A walk down memory lane, reflections from ESA’s 50th Anniversary

These reflections were offered to the ESA on the occasion of it’s 50th anniversary in 2010. We place them here in gratitude, respect and memory of the ecologists that have helped to build the ESA. Ten years since these reflective essays were written, some of their authors are no longer with us. We are grateful to have their contributions and wisdom to inform our own work and that of future generations of ecologists.

I have spent most of my academic and other working life (since 1972) investigating biodiversity, balancing the needs of biodiversity with those of production, and bridging the cultures of those who think Darling Harbour is a long way west with those who live on the other side of the sandstone curtain. The culture of many biodiversity officers in government departments is often very different from the culture of many primary producers, especially landholders in the western areas of NSW. These incompatibilities lead to culture "wars", which are undesirable and counter-productive to both biodiversity and production agriculture, and very counter-productive to sustainable agriculture and land management. I have had a few successes along the way (and some failures).

I have worked on waterbirds, wetlands, woodland condition and birds, cropping and grazing management, soil and eco-hydrology, wildlife management, and incentive schemes and policy instruments for biodiversity conservation and management. I have published a respectable number of papers, and have haunted the mini-corridors of power in my department - NSW Dept. Environment, Climate Change and Water (and very occasionally in Minister's offices). I have driven policy officers mad with my advice (which they usually ignore, but occasionally find useful). I remain concerned that some ecologists cling to long-outmoded, disciplinary silos of zoology and botany, and that some of us do not realise that conservation biology is as much about people as it is about ecology. Cultural understanding of people is as important for conservation management as are skills in ecology.

I am about to move to the University of Canberra, as an Adjunct Professor in the Institute of Applied Science. I aim to help expand the horizons of post-graduate students, help them understand policy worlds, finish a few papers (most of my work is written up, but a little bit is not), and explore institutional frameworks and cultures and the impediments and opportunities that these provide for natural resources management, in discussion and writing.

As I write this reflection, Australia has its first female prime minister and both major parties support the introduction of a national maternity leave scheme. But when I entered the field of ecology as a fledging baby boomer in the early 1970s, a looming reappraisal of gender roles in science and society was little more than a collective background murmur of discontent. I started my University studies as a veterinary science student, as one of about 10 women in a class of 130, and it was common for male students (and some of the staff) to question audibly whether this was a place where women should be. After all, how could we wrangle effectively with a recalcitrant cow or horse? As it turned out, women soon came to dominate vet student numbers, and meanwhile my own interest had shifted towards studying biological science, where I encountered a greater tolerance of student diversity. But I soon became aware of entrenched gender bias in my chosen field. In staff selection it was not uncommon to hear talk of finding the best man for the job. Of course, the senior academics were almost all men. And attitudes to fieldwork were frequently overlain with an aura of machismo strongly reminiscent of my vet student days. I remember a CSIRO colleague telling me seriously at a conference that women were unwelcome on remote field trips because of the risk that they might inadvertently entice male staff into extra-marital affairs while away together. By implication, they were also therefore poor choices for field-based appointments. At a lesser level there was a common view that mixed-gender field groups would be less skilled, less productive, and less manageable than male-only teams. Similar feelings no doubt lay beneath the exclusion of women from Antarctic expeditions. Expressing such perceptions in anecdotes was unremarkable at the time: the stuff of everyday conversations about the job market.

The passage of time has proved that these attempts by a more-privileged subgroup of society to exclude another from the action could not be justified. By the 1980s, notions of equal employment opportunity and affirmative action had gained wide currency around most of Australia. The Slatyer and Saunders (1999) account of ESA's early years tells us that in 1963, only 10% of ESA's 146 members were women. This compares with 16% of 510 in 1983, 32% of 844 in 1999 and 55% of 1663 in 2010. In 1994, ESA members elected their first female President (Marilyn Fox, who followed 19 consecutive male predecessors in the previous 34 years). The anecdotes above would sound ridiculous to many ecologists in the year 2010, and it is indeed easy to forget the gender bias that underpinned both the mentoring of younger ecologists and processes of recruitment and selection, even a few decades ago. Gender-based discrimination is now prohibited by law, and mechanisms to prevent it have become embedded in administrative procedures (at least on paper). Two of four ESA Presidents in the decade 2000-2010 have been women.

If discriminatory attitudes can be relegated to the past, then what is the role of women in ecology in 2010, and where is it headed?  A little quantitative exploration suggests some recent pendulum swings towards females amongst aspiring early-career ecologists. Between 2008 and August 2010, a surprising average of 74% of student research and travel grant applicants to ESA came from women (SE 3%, N=14 ESA grant "rounds", containing 248 applications). Although women comprised a somewhat smaller proportion of awardees (64% of 95 grants), they still dominated the field of grant recipients. Even back in 1990-1998, 55% of conference student prize-winners were women. And ESA's Council in 2010 comprised ten female and eight male voting members. Women make excellent field workers and outstanding ecological scientists, as long as the opportunities are available, entrenched discrimination is removed, and they are not expected to be the main carers of their children. It could be easy for women ecologists of Generations X, Y and beyond to assume that there are no gender-related impediments to career progress.

On the other hand, women comprised only 34% of 221 gender-classifiable first authors of papers published in ESA's journal Austral Ecology from February 2007 to August 2010, and make up only 28% of its 43 associate editors in 2010. Women similarly comprise 33% of the 2010 editorial board of Ecological Management and Restoration. Women presented only 28% (8 of 29) plenary or keynote speakers at recent ESA conferences (2007-2010, including INTECOL), and only two of ESA's 21 Gold medallists (and one of eight recipients since 2000) have been female. Perhaps this simply reflects a time-lag that will disappear as the latest generation works its way through the ranks.

Alternatively, while barriers to women's entry and practice in ecology have been removed, equality of advancement opportunity may yet prove more difficult to achieve. Biological imperatives faced by women as mothers are these days easy to underestimate. In recent years I have been perplexed by the attitudes of several first-time pregnant postgraduate students who expected to continue their studies not too long after childbirth, on more-or-less the originally-planned timetable. In my experience (and theirs) such an assumption is about as realistic for most women as those unreasonable misogynistic attitudes outlined above. Furthermore, the increasingly pressurised, fiercely competitive and insecure environment to which early career scientists must nowadays commit long working hours is not a friendly place for mothers of young children, or for those attempting to return after career interruption. There is little recognition of alternative career trajectories, as lucidly highlighted in a recent article by the 2008 Life Scientist of the Year (Vinuesa 2010).  Such pernicious cultural and administrative processes, together with lingering bias and preconception, as well as the growing international export of dress and behaviour regulations associated with some conservative Islamic sects, may still in various ways thwart the career progress of female ecologists. Only time will tell for sure how soon (or whether) women will be able to reach their full potential as ecologists, but there's no room for complacency.

References cited

Slatyer, R. O. and Saunders, A. (1999) Ecological Society of Australia: the first 25 years. Ecological Society of Australia, Canberra. 28 pp. (downloadable via the ESA website

Vinuesa, C. (2010) Every scientist needs a wife.  Cosmos 34, Aug/Sept, 101.


Ecology has played a major role in developing a conservation ethos in Australia and providing the science behind it. Back in the 1970s ecology was not recognized as a ‘discipline’ by our legal system. This was highlighted in the Terania Creek logging controversy (sometimes termed the ‘rainforest wars’). Len Webb was a champion of the cause, but his expertise as an ecologist (as opposed to botanist, soil scientists etc) was not recognized by the Law courts and his evidence was severely discounted.  Since then much has changed and ecology has a central role in, inter alia, environmental management, including, but not limited to, impact assessment, providing expert evidence and in advisory roles at all levels.

The evolution of ecology as an interdisciplinary mainstream area, accomplishes what, as a young person some 50 years ago, I thought was the core business of Geography. As a geographer, graduating in 1964, I was sorely disappointed by the silo approach evident within the discipline itself. It was not until 1979 that I discovered the integrated approach taken at Griffith University, by the then School of Australian Environmental Studies (now the Griffith School of Environment). There I found a range of sciences including ecology but none in isolation. This was an exciting time as many of us found the space to move across disciplines and find a comfort zone: for me this was in a broad ecological area, but not confined to it. It is most satisfying to see ecology now providing input into so many of the decisions that affect our planet.

Having come from the wild and beautiful country of the Top End my first field trip into the cattle country of Queensland was confronting. The dry scrubs that were the focus of my new job, as well as the poplar box, brigalow, ironbark, and gidgee were being levered from the ground by a ‘ball-and-chain’ straddled between two bulldozers. The flattened trees were pushed into great heaps and incinerated to make way for vast landscapes of buffel grass. Land-clearing in Queensland was the pointy-end of conservation during the 1990s but there were not many ecologists compelled to work amidst the devastation. There was no spectacular scenery to grasp the public attention and the issue would only ever attract a ripple of awareness amongst urban green voters.

The first imprecise estimates of clearing suggested rates of 500,000 ha per year and rang the alarm bells loud enough to trigger the new Queensland Government to put a toe in the water and assess their powers on state-controlled lands. Naturally there was intransigence towards any attempt to regulate a practice that until recently had been encouraged and heavily subsidised by government. Amidst the heated debates of those early regional workshops, the concept of ecosystem classification emerged to underpin the process. They related to the ‘land-types’ familiar to the pastoralists such as ‘brigalow country on the alluvial flats’, and everyone had to concede that you were flat-out finding decent stands of the sweetest country in most districts.

Unlikely alliances and unholy animosities developed between farmers, bureaucrats, scientists and environmentalists during rounds of workshops spanning more than a decade. In the background the word had spread through the bush about the impending tough laws and there was plenty of work for bulldozer drivers as the bush came down at an accelerating rate. This was a time of great anxiety, as our best efforts seemed counter-productive, amidst an evaporating political commitment. All seemed lost when there was a change of government in the middle of the proceedings!

The defenders of clearing presented a seemingly logical ecological hypothesis to support their case. Aboriginal people burnt a grassy landscape, which suppressed trees, creating a park-like environment. With European herbivores, the same burning regimes are no longer possible, and trees and shrubs have responded by growing up thicker than ever before. To confront this invasion the bulldozer is the new age fire-stick and rather than a force of destruction it is restoring the ecological balance. Another incarnation of the story presupposes that CO2 fertilisation has exacerbated this process and further advantaged trees over the grass. The story was so logically compelling that it was accepted by almost everyone from Queensland graziers to the eminent scientists in Canberra. I felt obliged to maintain an open mind and to treat the story as a hypothesis that required testing, and not by models or physiological predictions, but through the record of history and the evidence I encountered in the bush.

My first forays in Queensland rangelands coincided with the beginning of a drought. As it intensified in 1996 trees became sick and died. Acres and acres of dead trees was not part of the familiar script and this seemingly rare and profound event had to be documented. The questions led us into regional survey, long-term monitoring, decoding the records of the explorers and surveyors, deciphering the archive of aerial photography and beyond. The further I got into it the more I became convinced that the real force driving these landscapes was not humans, herbivore or fire but the notorious ‘droughts and flooding rains’ of the Australian climate.

This year we have the flooding rains, and for the first time I have seen eucalypt seedlings in the inland woodlands. These trees will grow slowly and their death in 100 years or so will be sudden. For people who were born before the Second World War, the landscapes of their youth actually were more open, but the growth through their memories was recovery from earlier droughts and had been spurred on by the wet 1950s and 1970s.

After a long struggle and a painfully protracted process, clearing is now strongly regulated in Queensland, and in remnant vegetation is mostly confined to fodder harvesting in mulga, some selective clearing, areas included under a pre-existing urban plan and operations running the gauntlet of the laws. The overdue laws have been effective (even if they still need tightening) and have been set in place long before the horse has bolted. If nothing had been done clearing would still be in full swing in Queensland, and would continue for many decades until  subtropical and tropical eucalypt woodlands had become as fragmented as the brigalow and temperate woodlands in southern states), with the last remnants standing in reserves, on roadsides and on the properties of a few maverick landholders.

