Ep 40. Twitchers, miners and presidential decorum with Paul McDonald

Australia’s iconic birdlife can be a divisive issue. Whilst some species are welcomed into backyards and gardens, others are derided as pests and invaders. Paul McDonald studies the behaviour of one particularly divisive species, the Noisy Miner. Whilst many people may regard them as urban pests, Paul says that beneath their screeching facade they exhibit complex social behaviour, comparable even to primates.

Paul McDonald is a behavioural ecologist from the University of New England who specialises in understanding the social behaviour of birds. He is also currently the president of the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour and in an interview with In Situ Science insists that James refers to him as Mr President. We also chat about the ins and outs of being part of an academic society, as well as the difference between twitchers and normal people.

Learn more about Paul’s research at his lab’s website

Music: ‘Strange Stuff’ by Sonic Wallpaper – www.sonicwallpaper.bandcamp.com

Feature Image: Mdk572 – Wikimedia Commons


Ep 39. Dingo fences, desert spice and writings in the sand with Charlotte Mills


The loss of mammals in Australia is having huge impacts on natural ecosystems. So big in fact that they are visible from space. Charlotte Mills is a PhD candidate from the University of New South Wales studying the role mammals play in the functioning of desert ecosystems. In an interview with In Situ Science she describes how disrupting the important roles mammals play as predators can have enormous flow on effects that drastically change vegetation patterns.

Charlotte describes her time as a PhD candidate as a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ experience. This experience has taken her across the magical desert landscapes of inland Australia and continues to be an exciting adventure.

Follow Charlotte on Twitter @EcologistMills

Music: ‘Strange Stuff’ by Sonic Wallpaper – www.sonicwallpaper.bandcamp.com

Feature Image: Charlotte Mills in the field. Photo by Aly Ross

Ep 38. Mr Do Bee, Katydids and Superstars of STEM with Kate Umbers

Stop murdering invertebrates. OK? Good.

Dr Kate Umbers is an animal behaviour expert from Western Sydney University who is fighting to make sure that invertebrates are recognised as the wonderful creatures they are. In an interview with In Situ Science she says that perhaps the arts are the best way of teaching people about the majesty of the other 99% of the animal kingdom. By forming meaningful relationships between people and invertebrates, we can start appreciating them as things other than the creepy, crawly stereotypes they have been given.

Kate along with 29 other women across Australia is a ‘Superstar of STEM’, recognised by Science and Technology Australia for their contribution to science. These superstars are acting as role models to increase the representation of women in science. We talk about her experiences with the Superstars of STEM initiative as well as her breakthrough role on Romper Room as a child.

Follow Kate on Twitter @kateumbers and find out more about her research at www.kateumbers.com

Find out more about the Superstars of STEM scienceandtechnologyaustralia.org.au at or check out #SUPERSTARSOFSTEM

Music: ‘Strange Stuff’ by Sonic Wallpaper – www.sonicwallpaper.bandcamp.com

Bee-mimicking moth rediscovered after 130 years

A rare species of clearwing moth, that appears to mimic a bee, has been rediscovered in the rainforests of Malaysia after being ‘lost’ for 130 years. Scientists have recorded footage of the metallic blue moths (Heterosphecia tawonoides) flying around the banks of rocky streams as described in an article published in Tropical Conservation Science. ‘When I first saw the clearwing in the Malaysian rainforest, I was absolutely amazed. It was beautifully coloured: shiny blue in sunlight… I couldn’t think of any specimen from literature or museums which had that kind of colouration,’ said the lead scientist Marta Skowron Volponi.

The clearwing moth Heterosphecia tawonoides hasn’t been seen alive since 1887 – Footage by Marta Skowron Volponi and Paolo Volponi


Heterosphecia tawonoides was originally discovered in Indonesia in 1887. The specimen was deposited in the Natural History Museum in Vienna and, as far as we know, it hasn’t been seen alive since. After finding unique iridescent blue moths in the Malaysian rainforest, scientists compared them to museum specimens and discovered that they had rediscovered the elusive Heterosphecia tawonoides. ‘In total, during several years of studies, we only observed 12 individuals of this species,’ says Skowron Volponi.

Filming these clearwing moths for the first time has revealed some remarkable aspects of their biology that were previously unknown. Their narrow transparent wings, combined with tufts of white hair-like scales and blue iridescent scales across their body, means that at close glance they look more like a bee than a moth. The dull buzzing sound of their wing beats only adds to the illusion. ‘I usually also have to wait until the clearwing moth lands to be sure it’s not a bee! In flight, they are perfect mimics,’ says Skowron Volponi.



