual birds. I'm deliberately ignoring MQ's rare bird list to make their list more comparable to ANU's bird list, which is based on annual systematic surveys at a set of standardised locations. Therefore, ANU's list is more likely to represent accurately the common birds of the ANU campus and underrepresent the vagrants and unusual cases. 

ANU's campus is home to some spectacular parrots, such as gang-gang cockatoos (L) and crimson rosellas (R).

Both lists show that the campuses are rich in certain groups of birds, mostly parrots, water birds and bush birds, and surprisingly lacking in other bird groups, namely birds of prey and grassland birds. Australia is known as the land of the parrots, and they are very conspicuous on both campuses. The common large cockatoos of eastern Australia, galahs, sulfur-crested cockatoos, and little corellas, are present in large numbers on both campuses (corellas somewhat less so than the other two). In addition, both campuses are lucky to have two of the most spectacular common birds I've ever seen: crimson rosellas and king parrots. Both species are more common at ANU (I've seen over 20 king parrots and 10 crimson rosellas at ANU today and it's barely past lunch time) but they're present on both campuses. In addition to these common species, some additional parrot species are around in smaller numbers: eastern rosellas, musk & rainbow lorikeets (at MQ only), red-rumped parrots (ANU only), gang-gang cockatoos (ANU only) and yellow-tailed black-cockatoos. By far my favourite parrot is the gang-gang cockatoo, it's a real charmer among birds. ANU campus has quite a few resident gang-gangs and I frequently hear their distinctive "creaky door" call while working at my desk. The tree outside my office window has allowed me to watch most of these parrots species, including gang-gangs, feed while I work (which, I must admit, has a negative impact on my productivity). We are very lucky to live and work in a country with such an amazing diversity, and amazing abundance, of charismatic parrots.

Wetlands at both universities provide habitat for numerous water-associated species like wood ducks (L). The wetlands area at MQ (R) is big but has a "lawn problem". Left photo provided by Cat Young.

Both ANU and MQ have creeks running through them: Sullivan's Creek at ANU and Kikkiya & Mars Creeks at MQ. Unfortunately, all three creeks are subject to hard banking along a significant portion of their length. Hard banking prevents natural habitats from existing along the banks of the creeks and therefore creates a relative wasteland for waterbirds. Fortunately, both Mars Creek at MQ and Sullivan's Creek at ANU have areas without hard banking where wetlands have been established (either naturally or actively by the universities, I'm not sure). In these areas a great diversity and abundance of waterbirds can be found. The most common waterbird on both campuses is the australasian coot, as it is on just about every waterway I've visited in Australia. However, the most commonly seen waterbird on both campuses is probably the wood duck, less because wood ducks are particularly common (they are not) but more because they spend little time in and around the water and more time grazing on grassy lawns where they're more likely to be noticed around campus. Wood ducks are something of an icon on campus and every year I enjoy watching new ducklings appear in the spring and grow up as the seasons progress. Turns out the official ANU and MQ Instagram page-managers also enjoy this, as both pages post more wood duck pictures than any other animal. There's even a Facebook page devoted to the wood ducks of ANU! A wide variety of other duck species, as well as black swans (ANU only), australasian darters (ANU only), a variety of cormorants, dusky moorhens and purple swamphens are also seen around campus. White ibis, famous in Sydney for eating trash, are common at MQ but absent from ANU. Strangely, white-faced heron, a bird common at ANU, is not on their official list. 

Laughing kookaburras (L) are very tame at MQ and will steal your lunch if you're not careful. MQ also has a good patch of forest (R) but it's mostly off-limits to birdwatchers.

Bush birds, or birds that live in wooded areas, are also quite well represented. Both campuses have lots of large trees, including some small patches of forest, and are well-connected to larger forest patches, so it perhaps isn't that surprising that there are a lot of bush birds around. Probably the most noticeable bush bird on both campuses is the noisy miner, that obnoxious honeyeater that dominates urban green spaces and chases off just about all the other birds. Despite the miners, both campuses also have a decent variety of other honeyeaters such as red wattlebirds, yellow-faced honeyeaters, and eastern spinebills. Superb fairy-wrens are common on both campuses, and I've even seen them wander into the biology building at ANU. I've only seen laughing kookaburras at MQ, where they'll steal fries off your plate when you're not looking, but I've also seen them just across the road from ANU at the botanic gardens. Grey butcherbirds are common at MQ, and they too will steal your food off your plate, while pied currawongs are much more common at ANU. ANU in general has a more extensive bush bird list. I suspect this may have to do with the best area of forest left at MQ being a little off the beaten path and mostly protected from bird watchers by fencing, preventing the true diversity of bush birds at MQ from being recorded.