Central to the positive outcome in Queensland was a coordinated and focussed environmental lobby, and the political will of the government including Minister Rod Welford who was prepared to crash through boldly for reform. Some landholders have been aggrieved, but the pastoralists were central to the process and no one in the end was surprised by the outcome. In Queensland, ecological science was integrated into the development of policy. The substantial challenges that still confront other states have largely been resolved by the ecosystem mapping which precisely demarcates legal and illegal clearing, and avoids a cumbersome and corruptible assessment process. Our assessment of the evidence on tree dynamics provided an alternative to the idea of invading trees, and the notion that bulldozing the bush was an innocent form of restoration was trashed.

It is not easy for ecologists to contribute to real environmental outcomes. We have to be prepared to engage in the processes of government, but get cunning about the critical meetings, as there much time to be wasted in workshops and committees. To be most effective we need to gaze into the crystal ball and envisage the imperatives of the future and then get busy garnering the information required.


This cameo comprises reflections from a working life (not yet a career) including two decades in northern Australia, a lot of travel and a fascination with aquatic ecosystems. At one stage in the 1980s I gave up on ‘ecological research’ and went to ‘conservation’ in despair at the gulf between research and policy – the need for linkages between ecology and policy and institutions is a reoccurring theme. These are expressed as vignettes, some covering international projects, but with relevance for Australian ecology.

On returning to ecology in the 1990s I eventually found myself in a team of 1300 authors who penned the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA 2005) with its analysis of the state and future of ecosystems globally.  The Assessment was not so much revolutionary as profound - ecosystems around the globe were shown to be in dire straits and part of the solution was to switch to an emphasis on ecosystem services that was variously seen as an economic thing. This amused me as I had been told at university that my career would be undermined if I persisted in doing an economics subject in my science degree.  Three decades later we have ecologists and economists delivering a global message about biodiversity and the inter-linkages with economics, and the need for changes in policy and institutions. These messages were strengthened in the subsequent Global Environment Outlook (UNEP 2007). An aside in this was the struggle to get agreement to present one chapter on water – from the inland to the marine – why would you combine them?

Another intriguing venture occurred when for the second time I went to work in an agricultural research institute – this was also fascinating and I was caught by surprise at finding that it was harder to get the ecological messages through to the agricultural researchers than in my many previous experiences with mining personnel; not that the latter was a stroll in the glen. We produced an analysis of water management in agriculture with key outcomes pointing to institutional failures as well as ecological constraints when trying to feed the world (Molden et al 2007). We had another case for establishing better linkages between ecology and policy and institutions, but some delightfully expressed reticence from scientists to do so.

Back a bit and through a chance encounter behind the Iron Curtain in the early 1980s I came across the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and discovered that Australia was the first to sign up and commit to making wise use of our wetlands – a big commitment and one that we are still struggling to meet in the Murray-Darling and elsewhere. Through the aegis of the Convention and its partners I have since been able to work with fascinating and, at times, nefariously interesting characters in many parts of the world. I learnt a lot from such people and places, including seeing many similarities with Australian ecosystems and ecology. I also again found a disjuncture between science and policy-related inputs to the Convention. This may take some time to explain, but I think it reflects our own spluttering efforts to base our policies on our ecological knowledge – the debate in the Murray-Darling may be an example that could be better informed by looking outward (Pittock et al 2010).

Being in northern Australia was a dream for an ecologist. The north had it all – an abundance of openness and madness and development proposals along with disdain for almost anything, including scientific theorising that did not seem to relate to the ecological patterns of the tropical world. But things were moving fast and it was possible to establish some wonderful sustainable collaborations.  And more importantly, we learnt to relate to local communities and to listen to them and to share our knowledge (before it came out in our journal articles, indeed, if it ever did – don’t get me wrong, I like writing and like to see things published, but how much hard won information just never got to the journal stage?) and not just visit them when we wanted something from them. This is one of the real advances that I have seen in our ecology and our ecologists. Nowadays you see community-related programs and processes sitting alongside the more traditional ecological pursuits and I love it.  Along with the incorporation of ecosystem services into our ecological thinking I see the establishment of relationships with local communities as a way forward for ecologists.

But back to the north - it was pioneering stuff peppered with characters and surprises. A lot of ecologists visited. We did not know much about the ecology and this necessitated a lot of survey and descriptive work and taxonomy. For me the big initiatives came from the Fox Report of 1977 that generated an explosion of science in the Kakadu region, and in amongst the politics of uranium mining and social needs it heralded a landslide of ecological research and changed our understanding of tropical ecosystems, and provided opportunities for ecologists. The fate of the information they collected is an interesting aside – where is it all? There is a lot available in reports - while not in the primary literature it is available. But where is the rest? Is this something we can redress – is it available and accessible? This may be a downside. But the opportunity for ecological research was great and the information resource a boom. There were some ecological gems and I single out the research that underpinned the stream monitoring research done in Kakadu (Humphrey et al 1999).

My biggest impression about wetland ecology – we have moved beyond the necessary description of our ecosystems and we are better at engaging with local communities, and yet our ecosystems are in decline – we have come a long way with our ecology and still have a lot to do, including using ecology to influence policy and institutions.

As a finale - thanks to the many ecologists who have shared this journey – I look forward to the next instalments – and thanks those who got me involved and kept me moving – Arthur McComb, Dilwyn Griffiths, Tom Farrell and David Mitchell are four.


Fox et al 1977. Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry. AGPS, Canberra, Australia.

Humphrey et al 1999. A model for assessing the health of Kakadu’s streams. Australian Biologist 12, 33-42.

MEA 2005. Island Press, Washington DC.

Molden, D 2007. Water for Food, Water for Life. Earthscan, London, UK.

Pittock et al 2010.  Changing character: the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and climate change in the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia. Environmental & Planning Law Journal, 27, 401-425.

UNEP 2007. Global Environment Outlook 4 – Environment for Development, UNEP, Nairobi.

My first enduring recollection of the Ecological Society of Australia was attending the Symposium that the ESA held at the School of Australian Environmental Studies, Griffith University in Brisbane on 15th-16thMay 1975.  My wife (Associate Professor Marilyn Fox) and I attended the symposium as graduate students from Macquarie University in the year we joined ESA.

The first thing we later remarked upon was the fact that at the registration desk we were presented with materials for the symposium which included an already completed, full text, Proceedings of the Ecological Society of Australia, Volume 9, Managing Terrestrial Ecosystems, edited by Jiro Kikkawa and Henry Nix.  As this was the first such conference that we had attended we did not consider this as unusual, we thought that this was how things were done.  We were wrong, in 35 years of attending multiple conferences each year for many different scientific societies I never again had that experience of receiving the completed full text for every presentation in the Symposium at registration.  Volumes of printed abstracts are what one usually receives, although that is now moving towards receiving these on a compact disk or, as was the case for INTECOL10 in Brisbane, on a USB flash drive for insertion into a laptop to read abstracts.  So this has always stuck in my mind as an admirable introduction to the ESA, something that was largely due to the efforts of Jiro Kikkawa and Henry Nix to make sure this happened.

The second thing that Marilyn later remarked upon was that all of the presentations making up the symposium were invited.  There were a total of 23 papers printed in volume 9, including three that were background papers for the excursions offered at the end of the conference.  The fact the symposia were for invited presenters and were Biennial (or sometimes three years was one of the reasons that it was possible to have the proceedings published ahead of time to hand out at registration.  However, Marilyn immediately asked the questions why was this invitation only system used and why was presentation not open to all members?  This struck a chord with Marilyn and she immediately resolved that she would set out to do something about it.

Marilyn became the New South Wales Regional Councillor in 1976, while still a graduate student, and at the ESA Council meeting on 13th February 1977 she put forward a proposal which was accepted, that the ESA sponsor “a young peoples’ symposium” and Marilyn was asked “to investigate the possibility of organising such a symposium in Sydney in May 1978 and report to the next Council meeting” (Bulletin ESA 7:1 page 11).  This was to become the First Open Forum planned for 15th-16th May 1978 at Macquarie University, as was published in Bulletin 7:2 page 3 with a call for abstracts.  The First Open Forum was held successfully; 96 people attended (34 were students) and 61 papers were presented (19 from students). The abstracts from these 61 papers were published in the Bulletin Volume 8:1 pp 4-16 in 1978.

Roger Kitching organised the Second Open Forum (120+ registrations) which was held 14th-15th May 1979 at Griffith University, and filled the gap caused when the Symposium ‘Ecological Gradients and Boundaries’, planned for 1979, was postponed until 12th-13th May 1980 at University of Melbourne.  The Third Open Forum was organised by Peter Bridgewater for 11th-12th May 1981 at Muresk Agricultural College in Western Australia, so that The Open Forum and the Themed Symposium alternated between years which meant that there was an ESA meeting every year from then on.  The Open Fora became so popular that by 1983 when there was a themed symposium ‘Ecology of the Wet-Dry Tropics’ in Darwin there had to be an extra day added to incorporate an Open Forum to provide the opportunity for presentations to participants other than those invited to present in the themed symposium. This continued with a themed symposium the next year in Sydney ‘Are Australian Ecosystems Different?’ when an extra day was added for the Fifth Open Forum.  However, by the 1988 themed symposium ‘Australian Ecosystems: 200 Years of Utilisation, Degradation and Reconstruction’ a milestone had been reached with the first 5 day conference held by ESA (28th August – 2nd September).  After a stand alone Open Forum at Wollongong (24-27thSeptember 1989) there was a 4 day conference in Melbourne with 25th-26th September 1990 themed symposium ‘Ecological Interactions‘ followed by Open Forum 27th-28th September 1990.  Another landmark was reached with the 1991 conference in Canberra when for the first time there were 3 days of open forum and 2 days of themed symposium. This was followed by a 3 day Open Forum at Roseworthy College hosted by University of Adelaide 29th September - 1st October 1992.  From this time onward the ESA conferences have been held every year, designated by titles such as ESA93, generally as multiple themes conferences although on some occasions there has been an overarching theme, where this was appropriate

The idea for thematic symposia had been pioneered by the British Ecological Society and produced a stream of valuable books.  This idea was borrowed by ESA as Proceedings of the Ecological Society of Australia which produced a string of very useful volumes such as “Managing terrestrial ecosystems” (Vol 9) and ‘”The city as a life system” (Vol 7) in 1972, which was far ahead of its time, long before urban ecology developed, to give two examples.

Marilyn was delighted to be pushing the envelope, to be the first to achieve a goal, as the organiser for the First Open Forum.  Marilyn was also a strong supporter of the joint meeting with NZESA in 1998 at Dunedin (a second was held at Wellington in 2006). As well as being a driving force behind the Open Forum Marilyn also played a role supporting student participation, particularly with the introduction of student prizes as part of each Open Forum, so much so that one now bears her name: “ESA Marilyn Fox Award for Best Inaugural Presentation at a Conference”.

On being introduced as an Alice Springs resident some years ago, whilst visiting Adelaide, I was asked quite sharply “What would you want to live there for?”.  I don’t recall my reply (probably inadequate) but I remember a feeling of bafflement.  How do you begin to explain what binds you to place?

I have been privileged to be part of CSIRO’s research endeavours in the arid interior of Australia for over 36 years, and lucky to have encountered many of the region’s research pioneers, who either stayed on or remained staunch supporters of research in the arid zone.  Imagine, as a newly appointed scientist from Melbourne, driving along a dead straight outback road through dark stands of mulga, in the company of Ray Perry and Ralph Slatyer, who between them had decades of knowledge and experience of the country.  Imagine being challenged by ever-combatative Bob Winkworth, CSIRO’s first resident researcher (1953), about what I knew and having to think fast to demonstrate that I knew anything at all.

