Wednesday, 28 January 2009

In the news today

Well, there are lots of things in the news today of course, but two in particular caught my eye.

First, one of my all-time favourite people I've never met, Sir David Attenborough, on receiving hate mail from religious fundamental types. Sir David Attenborough: 'I get hate mail telling me to burn in hell for not crediting God'.
Sir David also said it was "terrible, terrible" when creationism and evolution were taught in schools as equivalent, alternative perspectives.

"It's like saying that two and two equals four, but if you wish to believe it, it could also be five... Evolution is not a theory; it is a fact, every bit as much as the historical fact that William the Conqueror landed in 1066."
I'm with Sir David on this one!

Second, a bit of "well I never!" or "how cool is that!". A NSW couple got to see a red belly black snake eat a brown snake - cool enough alone you might think - but THEN the brown snake managed to escape from the belly of the red belly black by exiting head-first from its mouth. Now that is seriously cool!

Mr Barton reckons that somehow the brown snake turned itself around inside the black snake.

"When you tell these stories no-one believes you, but I have the photographs," he said.

I have seen both these snakes in the wild, but never doing anything quite so exciting. Although S did a good job of almost stepping on a brown snake on a bushwalk late last year - that was exciting for us! Here's a nice red belly black I befriended (from a safe distance) at Jervis Bay a couple of years back:

Tuesday, 27 January 2009


Specifically, motivation to go in the lab and do science. It is lacking today. Possible causative factors:

1) I am suffering post-public-holiday-itis, an extreme form of Monday-itis brought on by the long weekend. A possibility, but unlikely to be the full story? I'm not lacking motivation for other work-related tasks.

2) I am lacking motivation to move in general because my neck and shoulders are achy and I have arranged to see my physio. So the idea of repetitive pipetting is unattractive. I think there is some truth in this one.

3) I am still crabby, despite my years of professional experience and knowing not to take it too personally, that the PCR I ran on Friday has to be repeated. There is a faint but definite band in one of my negative controls. This is not the end of the world: I know that the nature of the samples I work with and the type of reactions I do make me a prime candidate for occasional contamination and I have ways to deal with this, but it still makes me grumpy. Especially when it happens on a Friday afternoon. At heart I think this is the real cause of my apathy today.

I have an hour before I have a meeting. I should go to the lab. Now. Really.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Australia Day

Today is Australia Day and so a public holiday long weekend during which I have done NO SCIENCE. I have at least spent a fair chunk of time catching up with some sciencey blogs I have neglected. I am still getting used to public holidays unaccompanied by thesis-guilt, although I am sure that unfinished-manuscript-guilt is lurking somewhere in the background waiting to surprise me as I turn a corner or open a closet.

Australia Day is always an interesting exercise in cultural observation to me as a person who grew up elsewhere. For many folk I know, the national day is devoted to stereotypically Aussie activities such as barbecues, cricket, spending time with mates, going to the beach and drinking beer. It's usually a pleasant day for me, although I'm not decided where I stand in the debate on the appropriateness of January 26th as Australia Day. Today is the anniversary of the arrival in Australia of the First Fleet of colonising Europeans and as such is considered by some as more of an Invasion Day. I have to say I can see their point...

So how did we choose to mark the occasion? Well, nothing too extravagant: a lazy breakfast, as befits a public holiday Monday, then out for lunch at the fab Ironbark Cafe which is not too far out of our way for a visit. They specialise in Australian food, including native Australian ingredients and had live music and specials for the national day. But we were a bit boring as on this occasion we both wanted a favourite: beer-battered flathead (fish) fillets with a native Aussie salad and chips. The chips come tossed in tasty Aussie bush spices...mmmm. I also have a very soft spot for the native lime soft drink, conveniently just out of frame in my photo below.

If you're ever in the area, try it, I doubt you'll have had comparable food elsewhere (but if you have please tell me where). So, it was a nice quiet day out then home for a cup of tea, a book and watching the Aussies lose to South Africa at cricket. Perhaps not the Australia Day they were hoping for...

Endangered delicacies

It wasn't perhaps the main intention when setting up this blog, but I am starting to think I will post regular updates on species in danger of extinction as a consequence of human gastronomic tastes. This decision is prompted by an article I encountered today on Biology News Net titled Frogs are being eaten to extinction, which reports on recent research from the University of Adelaide.

Sunday, 25 January 2009


Given my interest in wildlife conservation, I thought it only right to make my first sciencey post a comment on extinction, or what happens when wildlife conservation fails. One of the best-known extinct species in the popular mind is, of course, the dodo. I won't rehash the story of the dodo here, it has been covered in detail elsewhere. But as a quick summary: the first accounts of dodos came from Portuguese visitors to the then-uninhabited island of Mauritius in 1507. The Dutch colonised the island in 1638. By the end of that century the dodos were gone.

The 2008 IUCN Red List will tell you that the dodo is one of 717 known animal species to have become extinct since their records begin. Some of these extinctions are shamefully recent events, for example the extinction of the baiji dolphin only a few years ago.

Reading about human-mediated extinctions reminds me why I do the work I do. Perhaps it is a futile hope in the society we live in, but I hope that something I do might one day make a difference to some species on the edge. I study Australian wildlife, haunted by the ghosts of the thylacine and the 26 other Australian mammals driven to extinction since 1788 (not to mention the birds, frogs, insects, plants...). As I travel the country I can only feel the gaps left by creatures such as the toolache wallaby, the desert rat-kangaroo or the remarkable gastric-brooding frog. I've seen Tasmanian devils in the wild and I confess the first time it brought a tear to my eye. On my next trip to Tassie I fear I won't see them as easily and if I do it will be bittersweet: since I arrived in Aus nearly ten years ago they have been ravaged by devil facial tumour disease.

Teaching these topics to first year undergrads saddens me. I think some wonder why we even bother. In the face of the weight of history is it futile to hope that there is a place for conservation in this world? I hope so.

The First Post

I'm new to this. I've been a blog reader before, but not a blog writer. I'm not sure why today was the day to become the proud author of a shiny new blog, but let's see where we end up...

Perhaps an introduction is the place to start. I grew up in England but now I live in Australia with a lovely bloke I will refer to here as S. We have no kids or pets, unless you count the lizards in the garden or the spider that lives in the corner of the kitchen window. I am an academic type. Almost a year ago I submitted my PhD thesis (research themes genetics, wildlife, ecology) and after examination, revisions and administration I finally graduated at the end of 2008, so you can now call me Doctor. Whilst finalising my thesis I vowed that once it was all done I would strive to live a more rounded life and do something more creative: perhaps this blog is the result?

Now I'm working as a postdoc, fully in research at the moment, although I've done some teaching in the past. I might write about some of what I do at work, I'm not sure, but expect to get snippets of my adventures, science and other stuff that I find interesting and an idea of the more mundane side of my daily life in this beautiful hot dry corner of the world.