This week on Dispatches from the Field, we welcome Cameron Hudson, a PhD candidate in Western Australia, to fill us in on what it is like to work at a remote field station. Check out his bio and a link to his own entertaining blog at the the end of the post!
The sun sets over Fogg Dam conservation area. Despite the stillness in the photo, we’re minutes away from a frenzy of activity. Snakes, insects, crocodiles and cane toads (my study species) all spring into action, going about their nightly activities. I spend many of my evenings here, chasing toads around and swatting at mosquitoes. Located in the wetlands region of the Northern Territory, roughly a 45 minute drive south-east of Darwin, sits the research station that we lovingly call Middle Point. It has been a long standing study site for researchers from the University of Sydney, where I moved roughly a year and a half ago to start my PhD research on the cane toad (Rhinella marina) invasion of Australia.
I first learned about the cane toad introduction when I was in high school – my grade 10 science teacher Ms. Holterman showed us a documentary from the ‘80s titled: “Cane Toads: An Unnatural History.” It’s worth a watch as they outline the history and spread of a devastating invasive species while managing to interview some quirky individuals. Little did I know that ten years later I would become one of those quirky individuals, moving across the world to study the evolution of the world’s most successful amphibian invasive species. A quick summary – cane toads were introduced to many countries around the globe in order to control sugarcane pests. They arrived in Australia back in 1935, and in the eighty years following, have spread over millions of square kilometers of the Australian landscape. Since they are highly toxic, and Australia has no native toads, many of the native predators have been devastated as the toads move through new areas. Animals that try to eat the toads don’t realize that they are toxic until it is too late (particularly a problem for snakes since they swallow their prey whole). This biodiversity crisis has fostered a lot of hatred towards the toads, and produced a good deal of research funding for studying their impact, and developing control methods. It has also given us a unique opportunity to study the evolution of an invasive species as it invades an entire continent.
That’s where I come in! I met Professor Rick Shine, my PhD supervisor, when he was visiting QUBS after I had just completed my MSc. We discussed his extensive research program, dedicated to various areas of the toad invasion, and I was hooked. The project we decided on would examine phenotypic changes in cane toads across Australian populations, focusing on adaptations that promote dispersal. As the toads move across the landscape, they are doing so at a rapidly accelerating pace. Previous work on the toads had already shown differences in morphology, behaviour and physiology between toads at the invasion front and toads at the range core, so I was excited to examine these findings further. It also meant that I would get to go wherever the cane toads are, and for a Canadian who had always wanted to travel around Australia I felt pretty lucky.
As much as I love the field, life is not always easy in the top end. The field station is pretty remote, the weather is intense and the health hazards are real. From a lifestyle perspective, cell phone coverage is spotty, internet connectivity is low, and we’re surrounded by buffalo farms. Having a social life can be difficult; it’s easy to get wrapped up in my research, and it means that my relationships with friends, family, and my partner require a lot of work (and patience, from people having to put up with my dropped calls). I suppose being a Canadian in Australia means you’re in a long distance relationship with most of the people you know, so it can get a bit lonely.
From the safety side of things, my work involves a lot of long hours driving (often at night), there are venomous snakes, crocodiles, and mosquito borne diseases to watch out for. In the wet season we’re met with cyclones and flooding, in the dry season it’s droughts and wildfires. Needless to say, you have to be careful.
With all of these factors considered, I still love my job. Living in the field means I’m surrounded by wildlife, free from the clamour and noise of the city. You never know what you’ll run into. Long road trips alone, or with good friends, have given me such an appreciation for the geography and biodiversity of this country. In the short time that I’ve been here, I feel that I’ve seen so much, and yet there is still an endless number of places to explore. As damaging as the toads are, I guess I have them to thank for this experience. Not to mention helping me on my way to getting a PhD, and becoming one of those quirky individuals that I learned about in school.
Cam Hudson is a PhD student at the University of Sydney, studying evolutionary biology under Prof. Rick Shine and Dr. Greg Brown. He is a Queen’s University (BScH) and University of Gulelph (MSc) alumnus. His previous research has examined male mating strategies and hybridization in spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) with Prof. Stephen Lougheed, and sexual size dimorphism, multiple paternity and combat in the Emei moustache toad (Leptobrachium boringii) with Prof. Jinzhong Fu. He spent his childhood catching frogs and salamanders in Ontario, and hopes to continue chasing amphibians into adulthood as an evolutionary biologist. If you want to read more about his life and research in the Northern Territory, check out his blog: darwinstoad.tumblr.com