Picture my first real exposure to the colours of the outback on an introductory drive through Kunoth Paddock in 1974 with Bruce Strong: how red the mulga soil!  While the colour is oh-so-familiar now, it never fails to lift the spirits.  Listen to my first night ever in a swag, camped on Amburla Station with colleagues, eyes glued on the intensely starry night and ears tuned to the foreign sounds of small beetles tooling about in the leaves by my pillow, the creaking call of the katydids in the bushes, and bats clicking overhead.  This then was the beginning on an enduring love of the bush and the need to know something about how it all worked.

Later, with some years of research in arid lands ecology completed, it seemed to me that there was only so much one could learn from studies in current time.  What about the knowledge in the heads of pastoralists who had lived in the country for decades and watched it change?  From tentative interviews and conversations grew some wonderful friendships and a generous store of knowledge about the land, rain and drought, fire, the changes they had seen and their own histories.

Share the excitement and interest of mustering camps, laugh until you cry with Wallaby Bill Waudby and workmates over a few rums then a camp on the Mt Wedge Station cricket ground, visit respectfully some remarkable Aboriginal art sites and try to imagine the individual people who worked the delicate edges on the stone tools scattered by waterholes.  How did they see the country?  Where are their people now?

Over twenty years or so my understanding of arid lands ecology grew, in part through my own work, but significantly also through the work and insights of others.  Vegetation quadrats were a small sample of a vegetation unit, which was closely linked to other units, interconnected through the lie of the land and the flow of water, nutrients and organic matter.  By closely observing the evidence, it was possible to see where the wind had blown the soil, where the water had washed it, where it had come from and how recently.  And why were the vegetation units where they were?  Look at the evidence of palaeofloods, the shifting and dumping of soils on a scale we have never experienced and yet may in time.  Understand more recent changes by reading the early explorers’ diaries and seeing what they say about Aboriginal people, fire and flood, and native plants and animals.  Appreciate the work of colleagues on remote sensing and what it can tell us about change in complex spatial mosaics.

In conversations with pastoralist friends, I began to have an uneasy feeling that what I had learnt was fine in its way but was unlikely to have a major impact on how land was managed.  On Mt Riddock Station, Dick Cadzow was generously showing us over rehabilitation work on his recently acquired property we were about to study.  I had assumed he was seeking a purely economic return from the work, but I was wrong.  That he was offended by the sight of dust blowing past his homestead was an eye-opener.  The assumptions we make about value systems of others as well as the economic benefits and costs of environmental work came increasingly in focus.

A hands-on study of how best to make land use tradeoffs amongst diverse groups – Aboriginal people, pastoralists, miners, conservationists, horticulturalists – was a sharp and sometimes painful lesson.  Dealing with others’ closely held values could result in confrontation but also enlightenment (and recognition of the inadequacy of some of our tools).  A study of community-based decision-making for regional development was similarly challenging but failed to deter me entirely.  Clearly the messiest and hardest part of implementing ecological knowledge is at the human interface but, unless we tackle it, we are likely to be talking to ourselves.  Subsequently, with many colleagues, I have grappled with diverse attitudes to commercially valuable plants that are invasive, trying to find a way through to better management and better policy development.  Perhaps it’s a function of being around a long time and being a bit battle-scarred, but respectful listening, careful observation and thinking time seem to me to be essential tools of an ecologist.

In closing, I want to acknowledge two groups of people.  The first is family, whose support has been endless, and critical to finding a work-life balance.  The second is all my wonderful colleagues.  You are too numerous for me to start mentioning names but hopefully you can recognise yourselves.  Thankyou for all those nights around the campfire and the slog of fieldwork in the heat and cold, as well as the energetic workshops and the stimulus of shared paper-writing.  Thanks too to colleagues in South Africa, the USA and India, and to students who have diverted me more recently from administration to study fire-invasion feedbacks in central Australia and the implications of land tenure policy for land and herders in Mongolia.  I can’t wait to see what happens next.

In 1960, the year in which the Ecological Society of Australia was born, no National Parks in southern Australia had a management plan, let alone a fire management plan, as far as I can ascertain. There were no computers, GISs, GPSs or satellite imagery. The spatially-explicit fire histories that are so vital for the understanding of the effects of fire in the landscape were short, crude, or non-existent in south-eastern Australia. There was a crude map of the widespread, socially disastrous Victorian fires of 1939, but it was a tiny unrecorded Victorian agricultural fire with a very high fuel load which made a lasting impression on me.

It was about 50 years ago, when I was a second-year agricultural student at the University of Melbourne, in our field-year at Dookie Agricultural College in northern Victoria. There, a field fire intruded into my life for the first time. A haystack burned down. When I wrote home about it, by snail mail of course, I received a prompt reply from my earth-scientist father – it probably took more than a week – that measurement of the amount of black glass in the footprint of the haystack would be appreciated as it would give some idea of the opal phytolith content of the hay: these microscopic spicules of silica were being studied by Dr George Baker (see Baker and Baker 1963). This was my first brush with fire research, albeit ‘fire research’ in a broad sense, and the beginning of surprises that fire would present over the next half century. Fires have had a habit of revealing fascinating effects and continue to do so to the present day, e.g. on wine quality (Kennison et al. 2009) and on mercury content of fish (Kelly et al. 2006).

A major feature of the sixties was the publication of the applied fire-behaviour research of McArthur (1962). This enabled burning in southern forests to take place in a more scientific way - rather than just ‘burning off’ - but it was a particularly controversial practice, arguably even more so than today. Was this because of a lack of understanding by the critics, a difference in perceived assets or perhaps both? Was it exacerbated by the possibility of prescribed burning using aerial ignition (Baxter et al. 1966)?

From a scientific point of view, studies on the place of fire in forests were active in the 1960s, particularly in Tasmania and in Victoria: my higher degree supervisor David Ashton was busy in the tall mountain ash forests of central Victoria. Mountain Ash, Eucalyptus regnans, is a prime exemplar of the effects of fire regimes on species persistence or local extinction (Ashton 1981).

It was also in the 1960s that theoretical fire ecology may be declared to have started in Australia with the enduring and stimulating concepts of Jackson (1968). He schematically portrayed the probabilistic place of fires in the landscapes of Tasmania in the pages of the Proceedings of the Ecological Society of Australia.  Since then we have had various conceptual advances such as the formalisation of fire regimes (Gill 1975) and plant functional types (Noble and Slatyer 1981) and the integration of the effects of fire regimes through increasingly sophisticated computer simulations based on abstract (Cary et al. 2009) or real landscapes (King et al. 2006; Bradstock et al. 2009).

In the last few years, especially, fire ecology has delved into the effects of climate change and atmospheric change much more deeply (Williams et al. 2009). Fuels, fire weather, fire behaviour and fire effects have all been considered and remain a prime topic of investigation. These topics inter-relate and need to be considered in an appropriate ecosystem context. Thus, there is necessarily a strong synergy between ecology, in general, and fire ecology, in particular: knowledge of organisms in relation to their ‘usual’ inter-fire environment (‘ecology’) sets the scene for investigation of the effects of events like fires, and regimes like fire regimes.

Fire ecology since 2003 has been boosted in Australia by the funding of a Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre. There, the social-science of bushfires has been a major theme accompanying the formal recognition of coupled human-environment systems in the general literature (Dearing et al. 2006). If there was any doubt about this coupling – and it is unlikely to be doubted by fire ecologists, most of whom have a strong management impetus in their research – then official Inquiries into recent major bushfires and their social impact, especially the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission (Teague et al. 2010), should dispel it.

While there have been major advances in fire ecology over the past 50 years it would be a mistake to think that gaining an understanding of fires and their effects is a simple matter. It would be a mistake to think that we understand the effects of fires on Australian vascular plants – let alone vertebrate animals, invertebrates, fungi etc. It would also be a mistake to consider that our atmospheric composition is static and has no effect on fuels, that fire histories will not change as we increasingly try to domesticate them, that people will not dominate the planet more and more, and that the work of fire ecology, let alone that of ecological science in general - represented by the Ecological Society of Australia (ESA) - is complete. I am sure that there are phenomena, concepts and theories in fire ecology still awaiting discovery – aided and abetted by rigorous empirical research and accurate fire atlases.

Happy Birthday ESA: here’s to the next 50 years!


I would like to thank Dr Geoff Cary for his generous support in the work place and for commenting on a draft of this contribution.

References cited

Ashton, D.H. (1981). Fire in tall open-forests. In A.M. Gill, R.H. Groves and I.R. Noble (eds) Fire and the Australian Biota. Pp. 339-366. Australian Academy of Science, Canberra.

Baker, G. and Baker, A.A. (1963). Hay-silica glass from Gnarkeet Western Victoria. Memoirs of the National Museum of Victoria 26, 21-45.

Baxter, J.R., Packham, D.R. and Peet, G.B. (1966). Control Burning from Aircraft. CSIRO Chemical Research Laboratories, Melbourne. 26p.

Bradstock, R., Davies, I., Price, O. and Cary, G. (2009). Effects of Climate Change on Bushfire Threats to Biodiversity, Ecosystem Processes and People in the Sydney Region. Final Report to the New South Wales Department of Environment and Climate Change: Climate Change and Adaptation Research Project 050831.

Cary, G.J., Flannigan, M.D., Keane, R.F., Bradstock, R.A., Davies, I.D., Lenihan, J.M., Li, C., Logan, K.A. and Parsons, R.A. (2009). Relative importance of fuel management, ignition management and weather for area burned: evidence from five landscape-fire-succession models. International Journal of Wildland Fire 18, 147-156.

Dearing, J.A., Battarbee, R.W., Dikau, R., Larocque, I and Oldfield, F. (2006). Human-environment interactions: towards synthesis and simulation. Reg. Environment Change 6, 115-123.

Gill, A.M. (1975). Fire and the Australian flora: a review. Australian Forestry 38, 4-25.

Jackson, W.D. (1968). Fire, air, water and earth - an elemental ecology of Tasmania. Proceedings of the Ecological Society of Australia 3, 9-16.

Kelly, E.N., Schindler, D.W., St Louis, V.L., Donald, D.B. and Vladicka, K.E. (2006). Forest fire increases mercury accumulation by fishes via food web restructuring and increased mercury inputs. PNAS 102(51), 19380-19385.

Kennison, K.R., Wilkinson, K.L., Pollnitz, A.P., Williams, H.G. and Gibberd, M.R. (2009). Effect of timing and duration of grapevine exposure to smoke on the composition and sensory properties of wine. Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research 15, 228-237.

King, K.J., Cary, G.J., Bradstock, R.A., Chapman, J., Pyrke, A. and Marsden-Smedley, J.B. (2006). Simulation of prescribed burning strategies in south-west Tasmania, Australia: effects on unplanned fires, fire regimes, and ecological management values. International Journal of Wildland Fire 15, 527-540.

McArthur, A.G. (1962). Control Burning in Eucalypt Forests. Commonwealth Forestry and Timber Bureau Leaflet 80. Government Printer, Canberra. 31p.

Noble, I.R. and Slatyer, R.O. (1981). Concepts and models of succession in vascular plant communities subject to recurrent fire.  In A.M. Gill, R.H. Groves and I.R. Noble (eds) Fire and the Australian Biota pp. 311-335.  Australian Academy of Science, Canberra.

Teague, B., McLeod, R. and Pascoe, S. (2010). 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. Final Report.Victorian Government, Melbourne. 930p.

Williams, R.J., Bradstock, R.A., Cary, G.J., Enright, N., Gill, A.M., Liedloff, A.C., Lucas, C., Whelan, R.J., Andersen, A.N., Bowman, D.M.J.S., Cook, G.D., Hennessy, K.J. and York, A.  (2009). Interactions between Climate Change, Fire Regimes and Biodiversity of Australia – A Preliminary Assessment. Australian Department of Climate Change, Canberra.

During the Second World War, the State Electricity Commission (SEC) in Victoria was developing plans for hydroelectric power, including dams in the mountain region.  One site was at Kiewa, and the planners were concerned with the possibility of siltation there from the catchments. For many decades, these catchments had been grazed during the summer by cattle brought up from lower elevations; it was feared that this summer grazing might be increasing erosion, and hence the risk of siltation. Accordingly, in 1944 the SEC supported a decision by the Soil Conservation Board (SCB) to appoint an ecologist, Maisie Fawcett, to study the effects of grazing on the alpine vegetation.

