Sweet Inspiration (or how I ended up in a paddock collecting poo for science)

Earlier this year I spent two weeks walking in picturesque Tasmania, eyes fixed firmly to the floor, looking for poo to collect. Other times I’ve searched beneath rocks in high country paddocks for endangered lizards, or driven over 400 kms with a cargo of wallaby sperm destined for our lab freezers. And I get paid to do this! When I meet new people they often comment on how interesting my work sounds, usually followed by “and how on earth did you end up doing that anyway?”. So in my first post for WildlifeSNPits I thought that, by way of introduction, I’d write about some of the things that have inspired me to follow this career path. Of course not all of us are excited by the same things, so I’d also like to learn about your sources of inspiration…

“The Great Poo Hunt” – searching for predator scats in Tasmania

Urban wildlife
We know that exposure to wildlife in urban areas is important for human health and well-being and for developing our feelings of connection with the natural world (e.g. see Dearborn & Kark 2010). I grew up in the English Midlands, not too far from the centre of Birmingham and very much in the city. But I was a lucky city dweller: our large leafy garden backed onto a canal, which served as a wildlife corridor through the suburbs. Squirrels, foxes, hedgehogs, birds and insects were regular garden visitors and we had frogs, toads and newts living and breeding in our garden pond. I remember spending hours watching wildlife, keeping a “nature diary” and setting up a “natural history museum” in my wardrobe. Even now I truly cherish my urban wildlife experiences. This year a pair of magpie larks have made their nest in a tree in my Canberra garden and I’m impatiently waiting to see them fledge their chicks!

Popular science
Of course if you’re reading a science blog like Wildlife SNPits you probably don’t need to be persuaded of the value of science communication. Nature itself has always been the inspiration for my interest in conservation, but I know I have books to thank for my fascination with DNA. Two books in particular stand out. I read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins when I was studying high school biology, and suddenly a whole new world made sense to me. From that point on I began devouring texts on genetics and evolution. Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History was a more difficult read, but how amazing to discover that lost world of weird and wonderful animals. I still have my original, dog-eared copies of those two paperbacks and I would recommend them to anyone who wants to learn more about the evolution of life and how it all works. I am sure there are many more recent books – and likely some blogs – that would also have blown my 16 year old mind. I’m always on the lookout for a great new read – what would be on your list…?

"The Selfish Gene" and "Wonderful Life" - these books have been to several continents with me
“The Selfish Gene” and “Wonderful Life” – these books have been to several continents with me

Wildlife in the wild
I’ve always loved to travel the natural world virtually, and nothing is allowed to come between me and a new David Attenborough series. But then to travel in real life and see the world in all its dirt and glory – that can be immensely rewarding. I remember learning about the amazing fog-harvesting Namibian desert beetles in undergraduate lectures and then not long afterwards there I found myself, camped in the red sands of the Namib desert, watching those very same beetles scurry around my feet. I have always had a soft spot for beetles!

A much younger version of me, very happy to be camping in the Namib desert
A much younger (pre-digital camera) version of me, very happy to be camping in the Namib desert

Too many people to name them all, but I never cease to be inspired by the wonderful dedicated people I meet who work hard to learn, to teach and to conserve. I should probably make more effort to tell those people how much I appreciate them. I will. Do you know someone who has inspired you? Perhaps now is a good time to thank that person 🙂

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