The moth Heterosphecia tawnoides looks remarkably like a bee. Photo by Marta Skowron Volponi

The clearwing moths of the family Sesiidae, to which Heterosphecia tawonoides belongs, are famous for their deceptive appearances. Another newly described clearwing moth Pyrophleps ellawi, also from Malaysia, looks remarkably like a wasp. Having thin wings, long slender bodies and black and orange colouration, it would likely take a skilled entomologist to correctly identify these insects as actually being moths.

Resembling bees and wasps is a common strategy for protection. Many insects, including flies, beetles and moths, are known to sport bright yellow bands and make buzzing sounds as they fly. Despite being harmless insects predators often cautiously avoid these tricksters on the chance that they are packing a dangerous sting.

Pyrophleps ellawi
The moth Pyrophleps ellawi is also a newly discovered species from Peninsular Malaysia. Photo by Marta Skowron Volponi

The scientists also observed a curious behaviour called ‘mud-puddling’ where the moths would land near moist patches of ground near the edge of streams and use their long mouthparts to ’lick’ water from the surface of rocks and soil. In other moth species their long mouthparts, or proboscises, are used to drink fluids such as nectar. However in many species of tropical butterflies and moths the proboscis is used in ‘mud-puddling’ to ingest important minerals and nutrients dissolved in groundwater.

The native habitat of Heterosphecia tawnoides is deep in the rainforest, very little is known about the animals and plants that live there. ‘I reached the area… by boat and on foot, carrying all our camping and filming equipment… everything we needed to survive in the jungle on our backs,’ says Skowron Volponi. These early observations open up new possibilities for research that will uncover more about the behaviour and ecology of this resurrected species.

Whilst encountering a species presumed to be extinct is an exciting discovery, it highlights the vulnerability of these rare animals to extinction. Scientists believe that clearwing moths may be especially vulnerable to climate change and deforestation. This is especially worrying given that Malaysia has some of the highest deforestation rates in the world.

The rediscovered species is just an example of an animal associated with unique habitats within primeval rainforests. Most probably, it won’t be able to survive in human-modified habitats and will vanish along with many other species if the jungle disappears,’ says Skowron Volponi. With ongoing destruction of South East Asian rainforests it appears we may be losing species faster than scientists are able to discover them.


IMG_8491Article by James O’Hanlon

James is a research scientist and science communicator currently based at the University of New England, Armidale. He hosts the In Situ Science podcast and is sick of hearing people say bad things about spiders.

Ep 37. Career changes, science buses and Buster the Skink with Siobhan Dennison

Being a research scientist means surviving in a higly competitive professional environment. Transitioning out of this environment into other career pathways can be a challenging, rewarding and life changing experience. Siobhan Dennison started her career as a conservation genetecist, studying the ecology of skinks in inland Australia. She has now made the decision to move into science education and use her skills in science communcation to share her passion for science with school kids.

In a candid interview with In Situ Science we chat about Siobhan’s transition from academia to education and her new job in regional science outreach. We’re also interrupted by a large dog with a squeaky toy…

You can follow Siobhan on Twitter @Sib_D or find out more about UNE Discovery on their website.

Find out more at www.insituscience.com

Follow us on twitter @insituscience

Follow us on Instagram  http://instagram.com/insituscience 

Like us on Facebook

Music: ‘Strange Stuff’ by Sonic Wallpaper – www.sonicwallpaper.bandcamp.com

Ep 35. Microbats, bushfires and learning Norwegian with Clare Stawski


In the face of rapid environmental change scientists are racing to study how animals might be affected by change, or how they can adapt to deal with change. Recent discoveries have shown that changes in temperature are only one consideration and other aspects, such as changes in the frequency of bushfires can have a large impact on animal life histories. Small mammals can use fires as a cue to begin torpor or hibernation, how they will respond to increased fires in Australia is of an immense conservation concern.

Dr Clare Stawski is a mammalogist and ecologist who has been working at the University of New England but is now about to begin a new position at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway. In an interview with In Situ Science she chats with us about what this big move means for her career and personal life.

You can follow Clare on Twitter @ClareStawski

Music: ‘Strange Stuff’ by Sonic Wallpaper – www.sonicwallpaper.bandcamp.com

Feature Image: Yellow-Footed Antechinus by Jacopo Werther/Wikicommons