She set up her base in Omeo, and at the beginning of 1945 she recruited a team of four girls to help her (most of the young men were away on active service, or recovering from it). These girls (two of whom – Jean Mathieson, now Mayo, and Valerie Hartung, now Judges – are still alive) travelled up to the high alpine regions with a team of pack-horses, to record the vegetation in areas exposed to cattle grazing as compared with areas protected from it. They marked plots for comparison, and recorded the vegetation in them.

Professor John Turner of the Melbourne Botany School, though primarily a plant physiologist, had also a strong interest in plant ecology. He had been instrumental in the early stages of Maisie Fawcett’s work; when she and her team returned to Melbourne and reported what they had been doing, he was keen to help organize annual expeditions to make repeated observations on fixed plots. Each year thereafter, parties of ten or twelve (staff members, graduate students and others) departed for the mountains, travelling from Wangaratta in four-wheel-drive vehicles, to spend a couple of weeks in fairly intensive field work.

Luckily, the Boy Scouts Association had already been active in the area, and had built a hut for overnight accommodation; the organization readily made this facility available to the Botany School. So participants were not reduced to camping, or to travelling up to the Plains from Omeo every day. In fact, participation was generally looked on as rather a holiday – if a working holiday! And botanists who would not have regarded themselves as ecologists were happy to be involved. No persuasion was needed! Even non-botanists took part – notably Margaret Stones, who later became well known as a botanical artist, and the virologist MacFarlane Burnett, who was a keen water-colorist. Overall, the annual expedition came to be regarded by the Botany School as a sort of collective School holiday, and this gave it value quite apart from the actual ecological observations.

The wide range of participants brought multiple benefits. For instance, when I joined the team (from 1949 onwards), I was able to contribute my background knowledge of statistical applications in agriculture and psychology.

The prime purpose of the enterprise remained the documentation of changes in the vegetation of the Plains as a result of the introduction of cattle, and the process of recovery if they were excluded. A critical innovation in the work was the use of point quadrats to make the measurement of vegetation change more objective.

A scientific report, with the results of the early period of the project, is in two papers by Carr and Turner (1959a,1959b), and a historical account of its origins has been published by Gillbank (1993).

In the light of the results obtained, it was decided that grazing should be greatly reduced, and that the most effective, or politically expedient, way of doing so was to limit the length of the summer grazing season permitted. But this decision was but a part – perhaps only a small part – of the results achieved. Ecological work continued fruitfully on the High Plains thereafter, with many resulting publications; and the effects of the program in increasing ecological interest and understanding in all participants were incalculable. It influenced both the development of statistical methods in plant ecology and the establishment of a scientific base for conservation programs. It also helped John Turner in his role as chairman of the Australian Academy of Science committee which lobbied successfully for the establishment of the Kosciusko National Park.


Carr, S.G.M. & Turner, J.S. 1959a   The ecology of the Bogong High Plains.I. The environmental factors and the grassland communities.  Aust. J. Bot. 7: 12-33

Carr, S.G.M. & Turner, J.S. 1959b   The ecology of the Bogong High Plains.II. Fencing experiments in grassland.  Aust. J. Bot. 7: 34-63

Gillbank, L. 1993.  Into the land of the mountain cattlemen.   Maisie Fawcett’s ecological investigations on the Bogong High Plains.  In: Kelly, F. (Editor) On the edge of discovery. Australian women in science.  Text Publ.Co, Melbourne. Pp. 133-154.

My start: 1987-1992

I joined ESA in 1987 as a 3rd year PhD student. I attended my first ESA conference in Geraldton WA in 1988. At the time I was doing PhD research on lizards in central Australia where I was hosted by the wonderful people at the CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology (as it was then) laboratory in Alice Springs. A contingent of Alice Springs people travelled to Geraldton and made seminal contributions to the proceedings (Saunders et al. 1990) that was produced from that meeting. I had prior to this ESA meeting given only one talk at a professional society meeting (Australian Society of Herpetologists) and remember that event as one of excruciating nervousness and consequently a faltering delivery. This time it was different – I had a few project proposal seminars under my belt and had more confidence, luckily because the unthinkable happened. Some few minutes into the talk the slide projector jammed and I watched horrified as several people wielded Leatherman and other tools to free the mechanism. I carried on, trying to use words to illustrate the graphs and tables that I didn’t have on screen. Eventually the slides were back; it was probably over in only a minute but it felt like an entire session. I must have at least scored votes in the sympathy category because I won one of the student presentation prizes. That meeting cemented my membership of ESA and led to about two decades of close association with the running of the Society.

In the next few years I was absorbed with finishing the PhD and a postdoc in the US. I returned to Australia in 1991 and rekindled my association with the Society. I got swept up in the organisation of the ESA conference in Canberra in 1992 where I found that there were no systems to link the membership list of the Society to conference planning, nor were there electronic files of the people who attended the previous years’ conference to work from. Working with Jill Landsberg at this time was a treat and we both recognised that the Society would be well-served with better systems for the management of its members. I was a pretty competent database programmer back then and I suggested that we create an electronic membership database on the back of the system I had thrown together for the conference. I recall being shown, the financial records for members kept by the Treasurer on paper record cards and being told that this set of cards was handed from one Treasurer to the next. I also received an Excel or Word file from the Secretary which was the membership list used for mailing. I volunteered to set-up a database to coalesce the management of membership issues in one system. Effectively this step set in train a number of changes that were to come in the Society.

I served the Society formally in the roles of Membership Manager (1992 – 1998), Vice President (2000 – 2001), President (2002 – 2004), and Past President (2005 – 2007). I also worked on the organising committee for two of the Society’s annual conferences and INTECOL 10. The following paragraphs are my recollections of how the Society has changed from the early 1990’s. I have probably forgotten some key changes, and may have imperfectly remembered how things came about but I hope to capture the atmosphere of innovation and excitement that was around and the people who made it all happen.

Membership growth: 1992-2000

Through the 90’s the Society enjoyed considerable growth when many other professional groups were stagnant or declining in numbers. I believe this was the result of three factors: value for members from conferences and publications; attention to attracting and retaining members; and governance and management systems.

There was a focus on making the Society relevant to members through a high quality bulletin and an annual conference that was effective for communication and networking. Beginning in 1992, the previous custom of holding themed conferences every two years (with associated published proceedings), alternating with years of open forum meetings, was first changed to the current format in which there are multiple mini-symposia and open fora sessions in every year's meeting. The mini-symposium format both encourages many people to participate in planning and attending the conference and it ensures that the sessions are topical. More effective use of the time available for presentation and interaction over research at conferences was engendered through the introduction of stamps-for-drinks at poster sessions, first introduced at the conference held at Wollongong University in 2001. The Bulletin remained a flagship communication device and flourished under the direction of dedicated Bulletin Editors and energetic Regional Councillors.

The second factor was a more integrated membership philosophy. In this period the new membership management system was bedded-in and as the Society grew so too did the number of functions that the system performed. With the managerial role split from the Secretary and Treasurer there was more attention to membership drives, welcoming new members, keeping in contact with existing members, processing address changes and renewals and encouraging multi-year subscriptions. There was a strong and deliberate strategy to make the Society especially welcoming and friendly for student members. There wasn’t a particular change from the past in respect of student members, but rather initiatives such as the postgraduate student day, low student joining fees, student prizes and awards were introduced and/or strengthened in the 90s.

The third factor was the debate that was under way in the Council and beyond for how the Society should function as it grew. Part of this debate was planning for how to run conferences as the numbers attending were starting to outgrow the venues typically available in universities, and to outgrow voluntary organising committees. Moving to commercial conference centres and concern for the loss of intimacy (and increased cost) of the meetings was on a lot of peoples’ mind. Another (and more contentious) part of the debate was the move to having paid staff. Up until this era of growth the Society had mostly volunteers running its affairs (with the exceptions being expenditure on editorial costs). Enlarged membership led to greater work loads on volunteers and so planning turned to the idea of a paid Executive Officer and paid financial and membership management. The Society was slowly moving toward these appointments which came in the next decade.

Organisational change: 2000-2005

With such a large and active Society, revenues were healthy, annual conferences were booming and the workload on voluntary Councillors was becoming too much. Over the term of three ESA Presidents (Richard Hobbs, Jann Williams and me) discussions of business plans, new journals, revenue streams and costs of paying salaried employees were debated. Research was done into how sister Ecological Societies in the UK and USA made a transition from volunteers to salaried officers and the mistakes they made that we attempted to avoid.

The Society did several ambitious things in the relatively short period of 2000-2005. It launched a new journal (Environmental Management & Restoration (EMR)); renamed its existing Journal (Australian Journal of Ecology to Austral Ecology); introduced a business plan as a road map for operation; it started employing support staff; and overhauled governance procedures. Given the financial risks associated with this set of changes, it is testament to the Society’s resilience and leadership through this period that very little went wrong.

The inaugural strategic plan and business plan of ESA were founded in extensive consultation with members and endorsed at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) in 2002 – the first such guiding documents since the Society’s formation in 1962. These plans set out the existing practices and organisational changes in a common framework for more strategic management. Existing practices that were reinforced were the commitment to quality journals, bulletin, conferences and events; research, travel and commendation awards for postgraduate students; networking with other organisations; and members’ services and membership growth. New operational innovations included: increased expenditure on paid employees (Executive Officer), contractors, and volunteers; increased expenditure on financial management and information technologies; increased attention to investments, grants, donations and bequests to generate income; and increased expenditure on communication of ecological information to government, community environment groups, undergraduate and school education, and other professional ecological bodies. Several changes were made to improve the governance of the Society from 2000 to 2004: the roles and responsibility statements for Councillors were revised and made clearer; the requirement for the members of the Executive subcommittee of Council to reside in one location was dropped, the creation of the position of president-elect and a staggered succession plan for Councillor positions was introduced to create overlap periods for better hand over from one president to the next and to carry corporate memory forward more effectively. AGM’s were never dull as we changed the Society’s constitution incrementally four years in a row! Perhaps the most pleasing innovation for a number of people who had been active in this period of change was a change to the format of the AGMs in 2002 whereby written reports were circulated prior to the AGM rather than having spoken reports at AGMs. Questions and discussion on each written paper were shorter and the AGMs were business-like and easily completed in an hour-long lunchbreak.

Final words

Some readers may have noticed that I have made little mention of one topic in the essay thus far: the Journals. Austral Ecology pre-dates and will post date everything noted above. I found it hard to know where to weave it in to the chronology of changes because it is a constant feature. As the flagship publication of the Society Austral Ecology is an incredibly significant part of the Society’s profile and financial success and has been led by Mike Bull for more years than I can calculate, Similarly, EMR has established itself as a solid sister journal to AE and also ably led through its first decade by the Managing Editor Tein McDonald and the successive Chairs of the Editorial Board, Richard Hobbs and Jann Williams.

Finally, I can’t write these recollections without mentioning a number of people who were instrumental in developing the strategic changes mentioned above. With apologies to those who I may forget to mention by name the following individuals devoted an enormous amount of time to discussions with me about the Society that they were (and still are!) committed to. These people are (alphabetically): Mike Bull, Peter Fairweather, Kris French, Richard Hobbs, Jill Landsberg, Tony Norton, Mark Westoby, Rob Whelan, Jann Williams and Ray Wills.


Saunders, DA, Hopkins, AJM, and How, RA. (editors) 1990. Australian Ecosystems: 200 years of Utilization, Degradation and Reconstruction - Proceedings of the Ecological Society of Australia. Surrey Beatty and Sons, Chipping Norton, Australia. 602 pp.