This pacific baza seen at MQ is so adorable I just had to post two pictures of it. It kept its eye on me!

Both lists are lacking in birds of prey, which is somewhat surprising. Wedge-tailed eagles are common in Canberra and white-bellied sea-eagles are common in Sydney. Surely they should be seen soaring above ANU and MQ respectively every once in a while? To be fair, MQ has several birds of prey on its rare birds list, but I'm still surprised they aren't more regularly seen. One bird of prey that is regularly seen at MQ is the pacific baza. MQ is where I saw my first ever pacific baza and it continues to turn up regularly in the same spot. I think it might live in MQ's fenced-off forest area, or in Lane Cove National Park. ANU's raptor list is only three species: peregrine falcon, Australian hobby and grey goshawk. There is a resident pair of peregrine falcons in downtown Canberra and I've seen them hunting on ANU campus before, so that doesn't surprise me. Australian hobbies are around, but they aren't common, so it's reasonable that they're on the list but surprising that they aren't accompanied by more common raptor species. Grey goshawk is a real oddity, though. They are in Canberra, but they're very rare here. I've never seen one anywhere in Canberra, nor have I ever met anyone who claims to have seen one in Canberra. That it would have been seen on ANU campus while more common Canberra raptors such as brown goshawk, collared sparrowhawk, black-shouldered kite, whistling kite, swamp harrier, and brown falcon have yet to be seen is a huge coincidence. It's even more surprising since grey goshawk is much more common in Sydney, and I've seen them in Lane Cove National Park, spitting distance from MQ (whose list they're not on). I have a sneaky suspicion whoever wrote the list meant brown goshawk. I have to admit, though, that I don't think I've ever seen a raptor on ANU campus, though I've seen collared sparrowhawk just over the road in the botanic gardens carpark.

Both lists are also lacking in nocturnal birds and grassland birds, but that is less surprising. Nocturnal birds are not usually detected using normal bird survey methods. Barn owls are common in Canberra, and I saw one once outside my window while I was working late at ANU, but that's the extent of my nocturnal bird observations on campus. The lack of grassland birds might be initially surprising, seeing as both campuses have large grassy areas, but these areas are heavily managed, including keeping the grass really short. This prevents the establishment of the sort of wild grassland habitat the birds need (I call this the "lawn problem"). MQ's rare bird list indicates that several grassland bird species, such as king quail and both species of songlark, used to be present but no longer are. It's interesting that universities seem to see the benefit trees and wetlands have but still like to keep their grass uselessly short, even in areas where it's really unnecessary.

Herps (Reptiles and Amphibians)

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Eastern brown snakes live on ANU's campus. A young one passed by the biology building last year (L) and another individual was seen around the maths department (R). The right photo was provided by Kate Umbers.

MQ's reptile list is over twice as long as ANU's. I think this is a problem of search effort rather than a real difference, although Sydney does have a wider diversity of reptiles compared to Canberra. ANU's list is based on one two-hour search period in some "likely habitat" whereas MQ's list is from an experienced herpetologist's observations over four years. I suspect the ANU surveyor's "likely habitat" choices did not included habitat likely to hold snake-necked turtles or fence skinks (though the latter are rare in Canberra and unlikely on ANU's campus). A more sustained effort at ANU would certainly turn up additional species, and I know this because there are several reptile species resident on campus that are not included on the list! This includes the eastern brown snake, which I saw when a young one happened to accidentally stumble into the biology building last year. I also know of several other reliable sightings of brown snakes on campus, including a large individual that used to live in the old wallaby paddocks (back when we had wallabies) and another one that seems to live somewhere over by the maths cottages. 

These two little brown skinks were found on ANU's campus. Can you tell the difference between a garden skink (L) and a three-toed earless skink (R)?

