By Jack Bilby

Hi, I’m Jack Bilby and I am the newest member of the Arid Recovery team. I came here with the intention of researching the best ways to lessen the negative impact of drought on our native plants and reintroduced mammals. That goal definitely becomes more difficult when you get a once-in-a-decade rainfall event within a fortnight of arriving!

The green backdrop was not what I was expecting

When I was asked to write this blog, I was left scratching my head. On one hand, I was asked to write about how I got here which is difficult when I am still so early in my career. Secondly, I was asked to write about my research up here so far. How do you write a blog about having to change everything that you were planning and scrambling to do a 180? But I realised quickly, that’s the nature of scientific research. Every project I have ever been a part of changed dramatically from formulation to finishing. Change is part of the process.

I’ll start with a little bit about how I got here. I grew up in the English countryside and like many people in this field; I’ve always had a love and passion for animals. I was chasing crayfish and newts in the local creek as soon as I could walk, catching insects and spiders and trying to identify them in my little field guide, and trying (unsuccessfully) to spot the small population of local otters at the nearby national park.

Teenage me holding a penguin

Little me holding an owl

I was also absolutely addicted to watching the Crocodile Hunter, which introduced me to all the stereotypes of Australian life. When I moved over here to Adelaide, I was 12 years old and incredibly disappointed that there were not kangaroos in the city and crocodiles in the pond. My attitude was very quickly changed when I was on my way to the first day of Aussie school and spotted a flock of bright pink parrots on the school oval! Australians will never realise just how incredible it is to see galahs for the first time.

When I finished high school, I wasn’t too sure what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to do wildlife research but specifics were beyond me at that point. I enrolled in a Bachelor of Science in Animal Behaviour at Flinders University and got to work. Quick tip for anybody looking to get into the conservation field: volunteer at every opportunity given. Through volunteering during my degree, I was able to get involved in South Australian research with little penguins, superb-fairy wrens, and pygmy bluetongue lizards, among other species. I was also fortunate enough to go to South Africa and research the impacts of megafauna grazing on vegetation diversity and abundance. In short, volunteer, volunteer, and volunteer.

Assisting with bird banding in Africa

After finishing up my undergrad, I was torn on where to go next. I wanted to work in the field, hopefully with reintroductions (a premise I had fallen in love with after a few assignments on the topic in my final year), and focusing on some sort of vulnerable species. I was able to tick all of my boxes when Arid Recovery started advertising for a PhD student. I reached out to principle scientist Katherine Moseby asking if she had any Honours projects and I was fortunate enough that she did. Not at Arid Recovery, but in the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park, working with the reintroduced western quolls. I spent 5 months over the summer in 2020/21 trapping, collaring, and tracking juvenile western quolls to figure out where they were dispersing, what habitats they were using, and if they were being predated upon by feral cats. This experience gave me a pipeline to develop key skills in radiotracking, animal handling, off-road driving, statistical analysis, GIS, data write-up, remote living, and more.

I was close to submitting my Honours thesis when Arid Recovery began to advertise the role of a climate change researcher. The role sounded perfect; radiotracking reintroduced species, vegetation monitoring, and invertebrate sampling for the purpose of figuring out if supplementing water directly to plants is advantageous to the native vegetation and the reintroduced species that feed on them. I was lucky enough to get through to the interview stage and consider myself incredibly fortunate to be chosen to join the team at Arid Recovery. I worked for my first couple of weeks on getting a really well-developed research plan, setting up my control sites for vegetation surveys, collaring some bettongs to assess their movements, and doing some early veg surveys.

And then, just as I was getting some momentum, the heavens opened and the rains began! 112mm of rain in a single week: enough to completely drench ‘Arid’ Recovery and completely change the vegetation on the reserve. It became clear very quickly that water supplementation would not be a viable topic of research and a pivot was necessary. Rather than looking exclusively at what might happen and what we can do during the next drought, the focus is now on how things have changed and recovered since the last drought. What is the post-drought composition of the soil seed set? How has the vegetation changed year after year through drought and herbivore intensity? Can we assess bettong grazing impact through satellite imagery? While much of this research diverts from the original research plan, some aspects of the original still remain. For example, questions surrounding the thermoregulatory and hydroregulatory behaviour of the reintroduced stick-nest rat are still testable following the downpour.

One thing I am incredibly grateful for is that I arrived at Arid Recovery before the rain began. The transformation that the country has gone through has been absolutely incredible to see. Since I’ve arrived, lakes have formed, dams have filled, burrowing frogs have risen and disappeared again, puddles have been filled with shield shrimp and tadpoles, and annual vegetation growth has covered the dunes and swales. I am very early in my research at Arid Recovery and I am fully expecting for it to change several more times before my time here is complete. The key to scientific research (particularly in environmental science) is to be able to roll with the punches and quickly adapt to changes as they come.

If I can give any upcoming ecologists advice that I have learnt so far, it would be to network yourself (don’t be afraid to reach out to somebody if you are passionate about an opportunity, worst case scenario is that you remain in the same spot you are), build your academic knowledge in your field of choice (read papers and form evidence-based opinions), and build up your practical knowledge in the field (offroad driving, first aid, radiotracking, animal handling, etc). If you can show your passion, you become memorable and it becomes easier to obtain references for future positions. I am incredibly fortunate to be where I am today, and still have to pinch myself sometimes to realise how lucky I have been so far in my career. I think 10-year old Jack, walking up the creek looking for newts, would be very proud of how far I’ve come in such a short time.