Long-term research sites - Bob Johnson, Retired Director, Queensland Herbarium, ESA President 1985-1986

I have long been an advocate of the need to undertake long-term ecological research. Universities and governments have provided the bulk of the funding for ecological research in this country. Governments place much greater emphasis on short term outcomes which fit the political cycle while in universities much of the research is carried out by doctoral and post-doctoral students where time is a major constraining factor. These studies have provided a rich source of data for the development of ecological theories which underpin our science. However formulating theories solely on the basis of short-term extrapolation is fraught with danger and these short-term studies needs to be supported by long-term data which provides a context for interpretation and helps us test the validity and robustness of our developing hypotheses. In today’s ecology the development of sophisticated models to predict ecological responses has become a most valuable tool in the management of our native vegetation but few models have been tested against real data.

The vegetation landscape is dynamic and marked changes can occur in space and in time. In geological time we have seen dramatic changes in the Australian landscape as much of the closed forests of Gondwanan times have been replaced by woodlands and grasslands in arid and semi-arid regions. While change in the overlying climatic pattern is on-going as the earth moves in and out of ice ages, there is a much more short term cyclical climatic pattern as areas sustain wetter and more arid cycles. In Queensland in historical times we have seen shifts in boundaries between Mitchell grass and blue grass downs and between brigalow and blue grass grasslands dictated by climatic fluctuations. In more recent times we are seeing the impact of a more directional climatic change on our native vegetation. The complexity of the interaction between short term cycles and longer trends makes interpretation difficult and long term studies provide an invaluable aid to a better understanding of changes occurring in our ecological systems. Long term studies are also essential for the study of slow processes such as succession and the impact of climate change on the National Park estate, and in the recording of rare or episodic events which play a very important role in determining the mosaic pattern of our ecological landscape.

When the Council of the Ecological Society of Australia was based in Brisbane in 1985 and 1986, we became concerned about the potential loss of long-term ecological data and research sites.  It was a period of intense data collection and research sites were being established in diverse localities. Some were established as long-term research sites; others were used to gather valuable site data which could also be very useful for monitoring long term change. Initially the ESA decided to take a lead by establishing a database of all potential long term research sites in Australia. Refining such a data set requires the establishment of a set of guidelines based on rigorous criteria by which we could determine which of the nominated sites was worthy of protection. For established sites such criteria would include the type of data collected and the availability and permanence of the recorded data, the documentation of the process of data collection and how repeatable it is, the permanence of any infrastructure required and the ultimate security of the site.  The value of a long term site increases exponentially with time and, in the past, sites under government and University control would have been regarded as having maximum protection. Unfortunately in recent years we have seen sites of national scientific importance being sold by government with little regard for their significance to ecological knowledge.

One of the outcomes we hoped to achieve once a rigorous data base was established was to advocate some type of statutory protection over sites which we decided were of national importance. The maintenance of permanent sites is not easy. Research workers are mobile and dependence on a particular person is not compatible with the idea of a long-term site. Maintenance of such sites needs to be institutionalised and even then to also be seen as a core activity. For an account of one long term site currently under threat see Johnson & McDonald (2010).

It always seems strange to me that the protection afforded by law for a 100-year heritage-listed home is much greater than that given to a research site which can provide valuable data needed for the protection of our native flora and vegetation which underpin our life on the planet.


Johnson, R.W. and McDonald, W.J.F. 2010. The Brigalow Reference Area—a unique linear remnant. Australian Plant Conservation 19(2): 18-19.

The antiquity of this major component of the sub-discipline palaeoecology in Australia was brought home to me last year with the retirement of a fellow PhD student at the ANU, Geoff Hope, one year before my own retirement. We were students of Professor Donald Walker FRS who was encouraged, about 50 years ago, to leave the Sub-department of Quaternary Research, University of Cambridge, and establish Quaternary palynology in the Geography Department (subsequently Department of Biogeography and Geomorphology) of the Research School of Pacific Studies. Most initial research was undertaken in association with postgraduates in New Guinea as Donald was unimpressed by prospects of palynology in a climatically variable, sub-humid to arid country dominated by monotonous landscapes of eucalypts and wattles. However, he did promote studies in the late 1960s of peripheral environments such as my project on tropical rainforest and Ian Raine’s project on the alps. In the 1960s also, the Cambridge trained Australian palynologists Sue Duigan and David Churchill together with their postgraduate students Geoff Hope and Phil Ladd, an, Habib Yesdani and John Dodson, respectively, did venture into the sclerophyll environments of south-western and south-eastern Australia. Research in Australia was enhanced around 1970 by the appointment of Gurdip Singh to the ANU who, although again a member of the Cambridge lineage, also had a background in the Rajasthan Desert, an environment much more relevant to that in Australia than temperate NW Europe. Meanwhile, Tony Martin and Helene Martin had independently established research in New South Wales.

Almost all early participants had botanical training, consistent with that of Professor Sir Harry Godwin FRS who established the Cambridge School of Quaternary Ecology, and, outside of the ANU, Quaternary palynology in Australia was taught only in the Botany Departments of Monash University, the University of Melbourne and University of Sydney. Publication was similarly largely restricted to botanical journals with the New Phytologist, reflecting the original research direction of Harry Godwin, prominent, along with the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Journal of Ecology and Australian Journal of Botany. By the mid to late 1970s, the teaching of Quaternary palynology had essentially been transferred to geography departments with courses at Monash University, University of New South Wales and University of Tasmania, followed subsequently at the Universities of Newcastle, James Cook, Melbourne, Wollongong, Western Australia and Queensland as well as in the ANU general school. In line with the discipline change, there was some move to publication in geography journals, especially the Journal of Biogeography, but including the Australian Geographer and Australian Geographical Studies. The establishment of Quaternary studies as a multidisciplinary research area resulted in a proliferation journals such as Quaternary Research, Quaternary Science Reviews, Journal of Quaternary Science, Quaternary International and The Holocene that increasingly attracted paper submission. Unfortunately, establishment of the Ecological Society of Australia and its journal Australian Journal of Ecology in the mid 1970s perhaps came too late for palynologists to adopt them or perhaps for palaeoecologists to be adopted by ecologists, as interaction has not been as great as desired.

Traditional millennial scale analysis over the period from the last glacial maximum to present was the focus of most early studies and was most appropriate for those in cool environments of highland New Guinea, conducted primarily by Donald Walker and research students John Flenley, Jocelyn Powell and Geoff Hope, and Tasmania by Eric Colhoun, Mike Macphail and Ian Thomas. These environments had suffered the direct effects of glaciation, though this impact was insufficient to have resulted in major plant migrations which characterised North Atlantic glaciated environments. The limitation of other records to the last glacial or Holocene resulted from glacial aridity rather than ice. In some environments that experience high levels of humidity combined with suitable sites of sediment accumulation such as deep volcanic or tectonic basins, core tubes could be punched through Last Glacial Maximum sediments often allowing record construction back through one to several glacial cycles. Those from Lynch’s Crater in northeast Queensland by Kershaw and Lake George near Canberra by Singh revealed sustained vegetation changes that, it was suggested, could be better explained by human impact than climate change. However, possible causes are still debated, even after 30 years, despite the production of additional terrestrial records. A major problem has been direct dating of records beyond the c45 ka limit of radiocarbon dating. The application of U/Th dating to a number of records by Henk Heijnis and Kate Harle in an intensive operation by the Australian Nuclear Science and Techology organisation (ANSTO) in the 1990s failed to resolve dating questions at most sites. However, the recent application of Optically-Stimulated Luminescence dating, initiated by Bert Roberts, is providing more consistent but, to some extent, unexpected results in relation to temperature and precipitation responses to global climate forcing, in southeastern Australia.

One means of producing long continuous and chronologically well controlled records is to venture into the marine realm where comparisons can be made between global isotope and pollen signals. In certain situations direct comparisons have been made between terrestrial and marine records, such as by Patrick Moss and Kershaw in northeast Queensland and by Harle in western Victoria, while in others, such as in north to north-western Australia where terrestrial sites and climatic conditions are unsuitable for record production and survival, marine records have provided remarkable insights into vegetation changes and their drivers that could not have been anticipated. The Maritime Continent area between mainland Australia and Southeast Asia with its mix of land and ocean is ideal for marine palynology and Sander van der Kaars has virtually singlehandedly turned this region, critical for understanding global atmospheric and oceanic circulation systems and the maintenance of regional biodiverse rainforests, from a Quaternary black hole to one of the better known parts of the world.

An important palynological component to any understanding of the development Australian vegetation is charcoal and Singh together with Robin Clark undertook much early research on charcoal taphonomy and past fire-vegetation relationships. Although this resulted in the routine incorporation of charcoal in palynological studies, refinements in charcoal methodology were undertaken largely in the USA. However, Simon Haberle and Scott Mooney have led a resurgence in interest, partially utilizing established US technology, and aimed at identification of individual fires and local and regional fire regimes as well as the relative importance of climate and people on fire patterns. Global and broad regional syntheses of fire records, undertaken within the UK NERC QUEST programme, are strongly suggesting the dominant control of climate over fire and that a regional human influence is difficult to detect, except in the last few centuries,

Despite the difficulty in detecting a human burning influence, the understanding of human-environmental relationships, pioneered by Lesley Head in the early 1980s in relation to Aboriginal people, is still a profitable area for research and one that is well supported by ARC. Simon Haberle is the major palynological practitioner in this area both in Australia and in most of the remainder of the southern Pacific region.

Of greatest relevance to actuoecologists is probably fine resolution pollen analysis – a term, if not the concept, introduced in the 1970s by Donald Walker. In addition to attempted construction of records at annual to decadal resolution, a suite of numerical techniques, mainly time series, were devised by David Green to allow integration of past and present ecological investigation, However, the time consuming nature of the studies combined with problems of establishing reliable chronologies limited ecological insights but those subsequent applications to documentation of European impact, especially by John Dodson and students, have proved rewarding.

The latest incarnations of high resolution analysis on attempted ecological timescales involve multiproxy reconstruction that may include growth ring and documentary studies as well as examination of a variety of biological, physical and chemical sediment based  attributes to address the nature and extent of human-induced climate change as in the IGBP PAGES Aus 2k programme led by Chris Turney, as well  the assessment of recent human-environmental relationships more generally in the PAGES OZPACS programme led by Peter Gell. Pollen analysis tends to dominate high resolution, multiproxy studies within the International Quaternary Association (INQUA) project OzINTIMATE (INTegration of Ice, MArine and TErrestrial records), designed to examine the nature of climate change during the last major global temperature increase (the last glacial termination) and ecosystem responses to it.

Through the 50 year period, the ANU, that has invested substantial resources into the discipline area, has been the centre of activity apart from a period around 2000 when Monash was predominant, a situation aided by the abolition of the ANU Department of Biogeography and Geomorphology. It could be suggested that palynology would always be vulnerable in a Research School of Social Studies, but, ironically, the Monash Centre of Palynology and Palaeoecology resides in a humanities faculty. The future of palynology could be less restricted to particular laboratories as improvements in sample preparation reduce the need for the most dangerous chemicals and preparation is increasingly outsourced, the long overdue production of an electronic Atlas of Australian Pollen becomes a reality, and the proliferation and actual use of data bases allows various broad spatial and temporal syntheses for explanation of vegetation variation and improvement of  predictive climate models.

Towards the end of May 1961, soon after I arrived in Australia, I had the good fortune to attend a meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) in Brisbane, where scientists from all major centres of Australia and New Zealand attended to report on their work and exchange their ideas. I had studied ecology in Japan and England, and had just completed a three-year fellowship in New Zealand. Within the ANZAAS meeting the Canberra group of ecologists hosted a symposium “Ecology in Australia” chaired by Ken Key (CSIRO Division of Entomology).

At that time active ecologists in Australia were engaged in the study of plants and animals and soils affecting primary industries over a wide range of geographical and climatic regions. Ecologists mostly worked in CSIRO or other governmental institutions as the universities had little research function. What surprised me very much then was the fact that this was the first national meeting of ecologists in Australia. This was surprising because Australian ecology had been leading the central debate of population dynamics in British and American journals since the 1930s.