Australia has a little brown skink problem. There are way more skink species in Australia than there are all other lizard species combined. The current count of skink species in Australia stands at about 450 (new species are constantly being discovered) whereas there are less than 300 species of lizard in Australia which aren't skinks. Not only are skinks the most diverse lizard group in Australia, they are also the most abundant and most conspicuous. So, like everywhere in Australia, but especially in urban environments, the reptile lists for both ANU and MQ are dominated by skinks. The vast majority of skink species - and therefore the vast majority of lizard species - in Australia are small and brown. Like the little brown bird problem amongst bird watchers, this divides wildlife enthusiasts into two groups: those that throw their hands up in frustration and say they all look alike, and those that look closer to try and find the minute differences in appearance that separate the different species of skink. I belong to the latter category. ANU is home to three species of skink (that we know of), two of which are little and brown: the garden and three-toed earless skinks. However, the common blue-tongued skink is a spectacular large-bodied beast of a skink with a bright blue tongue. I came across a baby blue-tongued skink in the vegetable garden of one of ANU's student residences a couple years back. It was the most adorable baby lizard, but tragically I didn't have my camera with me at the time. The blue-tongue skink is another ANU resident that is not on ANU's official list.

MQ has a few more skink species on its list than ANU. The most common species is still the garden skink. I was working in the basement of the biology building at MQ during baby-garden-skink-hatching season, and I kept finding tiny baby skinks on the floor of the basement hallway which I would gently scoop up and move outside. They were so small they could sit comfortably on my thumbnail! I'm guessing that garden skinks lay their eggs in cracks in the old building. When the babies hatch they manage to make it through the cracks into the building, fall to the floor and are trapped.They may also be able to get in if there's a poorly-sealed ground-level window, which basements often have. Eastern water skinks are also abundant at MQ, so abundant that they are collected from campus to use in behavioural experiments at MQ in a similar way to the possums at ANU, and then released once the experiments are complete.

Water dragons are common at both MQ and ANU. MQ has the eastern subspecies (L) while ANU has the Gippsland subspecies (R).

Wetlands are excellent places to spot herps as well as birds. MQ has at least three species of reptile living around its waterways: the aforementioned eastern water skinks, eastern water dragons, and snake-necked turtles. ANU also has water dragons, but they are the more southern Gippsland subspecies and look substantially different from the eastern water dragons in Sydney. ANU also has two species of turtle: snake-necked and Murray River turtles, even though they're not on ANU's list. Murray River turtles are a relatively new addition to the fauna of Canberra, the first record of one being from 1997. It's unknown whether the population is the result of migration or the release of unwanted pets, but they are now established in Lake Burley Griffin, which is where Sullivan's Creek terminates. Murray River turtles are also breeding in Canberra, including one individual found laying eggs on ANU's campus! Long-necked turtles have always been native to the area and are also found in Sullivan's Creek.

This five-legged spotted marsh frog (L) was found on ANU campus by a staff member and brought into the Biology Department to make sure it was okay. This Murray River turtle (R) was found in the act of laying her eggs on ANU campus. The right photo is from the ANU Instagram page.

I'm ashamed to say I've never seen a single frog in the wild on either ANU's or MQ's campus. Frogs in Australia are rather secretive, and the best way to find them is by sound, not by sight. ANUgreen does some excellent and thorough frog surveys in collaboration with ACT FrogWatch and has detected seven species of frog on campus, the most diversity of frogs for any location in the city of Canberra! The only frog I've ever seen from ANU campus was a five-legged spotted marsh frog that someone brought in for us frog-geeks to check out. After taking some pictures, we gave it back to the person who brought it in so they could release it back where they found it. MQ's frog list is significantly smaller than ANU's, and this may be because MQ does not, as far as I can tell, conduct systematic frog call surveys on campus. An excellent frogger I know says there's at least one additional species of frog at MQ, the leaf-green tree frog (Litoria phyllochroa). For my part, I've heard frogs on both campuses. I've just never seen one.

The Lizard Lab

I'm based in Canberra at the ANU, but at the moment I'm a "visiting researcher" at Macquarie University in Sydney where my co-supervisor Martin Whiting is located. Martin runs a dynamic lab of people studying lizard social behaviour & cognition. He's also quite new-media savvy, especially for an academic! He runs "The Lizard Lab" website on which all of his students have their own section:

The Lizard Lab

You can also follow Martin & The Lizard Lab on Twitter:


And "Like" them on facebook:

The Lizard Lab: Behaviour, ecology and evolution of lizards

So many different ways to check out what they do!