Ecology Takes on the Human Touch

By Sarre, Alastair | Ecos, July-September 1999 | Go to article overview

Ecology Takes on the Human Touch


Sarre, Alastair, Ecos


CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology turned 50 this year amid debate about funding directions that favour applied research. While some fear the loss of `pure science', others say that people belong to system, and understanding and influencing their role is part of the challenge of ecological research.

Wildlife ecologist Rob Lambeck spends a fair bit of his time staring through binoculars. He's looking for birds -- quite rare birds, these days -- in the remnant bushland of Western Australia's wheatbelt.

But it's not the only reason he needs good vision. He's one of a new generation of scientists at CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology, which, like the wildlife, has been undergoing testing times of late. There has been a change in the forest of its personnel: the old growth, nurtured in the post war years and highly productive for several decades, is beginning to make way for new stock, new scientists, who vie for the canopy openings.

The process has been -- still is -- traumatic, compounded by some dramatic changes in the wider environment. Indeed, the mere survival of the division in the rough-and-tumble world of funding cuts and policy shifts is surely a tribute to the quality of its science and its personnel. This year, the division is celebrating its 50th birthday. It's a time of reassessment: where has the division come from, and where is it going?

For Lambeck and his colleagues, both young and old, new visions are beginning to emerge. And they concern the future not only of the division, but of the nation as well.

The evolving animal

Like many things biological, the division started off small. Francis Ratcliffe, a scientist with a great love of Australian wildlife, was asked to establish a CSIRO Wildlife Survey Section in 1949. But native species received scant regard in those days: the primary purpose of the new section was to find better methods of dealing with the arch enemy of Australian farmers: the rabbit.

And success came much sooner than expected. Since the 1930s, the myxoma virus had been proposed as a biological control agent, but it had proven ineffective in trials. Ratcliffe and his fledgling Wildlife Survey Section set out to conduct one last, conclusive test, releasing the virus on properties along the Murray River.

For a while, nothing happened. Then, in late 1950, reports started coming in of a massive rabbit die-off along the Murray, Murrumbidgee, Lachlan and Darling rivers. Ratcliffe dubbed it `a spectacular epidemic which for scale and spread must be almost without parallel in the history of infections'. Myxomatosis had arrived -- and so too had wildlife research.

According to Hugh Tyndale-Biscoe, who was starting his career in science at this time, the success of the myxoma virus did two things for Ratcliffe and his team. `It brought a lot more money into the Survey Section, and raised its profile enormously,' he says.

Research into rabbit control continued -- the myxoma virus didn't solve the problem completely -- but the section was able to begin studies on native fauna. In the early days, the emphasis remained on `pests'. The emu, the red kangaroo, the black cockatoo, the magpie goose and the dingo were all the subject of studies because of their perceived economic impacts on grazing and agriculture. But gradually, the emphasis shifted towards studying the native fauna for its own sake.

This shift was magnified with the appointment in 1961 of a new officer-in-charge, Harry Frith.

`Conservation was beginning to grow as an element of concern in Australia,' Tyndale-Biscoe says. `Harry Frith was a very good advocate of the need for research on the native animals -- birds and mammals particularly -- and he encouraged the study of the native fauna.'

Frith himself conducted pioneering studies on mallee fowl, ducks, zebra finches and native pigeons and doves and was one of the first proponents of a national park at Kakadu. …

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