The density dependence model of Nicholson and Bailey (1935) was supported by many blowfly experiments (Nicholson 1954) but rejected as an untenable dogma by Andrewartha and Birch (1954). The debate was widespread internationally (e.g. Elton 1955) and was carried on for many years (Kikkawa 1977). So I could not believe that there had been no national organisation of ecologists in Australia until then. Half a century has now passed.

Since the 1960s, the functions of ANZAAS have dissipated into many professional societies, and ESA played a significant role as ecologists advanced theories and developed land-use practices for the management of biological resources while preserving the natural heritage of unique environments in Australia. More innovative approaches are required of ecologists today in response to climate change and for biodiversity conservation.

Congratulations to ESA on its 50th Anniversary, and my best wishes for the next 50 years!


Andrewartha, H.G. & Birch L.C. (1954) The Distribution and Abundance of Animals. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Elton, C.S. (1955) Natural control of animal populations, being a review of ‘The Distribution and Abundance of Animals’ by H.G. Andrewartha and L.C. Birch. Nature, Lond., 176, 419.

Kikkawa, J. (1977) Ecological paradoxes. Aust. J. Ecol. 2, 121-136.

Nicholson, A.J. (1954) An outline of the dynamics of animal populations. Aust. J. Zool. 2, 9-65.

Nicholson, A.J. & Bailey, V.A. (1935) The balance of animal populations. Part I. Proc. Zool. Soc. Lond., 551-98

In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a student party in a decaying two storey terrace house somewhere in Carlton every friday night. In a time when mobile phones and texting were not even imagined, a sixth sense would drag the academic lumpenproletariat, clutching their bottles purchased before the pubs closed at six o'clock, to congregate loudly within; until the police eventually arrived. I remember conversing with other incipient ecologists in a kitchen with greasy walls only partly covered with psychedelic posters. Under a bare incandescant globe, a fly-specked small window allowed a glimpse of an intimate mix of broken glass and regurgitate on the mossy concrete around the gully trap in the tiny back yard. As we ratcheted up our intake of psychotropic substances we began to involute our Bot Cong joke; the Bot Cong being the guerilla force that would liberate nature from the dark forces of industrial evil. There was indeed some direct action. The breaking of the tops of pines in forestry's experimental pine plots, to convince the experimenters that the beautiful bush thereabouts was not worth destroying, did not work (they just planted them everywhere anyway), and the road that was planned to extend along the East Gippsland coast from Mallacoota was not aborted because a few survey markers were pulled.

Politicking and lobbying by more sober and senior ecologists and conservationists, and the electoral support of the upper middle class, proved to be more effective than direct action in slowing down the forces of darkness. Alec Costin had already managed to induce a little bit of sanity in the management of the New South Wales high country. Richard Jones and Sam Lake were about to engage in the ecological radicalisation of the Australian Conservation Foundation. Ecologists became publicly prominent as rationally-arguing opponents of one unwise nature-destructive development after another and were proponents for legislation and action to protect 'The Environment'. The constitution of the newly-born Ecological Society of Australia even suggested that it was a duty of ecologists to fight the good fight against the evil developers, although not quite in those words.

In the mid noughties I returned briefly to Melbourne to participate in a workshop on planning with urban nature, held in the upper levels of a dispiriting bruise-purple brick 1970s RMIT building on one of those excessively hot days of late summer. The workshop was a mixture of academics and planners, seated in a flyless, windowless room. Most of the academics, including me, did not bother to conceal their emotional attachment to nature. After the formal part of the workshopping, a planner from the western suburbs came up to me and said how amazed he was to hear my suggestion that local governments should employ ecologists. He said that he had a lot to do with ecologists and they were invariably the professional people bought in by developers to assuage any fears of damage to 'The Environment', no matter how destructive the proposal might have been. The Ecological Society of Australia now solicits sponsorship from the very people ecologists argued with in the 1970s and 1980s.

Capitalism has a substantial capacity to subvert, as witness all those 1960s pop stars who sang of revolution while frying their brains. They now live in luxury in tax havens or lie beneath monumental headstones. The expensive Che Guevara t-shirt on the raddled body tells it all. The transformation of the average ecologist from environmental campaigner to an apologist for developers cannot be blamed on drugs or greed, but rather occurred because of transformations in the nature of universities and bureaucracies and the flaws in the legislation that emerged from the early lobbying efforts.

In the late 1960s ecology was an attractive university subject for the moderately numerate idealistic young. In the early 1970s, graduates were snapped up by the rapidly growing government departments and non-government organisations associated with national parks and the environment, while there were plenty of jobs for PhD graduates in the expanding university system. After the politicians realised that their conservation bureaucracies were actively subverting the development agendas of which Australian governments and oppositions have always been slightly overfond, they were brought under control by the conversion of upper level bureaucratic jobs from permanent to short term contract, and creative restructuring. Changes of name became so rapid that even logo designers looked harried. The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources in Victoria was rapidly nicknamed the Department of Constant Name Revision. The joke did not have time to tire. As with this example, a widely adopted innovation was to submerge conservation bureaucracies within development bureaucracies. The name changes were excuses to get people to apply for a lesser number of jobs than before. The legislation often looked great, but there was soon almost no-one at home to monitor and enforce it, and most of it proved to possess loopholes through which one could drive a D9 bulldozer.

Although nature conservation and environment legislation has generally proven ineffective in protecting species, ecosystems and natural environments, it has been highly effective in creating employment for ecologists, including many of those who used to be employed in the conservation bureaucracies. There is now a well-established ritual for the appeasement of the nature gods in which ecologists produce texts in arcane language describing the nature that will be destroyed, its insignificance, and the wonders of the offset vision that will more than compensate for its loss. The few surviving ecological bureaucrats check to see if the right forms have been filled. Meanwhile, research ecologists in universities and the CSIRO are busy fulfilling their production norms of competitive grants and articles in A* journals in their new Taylorist world. They have little or no time or inclination to critique the massive output of the consultant ecologists, especially when the only grants that are readily available for their own research require having developers as vampire-killing stakeholders, and they are the vampire.

The masterstroke in environmental legislation is the responsibility of the proponent of development to hire the consultants who assess its impacts. Like tax consultants or lawyers, those consultants who succeed tend to be those who have the interests of their client closest at heart. However, unlike the members of most other consulting professions, ecologists do not have to worry about a professional body that might, in extremis, punish doubtful practice by excommunication, and which lays down a clear code of ethics for the practice of their work. This is extremely hard on both the environment and the consultant ecologists, most of whom are basically fond of nature and would like to be able to say no to a developer: 'We would lose our certification if we wrote that a low energy building design would offset the loss of 90% of the population of a threatened species. You will not get any consultant ecologist to be positive about this. Have you thought of building/mining/constructing a dam somewhere else instead?'

The implications of such a system include legislation to require the use of certified ecologists and a levy on consultant certified ecologists to support independent assessment processes. Mechanisms also need to be developed to ensure that research ecologists cannot have their outputs influenced by research funders. This implies that organisations wishing to have ecological research work done should be required to provide funds for the purpose to a third independent party, who would select the appropriate researchers on the basis of their skills and research record, not their public relations persona or degree of obsequiousness.

The importance of re-establishing a situation in which ecologists can be honest about the insights of their discipline on the consequences of human actions lies in the imminent convergence of increasing climatic change, peak oil and peak phosphate, all of which will concentrate people's minds more on their own survival than on the seeming luxury of the joys of nature. If we can free ourselves from the control of corporations, we could be in a powerful position to communicate the importance of nature for human survival, and the ways in which it can be used in the long term, rather than destroyed for short term gain. We could also play a role in the transition of our society to a sustainable steady state, rather than briefly profiting from its demise.


My career was not conventional; I climbed trees, and allegedly became the first “arbornaut” studying Australian rain forests. I feel fortunate that I was never knocked unconscious by a falling branch, never bitten by a brown snake, nor fell out of a tall tree (just small ones). Arriving at Sydney University as the lucky recipient of a University post-graduate scholarship in 1979, I assumed there would be a large cohort of tropical forest ecology students. Alas, there were none! But my advisor, plant ecologist Peter Myerscough, kindly told me to drive north until it turned green, and then get to work…. that those true-green tracts were the last remaining rain forests in Oz.  I put a lot of miles on the Holden station wagon from the Sydney University carpool during my PhD years, commuting to Dorrigo and Lamington National Parks for regular data collection about herbivory and insect biodiversity in rain forest canopies. Although I was too naïve to notice initially, only later did one of my male colleagues remind me that there were only two women graduate students in biological sciences at the time, (and he went on to suggest that our positions were rather a waste of time because “we would only get married and have children”). Much has changed in the last 30 years, with more women and minorities seeking careers in biology, and more students studying Australian rain forests…..  although canopies are still vastly underexplored! (Given the global importance of forests for biodiversity conservation, carbon sequestration, and other ecosystem services, I hope that our research focus on forest canopies will expand significantly.)

Despite the paucity of rain forest researchers and the apparent shortage of women pursuing graduate research in the 1980s, it was the best and worst of times in the Antipodes to explore, adventure, and make discoveries “out on a limb.”  I learned an enormous amount about people, about politics, about statistics, and most importantly, about rain forests during my graduate days in Australia. Since most fellow students at Sydney were marine ecologists, I devoted many hours dodging waves on intertidal rock platforms and snorkeling in coral reefs, exchanging field research assistantship duties with fellow graduate students. So not only did I learn about herbivores in rain forest canopies, but also became familiar with herbivory on rocky shorelines and herbivore behavior on coral bommies. This trade-off inspired all of us to ask theoretical questions about ecology without the conventional habitat boundaries, and to experience the challenges of field work in different ecosystems, creating a very special espirit de corps that remains over a lifetime of special friendships. I recall with greatest gratitude learning statistics from Tony Underwood, and hearing Peter Myerscough patiently and repeatedly explain to me that I needed to climb the trees to measure herbivory (not just stand on the forest floor with binoculars as I had hoped). Due to the lack of academic mentors in my field, I “collected people” and pieced together different skillsets: learning to identify trees from forester Alec Floyd, sewing my first climbing harness on Julia James’ sewing machine (that she used for caving equipment), welding a slingshot in the Botany Department machine shop, and crawling along the forest floor identifying seedlings (while combating leeches) with Geoff Tracey and Len Webb.

A beer and petrol strike during my first Christmas in Australia forced the postponement of my big field installation – the car could not be fueled, and my fellow students would not traipse into the bush without some “tinnies.” As a small-town kid from upstate New York, I suddenly realized that this was an amazing country!

Intertwined with forays into the canopy asking questions about mono-dominant versus diverse canopies and their guilds of herbivores, I also became intimately involved in research on the forest floor, thanks to a lifelong mentor who “adopted” me during my first year as a graduate student. Joseph Connell, distinguished professor of biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, came to Australia to ask questions about species diversity, a topic of strong theoretical and applied interest to both biologists and conservationists at the time (and still today). Joe elected to work on both coral reefs and rain forests in Queensland. A marine biologist by training, he needed a field assistant who knew rain forest plants. As luck would have it, I was the only student at the time studying tropical trees, and so had no competition for this coveted partnership with Joe, “groveling” along the forest floor mapping seedlings and flicking off leeches. Joe was truly one of the wonders of the ecological world, and influenced students worldwide. Since 1963, he and colleagues had identified, counted, and mapped all the trees, saplings, and seedlings along marked transects in two Australian rain forest plots.(I was part of his second generation of botanists, following after Len Webb and Geoff Tracey). This long-term data set is only just beginning to yield important results about which trees “make it to the top” and what influences survival or mortality. Along our muddy transects, many new theories were hypothesized, whilst eating Minties (our favorite Australian sweet) interspersed with Oreos (my favorite American “biscuit” that Joe kindly brought from California). Many prominent scientists sacrificed sweat, blood (to leeches) and toil along these muddy seedlings transects – Bob Black, Peter Chesson, Laurel Fox, Don Potts, David Lamb, Patrice Morrow, Wayne Sousa, Peter O’Reilly, Dave Walter, Kyle Harms, Tad Theimer, Kitty Gehring, Ian Noble, and Pete Green (also a long-term postdoc), to name but a few. We used to correlate that, the muddier the conditions, the more intellectual were our musings (or so we thought!). Such memories of the awesome people, the dogged data collection, and the unique flora and fauna surrounding our field work seems part of the magic and good fortune of pursuing a PhD in Australian rain forest ecology during the 1980s.

On a more sobering note, the leadership of Queensland at that time seemed intent to cut down most of the last remaining rain forest stands. But that political tension combined with the cadre of inspirational scientists working “Down Under” at the time only served to inspire our research, dedication, and curiosity to ask questions about how complex ecosystems worked. And with a global spotlight increasingly focused on tropical rain forests, the remaining tracts of Queensland tropics came under conservation protection. Although exposed to underlying gender bias in the outback and during early career activities, I also became intimately involved with some of the most beautiful places on Earth. O’Reillys guesthouse still features a prominent canopy walkway, that was “borne” out of my pioneering canopy work, and served as an early tool for rain forest conservation and education outreach; and the Daintree region is now riddled with eco-tourist lodges instead of sawmills. Even the maligned Giant Stinging Tree has a fond place in the hearts of many, having repeatedly featured it in my public talks and citizen science efforts. As one of the few tropical biologists at the time who specialized in Austral-Asian tropics and later moved to the Neotropics, I gained a unique perspective because most tropical rain forest biologists did the opposite, working predominantly in the Neotropics with an occasional visit to the Old World.  I was fortunate to have learned about tropical ecosystems from outstanding mentors, witnessed compelling times for global conservation, and helped discover a unique array of relatively undiscovered flora and fauna in some of the world’s most beautiful forest canopies. …. not to mention rearing two wonderful children who were born and raised amidst sheep, crimson rosellas and booyong trees. Those halcyon days as a graduate student at Sydney University remain some of the best memories of my life.

Three substantial trends and seven particular scientists stand out when I reflect upon the past 50 years of ecology in arid Australia.  Undoubtedly my selection of themes and people is idiosyncratic – and inclined towards animal ecology – but so it must inevitably be in a personal perspective.  One of the three trends is solely scientific; another is only partly so; and the third is organisational.

Trend number one revolves around vast scale.  Arid Australia is way too big relative to the number of scientists, or to numbers of all human beings for that matter, to allow you to feel as if you’re in any meaningful comfort zone when you throw down a quadrat, install a line of pit-traps, or set up an experiment. The horizon shimmers and beckons; through the mirage the far-off country unfolds in subtle variation over distances of a thousand kilometres and more.  How to generalise understanding under these conditions, especially if the purpose of research is to provide solutions to applied problems?  One of the most significant responses of Australian desert ecologists has been to work largely at the scale of the landscape.

The response was evident from the beginning of our period.  CSIRO’s Land Research and Regional Survey Section was established in 1950 under Chris Christian’s leadership (see Robin 2007).  Members of the Section explored and mapped recurring patterns of geomorphology, soils and vegetation over immense areas of the inland and the north.  On my arrival at CSIRO in Alice Springs in 1984 I came to know well Ray Perry’s (1962) “General Report on Lands of the Alice Springs Area”, and rapidly fell into the habit when traveling of thinking about where I was among these great landscape gradients.  Similarly, many Australian ecologists, through work on topics varying from resource flows (Ludwig et al. 2005), invertebrate ecology (Gregg et al. 2001), vertebrate ecology (Newsome 1975; Newsome and Corbett 1975; Wyndham 1983; Caughley et al. 1987; Roshier et al., 2001; Haythornthwaite and Dickman 2006), fire (Allan and Southgate 2002) and natural resource management (Morton et al. 1995; Stafford Smith and McAllister 2008), have taken landscape-scale science to the world.

The second trend is growing recognition of Indigenous ecological knowledge, a topic absent from almost all commentary 50 years ago.  It has been stimulated partly out of a fascination with the depth of understanding possessed by Aboriginal people (Latz 1995), and partly by wider currents in Australian affairs leading to demands for more effective involvement of Indigenous people in management of their own affairs.  Indigenous people want to live in the deserts to a far greater degree than other Australians and, consequently, they comprise the obvious workforce for activities that are culturally meaningful to them, such as conservation management (Morton 2008).  The ‘desert knowledge’ movement is a further reflection of this trend (Stafford Smith and Cribb 2009).

Trend three encompasses the scientific infrastructure and institutions of arid zone ecology.  Unlike the other two, this trend is one of stasis instead of growth.  Few institutions focus on ecological research into arid Australia, if one leaves aside the pastoral science facilities of inland Queensland and New South Wales.  Only two substantial combinations of laboratories exist: in Alice Springs, where CSIRO’s Laboratory and the Northern Territory’s Parks and Wildlife Unit are located; and the Fowlers Gap Field Station of the University of New South Wales, north of Broken Hill.  The socio-economic system of inland Australia exhibits a ‘desert syndrome’ of intermittent links from outside rather than long-standing and coherent internal drivers (Stafford Smith 2008), and this reality dominates ecological science just as it does most other domains.  Consequently, there are few resident scientists and the majority of work is still conducted by visitors.

In describing these trends I have already made reference to the people who, in my view, have contributed substantially to the development of ecology in arid Australia.  Early in my career I had the privilege of meeting both Chris Christian and Ray Perry, although not the opportunity to know them well.  My own work-life has involved lengthy periods of striving to marshal the financial and human resources without which science simply does not get done.  As a result I have a particular appreciation not only of the contributions to knowledge made by these two men in the relative scientific vacuum of their time, but also of the organisational leadership that they exercised in CSIRO.

In 1972 I began PhD studies at the University of Melbourne, on one of the ubiquitous dasyurid marsupials of arid Australia, Sminthopsis.  I read avidly, looking for scientific clues into the mystery and majesty of the inland.  Two papers by Alan Newsome, both published in 1975, bowled me over.  Unlike many, this author appeared to revel in the distances and the space, seemed to delight in the shifting ecological pattern and process evident as one moved for hundreds of kilometres across the country.  He demonstrated that it was indeed possible to tackle vast scale with energy and imagination.  Newsome also obviously loved to tell a story, for each of the two papers was characterised by elliptical diversions and inventive use of words.  Alan was an examiner of my thesis, and when I finally achieved my ambition of joining CSIRO he wrote me a treasured letter of welcome.  I found that his conversation was just like his writing, peppered with anecdotes and characteristic salty phrases (“It was as hot as a bastard!”).  Alan might have skated across scientific detail sometimes (as have I), yet for me he was a torch-bearer.

Pretty well the first person I met while carrying my boxes of gear into the Zoology Building at the University of Sydney was Graeme Caughley.  As a new Postdoctoral Fellow I was anxious for skilled advice, and in his outwardly spiky and argumentative manner – while inwardly being rather diffident and frequently kind – Graeme gave me much of that, both then and several years later when we became colleagues once more in CSIRO.  Far more importantly, he provided to Australian ecology in the 1980s a body of work on the spatial and temporal nature of population dynamics in kangaroos that was of outstanding international scientific prominence and of great significance in natural resource management.  Graeme’s premature death in 1994 deprived our country of one of its brightest ecological stars.

Chris Dickman’s contributions to the ecology of Australian deserts are impossible to exaggerate.  Together with his students, and especially his colleague in plant ecology, Glenda Wardle, Chris has extended our understanding of the landscape-scale effects of rain, fire and predation on the dynamics of organisms in the immense dune-fields of the eastern Simpson Desert.  Chris does not rely heavily on any particular organisational infrastructure; the University of Sydney, Bush Heritage Australia and the Australian Research Council are highly supportive, but nevertheless Chris and his team choose to do their work, regardless of heat, cold and bush-flies, in the shade of a gidgee.  I find the results of this 20-year long effort exhilarating.

I have limited space remaining, and yet am highly conscious of the wonderful contributors who are thereby left out (such as Richard Kingsford and his extraordinary work on inland waterbirds, Mark Westoby for his laser-like insights, and Russ Sinclair for his stewardship of the T.G.B. Osborn Reserve at Koonamore).  However, I want to finish with two friends who welcomed me to Alice Springs more than 25 years ago and who in my view have made outstanding contributions ever since.  Mark Stafford Smith possesses a distinctive combination of multi-disciplinary knowledge deeply informed by ecology, such that his writings of the past 25 years are unique.  Margaret Friedel has resisted for more than 30 years any temptation to move away from central Australia.  In relatively isolated communities scientists (such as Mark and me) may often be pulled hither and yon, whereas connection and trust between science and the community develop only when long-standing residents of scientific achievement, respect and wisdom exist as a bridge.  Margaret has played this role superbly.

My reflections focus as much on individuals as on the development of ecology.  Science for me is very much a human activity, which is why this account emphasises the people whose contributions I most admire – and incidentally why I look forward with great anticipation to reversing the desert syndrome by becoming resident once more with my colleagues in Alice Springs.


Allan, G.E., and Southgate, R.I. 2002.  Fire regimes in the spinifex landscapes of Australia.  Pp. 145-176 in Bradstock, R.A., Williams J.E., Gill, A.M. (Eds.), Flammable Australia: the Fire Regimes and Biodiversity of a Continent.  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Caughley, G., Shepherd, N., and Short, J. (Eds.) 1987.  Kangaroos: their ecology and management in the sheep rangelands of Australia.  Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Gregg, P.C., Del Socorro, A.P., and Rochester, W.A. 2001.  Field test of migration of moths (Lepidoptera: Noctuidae) in inland Australia.  Australian Journal of Entomology 40, 249-256.

Haythornthwaite, A.S., and Dickman, C.R. 2006.  Distribution, abundance, and individual strategies: a multi-scale analysis of dasyurid marsupials in arid central Australia.  Ecography 29, 285-300.

Latz, P.K. 1995.  Bushfires & Bushtucker: Aboriginal Plant Use in Central Australia.  IAD Press, Alice Springs.

Ludwig, J.A., Wilcox, B.P., Breshears, D.D., Tongway, D.J., and Imeson, A.C. 2005.  Vegetation patches and runoff-erosion as interacting ecohydrological processes in semiarid landscapes.  Ecology 86, 288-297.

Morton, S. 2008.  Deserts.  Pp. 5-10 in Lindenmayer, D., Harriss Olson, M., Dovers, S. and Morton, S. (Eds), Ten Commitments: Reshaping the Lucky Country’s Environment.  CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne.

Morton, S.R., Stafford Smith, D.M., Friedel, M.H., Griffin, G.F. and Pickup, G. 1995.  The stewardship of arid Australia: ecology and landscape management.  Journal of Environmental Management 43, 195-218.

Newsome, A.E. 1975.  An ecological comparison of the two arid-zone kangaroos of Australia, and their anomalous prosperity since the introduction of ruminant stock to their environment.  Quarterly review of Biology 50: 389-424.

Newsome, A.E., and Corbett, L.K. 1975.  Outbreaks of rodents in semi-arid and arid Australia: causes, preventions, and evolutionary considerations.  Pp.117-153 in Prakash, I. and Ghosh. P.K. (Eds.), Rodents in Desert Environments.  Junk, The Hague.

Perry, R.A. (Ed.) 1962.  General Report on Lands of the Alice Springs Area, Northern Territory, 1956-57.  CSIRO, Melbourne.

Robin, L., 2007. How a Continent Created a Nation.  University of New South Wales Press, Sydney.

Roshier, D.A., Robertson, A.I., Kingsford, R.T., and Green, D.G. 2001.  Continental-scale interactions with temporary resources may explain the paradox of large populations of desert waterbirds in Australia.  Landscape Ecology 16, 547-556.

Stafford Smith, M., 2008.  The ‘desert syndrome’ – causally-linked factors that characterise outback Australia.  Rangeland Journal 30: 3-14.

Stafford Smith, M., and Cribb, J. 2009.  Dry Times: Blueprint for a Red Land.  CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne.

Stafford Smith, M., and McAllister, R.R.J. 2008.  Managing arid zone natural resources in Australia for spatial and temporal variability – an approach from first principles.  Rangeland Journal 30, 15-27.

Wyndham, E. 1983.  Movements and breeding season of the budgerigar.  Emu 83, 276-282.

A higher portion of Australia is composed of arid environments than any other continent. Despite this, the development of ecological research programs in arid Australia has occurred slowly with little cohesion. This situation largely results from the extremely low population size of Australia’s arid zone, the remoteness of these areas from the significant population centres along the eastern coast, and the lack of a vision for understanding natural processes in arid regions. Arid Australia is very much a frontier region focussed on primary production, resource exploitation and, now, nature-based tourism, but until recently lacking significant research infrastructure.

The lack of universities and absence of other large research institutions, until CSIRO established its Alice Springs research centre in 1953, means that a significant amount of ecological research in arid Australia has been undertaken by state/territory government-based researchers. In the pre-Federation era government employees undertaking and contributing to ecological research were not scientists but rather postal workers. These men were based along the Adelaide to Darwin telegraph line opened in 1872 to provide rapid communication from Australia to England. The telegraph line was serviced by regular repeater stations at remote locations including Alice Springs, Charlotte Waters and Barrow Creek. Following the Horn Scientific Expedition of 1894 a number of these workers, particularly Paddy Byrne and Frank Gillen, set up strong working relationships with academics at the University of Melbourne (Baldwin Spencer) and University of Adelaide (E.C. Stirling). These collaborations lasted for decades and these men collected significant numbers of specimens and made natural history observations and recorded Indigenous Ecological Knowledge of the wildlife. A number of arid vertebrate species are named after them: Dasyuroides byrnei, Pseudomys fieldi, Varanus gilleni, Litoria gilleni. The Gillen and Spencer collaboration is now best known for its pioneering anthropological work. The success of these ventures is seen in the significant information available today generated by this research and the framework it has provided for contemporary applied research. For instance, the Gillen-Spencer collaboration is the source of ongoing academic research in cultural knowledge (; Paddy Byrne’s detailed understanding of the mammals of central Australia informs ongoing research on extinction processes;  Greg Fyfe and I rediscovered the endangered Slater’s Skink at Illamurta Springs in 2004 (then only the third known population of the species) by following up on a record of Ernest Cowle from the 1890s.

In the southern Northern Territory, the Territory government had an ecological research presence in Alice Springs (covering the region from the Barkly Tableland to the South Australian border) by the 1950s, and the size of the research effort grew in the following decades peaking in the late 1980s when 27 research staff were employed. The research focus over the first 50 years was multi-faceted. Conservation management of threatened mammals was understandably a key area given that central Australia is notorious for mammal extinctions (e.g. Johnson 2006). This work is noteworthy in this regard because of its strong links with Indigenous people and the use of Traditional Ecological Knowledge in field-based contexts, especially in the Tanami Desert, and its success in saving one species, the mala or rufous hare-wallaby, from extinction. An example of this work is the use of Warlpiri (Aboriginal people from the large desert area north-west of Alice Springs) knowledge of the species to choose the site for reintroduction efforts in the Tanami Desert (Langford 1999). Other threatened species projects focussed on the greater bilby, brush-tailed mulgara, central rock-rat, and Acacia peuce among others. Northern Territory Government ecologists also carried out extensive fauna and flora surveys in the Tanami Desert, northern Simpson Desert, Wakaya Desert, West MacDonnell Ranges, Dulcie Ranges, and Hart’s Range. Other research focussed on the impacts of fire on plant and animal population dynamics and assemblage composition, and the ecology and impacts of introduced species including the feral house cat, rabbit and camel. In the past decade, detailed bioregional scale surveys of the Finke and Burt Plain IBRA regions were undertaken using stratified sampling designs. Current research programs include understanding the impacts of fire on pattern and process in desert systems, and assessing the presence and impact of threatening processes particularly introduced carnivores, invasive weeds, and feral herbivores at a landscape-scale. Threatened species conservation and management continues to be a large focus and, again, much of this work is done in collaboration with a range of stakeholders.

As was the case with the work of the early pioneer ecologists in the 1890s, this research has regularly involved strong collaboration with academic researchers including those at University of New England, Flinders University, Griffith University and University of Queensland. Again, the research has generated worldwide interest (see for example the account in Nature on the southern marsupial-mole in November 2004).

Much has changed since the ‘early days’ and a considerable proportion of Australia’s universities now have a sizeable research presence in arid Australia with ecological projects featuring heavily and significant research being undertaken. However, very few maintain a permanent presence in the arid zone and government-based ecologists continue to contribute heavily to the growth in understanding and in developing management options for natural systems. The advantages of living and breathing the arid zone on a daily basis rather than it only being a field site are perhaps best appreciated during the current high rainfall period when desert life is profuse and changes are detectable on a daily basis.

The Ecological Society of Australia too has developed a strong arid presence over the past decade and much of the Society’s business over the course of this century has been run out of the arid zone. In 2002 the Executive moved to Alice Springs under the presidency of Craig James and the first Executive Officer, Tanya Howard, was based here. The Society continues to have a significant presence in Alice Springs. It will be fitting if the first research chapter of the Society is one dedicated to Desert Ecology.


Dennis, C. 2004. A mole in the hand ….. Nature 432: 142-143.

Johnson, C. 2006. Australia’s mammal extinctions: A 50 000 year history. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Langford, D. (1999). The mala project: experience and hard lessons from 20 years’ work in species recovery (a thumbnail history of the project).  In Biodiversity and the Re-introduction of Native Fauna at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park: Proceedings of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Cross-Cultural Workshop on Fauna Re-Introduction. (Ed. Gillen, J.).  Pp. 100-105.  Bureau of Rural Sciences, Canberra.

I suppose I was lucky to become a biologist. At Canberra High School, like many other high schools, in science boys did physics and chemistry and girls did biology. However, knowing I was keen on biology, at the Canberra University College (later to become Australian National University) I majored in botany and zoology. In the early 1960’s I attended meetings of the Ecological Society of Australia in the CSIRO Division of Entomology with talks on such topics as the ecology of raven and crows, grasshoppers and the distribution of introduced freshwater fish. I also remember having lectures from A.J. Nicholson on density-dependent regulation as demonstrated by blowflies in the lab and Errington’s work on muskrats in Iowa. At this time in Australia, population ecology was relatively strong, with a vibrant debate between the Nicholsonian school of density dependent regulation and the Andrewartha-Birch school of density independent regulation. With time this debate has dissipated with the acceptance that both forms of control may be operating, even in populations of the same species. Clearly, at this time and subsequently Australian ecologists have had a major impact on the development of population ecology.

The Molonglo River, which ran through Canberra, as a river looked fine but little dwelt beneath its surface. Thus, to unravel this sad state for my Honours project in 1963 under the supervision of Alan Weatherley (an early member of ESA), I studied the invertebrate fauna of the river and confirmed the large-scale and long-lasting impacts of heavy metal pollution—impacts that persist to this day.

During my undergraduate years from 1960 to 1963 I was lucky to work as a summer-time technical assistant with Alec Costin and Dane Wimbush of the Alpine research Unit of CSIRO. These summers at Kosciusko were both demanding and wonderful. Demanding as many of the tasks were challenging---such as measuring plant cover on hands and knees to the nearest half inch on transects set up for trials on the impacts of grazing, or digging trenches through solifluction terraces amid squadrons of march flies. The impacts of grazing were stark in in areas that had been grazed, but were then starting to recover. At least in this case, as opposed to heavy metal pollution, recovery was seemed to be possible. I remember thinking about the reversibility of natural events such as bushfires but not of human interventions—later to be called disturbances, anthropogenic ones. In spite of the solid evidence that grazing degraded the plant communities and altered the hydrology of alpine regions,there is still the very strong push to return alpine grazing. Perhaps the alpine ecosystems of Kosciusko are quite different from those of Victoria.

With a British Commonwealth Scholarship and then wanting to research in physiology I went to the University of Southampton, which is strong in comparative physiology. Fairy shrimps from the Mountbatten estate near Romsey became my animal and its neurosecretory system became the target of my thesis. Doctored, I then returned to Australia to the University of Tasmania to lecture in zoology, especially in invertebrate endocrinology.

Things ticked along until two developments loomed up. I was approached by Dan Lynch, then Commissioner of the Inland Fisheries Commission, to investigate the pollution of the South Esk River. Working with Peter Tyler and later Richard Norris, it became very evident that the river was badly damaged by cadmium-zinc pollution from mining operations (another version of the Molonglo mess). Again the pollution was and is large-scale, is likely to persist and is probably irreversible. So I was back into ecology, again documenting pollution ---press disturbances.  Also, at this time the struggle for Lake Pedder in south-west Tasmania erupted. As the unique nature of the threatened Lake Pedder ecosystem became evident, one automatically became a determined advocate for its conservation. The battle was hard, stressful and was lost—the lake was flooded. However, with the flooding, I with many comrades (sometimes volunteers) started to sample the littoral fauna of the new impoundment to test the developers’ view that the original Lake Pedder fauna with flooding would simply migrate up to the new littoral habitats. Thus, sites around the lake were sampled annually for 21 years from 1975 to reveal that after an initial boom, a “trophic upsurge”, the lake, as expected for a dystrophic, low-nutrient system, had a fauna of low diversity and abundance, dominated by widespread species found in reservoirs. Again as in the polluted rivers, there was an unnecessary loss fuelled by the pressures of heedless development.  As the original Lake Pedder was flooded by the new, I moved to Monash to teach and research in stream ecology, whilst a fellow defender of Lake Pedder and a notable and generous limnologist, Ian Bayly pursued his sterling career in lake ecology.

At this time (mid 70’s) in Australia in stream ecology more was known about the effects of human-induced disturbances, be they the impacts of exotic species (e.g. trout), or pollution, than the ecology of natural populations and communities. Steadily from about this time from a number of centres in universities and museums, patterns of population dynamics and genetic structure, the dynamic nature of communities and the trophic structure of fluvial ecosystems have emerged. A major emerging theme has been the dynamism of the biota in contending with the high hydrological variability of most Australian streams.

In the 70’s the perceived regulation of populations and the rather static view of community structure contributed to the concept  that communities were in some sort of equilibrium and were regulated by deterministic forces—forces that determined long-term structure and the pathways of succession. In a bizarre way, disturbance was considered to be a rather aberrant phenomenon. Increasingly, the equilibrial view has been supplanted and disturbance has become recognized as an essential dynamic force structuring natural communities. This particularly applies to stream biota where naturally the biota have to contend with natural disturbances ranging from floods to droughts. Hydrological disturbances can have very different effects dependent on the riverscape setting. Thus, in headwater streams floods can be very damaging, whereas on the floodplains of large rivers, floods are the major force of ecosystem replenishment---at least in those rivers not shackled by rigid regulation. With the development of rural Australia the necessity of floods to maintain floodplain rivers was unrealized in the haste to build dams and regulate rivers. It is only now that the severe ecological damage wrought to floodplain rivers has become a major conservation issue. Droughts vary in their impacts in different contexts—such as in perennial rather than intermittent streams. However, although Australia is a drought-prone continent, our knowledge of the impacts of drought on aquatic ecosystems and the pathways of recovery from drought remain relatively unexplored.

In recent years along with advances in disturbance ecology, restoration ecology has emerged as a new sub-discipline. As opposed to the many advances in ecology based on controlled experiments (a reductionist approach), restoration ecology wrestles with the concepts and processes of trying to re-assemble natural communities and ecological processes. Development may be rapid, but restoration is invariably slow. Thus, patience and long-term commitment are essential qualities for participating in this area. And, in these times of rampant short-termism in both research projects and funding, research in restoration ecology can be seen as an adverse career move. But with the vast array of degraded ecosystems, restoration ecology is a vital area which needs fostering. Foreseeably, in the future (near I hope), long-term planning and commitment of ecological projects will be accepted and strongly supported.

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