The Resilient Postdoc: Keep the exit rows clear at all times.

If you are seated in an emergency exit row you may be called upon to assist crew members in the unlikely event of an emergency evacuation.

Those who contemplate disaster may enjoy the extra leg room. Thankfully, the probability of any given academic career stalling and rapidly losing altitude is orders of magnitude higher than it happening on your average flight, but my conceit is simply to make the point that preparing for emergency leads to a more comfortable ride. The same can be said for bunker-dwelling, tin-can stockpiling Doomsday Preppers, who are easy to make fun of, except that their backs must be stiffened by a dose of confidence inspired by addressing their perceived existential threat.

In this uncertain and hyper-competitive job market with falling availability of research-focused academic positions, if a postdoc is not preparing to walk away every two or three years they’re a star-performing outlier, or blissfully unaware. It is shocking therefore how often I have encountered postdoc research scientists who simply have never thought about how to get a job outside of their narrow research domain. This should start in their PhD years. In fact, in light of the harsh jobs climate in research, it is unethical for a supervisor or university department to be ignoring the pressure for postgrad students to develop career capital that can serve them and the community outside the narrow field of academic research.

At the end of my first postdoc in 2015, I was beset by anxiety blooming from the combination of scarce opportunities and academic job rejections. I needed to look beyond academia and it took me months to refine strategies to identify jobs that I might be capable of getting an interview for. Eventually I got an interview for a government department, which turned into a job offer. It sounded like an ok job, I didn’t end up taking it, but the fact that I had been offered a decently paying position after successfully marketing my unique set of skills was strong salve to my career anxiety. It gave me some confidence that I could walk away when I needed to.

The chart below shows every ongoing role I’ve applied for since completing my PhD in 2013. As you can see, I have applied for 15 ongoing university academic roles in the past six years and received exactly one interview. Contrast this to the ongoing non-academic government jobs I’ve applied for (five), where I’ve attracted two job offers—a substantially higher strike rate! My research is not easily and directly tied to government priorities, so I’d argue that my single case study supports the assertion that the world outside the ivory pressure cooker is wide and full of opportunities.

sankeymatic_1200x1200

I have applied for 24 ongoing jobs since 2013. My two job offers have come from non-academic government roles, for which I have only made five applications. (Scroll below article to see the same visualisation for fixed-term applications)

In light of my experience, this post is for academics who want some pragmatic advice on accessing the diversity of alternative careers.

– Learn to job hunt. You might not have ever used non-academic modes for job-hunting, you might be baffled as to what keywords will find you relevant positions, and one of the big uncertainties is often not knowing what’s available to you. So take the time to learn how to drive the commercial job advertisement search engines, as well as the relevant government and industry outlets. From the Australian point of view, this means Seek.com.au, federal, state, and local government job sites. Spend time using all the keywords you can think of, learn which ones are productive, then set auto-alerts for these (e.g., keyword “plant” was useful to me). Doing this, you will probably learn about interesting jobs you never knew existed.

Screenshot 2019-12-18 10.07.09

Actually there are no jobs in “speciation”. Four employers misspelled “specification”.

– Scan for jobs early and often. Start looking early. Earlier than you think is necessary. Repeat your jobs search regularly, at least once a fortnight. Make it a part of your weekly routine, or spend time doing this instead of wasting time online on a demotivated Friday afternoon. It’s really not arduous. This ongoing jobs market research will a) arm you with information about the reality of the jobs market before you need it, and b) identify opportunities that might sound attractive now, perhaps even worth leaving a postdoc for. Don’t miss out on a promising alternative career opportunity because you weren’t paying attention.

– Learn to apply for non-academic jobs.This is a big one, and something you want to practice well before your first “must-get” job. Other industries have their peculiar CV or resume formats, and virtually no industry has CV conventions like academia. Learn to craft a CV targeted to the job/industry. For example, consider adding a “skills and expertise” section highlighting your strengths and transferrable skills. While you might need to completely overhaul your academic CV, that doesn’t mean you have to avoid mentioning all your papers or teaching. Just re-phrase and perhaps contract the detail. For example, I reduced my teaching experience to eight lines on a recent CV because it offers evidence of important skills, but the detail of subjects taught and years of experience don’t matter outside tertiary teaching. Learning to apply for non-academic jobs is learning to market your skills to a non academic audience. A PhD and postdoc in science equips you with a diversity of useful skills, but you have to translate them into the keywords that employers want to hear. Examples of skills most STEM academics can speak to include:

    
Communication Analytical Management: projects & people Technical
Writing complex and technical subject matter for specialists

Communicating complex and technical concepts to non-specialists

Professional oral presentation and seminars

Grant writing

Tertiary teaching to a diverse student population
Research and synthesis of specialist and technical information

Critical thinking

Higher order logic and reasoning

Executing sound professional judgment from expert knowledge

Conducting and interpreting statistical analysis

Experimental design

Rigorous attention to detail

An ability to quickly assimilate new and often complex information

Managing complex and competing priorities

Supervision and mentorship

Communicating with influence, in writing or in person

Working effectively in teams, building and maintaining collaborations

Working independently with minimal supervision, demonstrating initiative

Careful and effective stakeholder engagement

Programming skills

Laboratory skills

Field skills

Data visualization

GIS

– Practise applying. Even if you don’t think you’ll take the job, apply anyway. If you’re offered an interview, you might find out information that changes your mind on accepting the job. If you’re offered a job, whether or not you accept, I guarantee this will make you feel better about possible future academic extinction.

– Arm yourself with skills for your desired job. See a job you like, but can’t fulfil the selection criteria? Great. Now you know what you need. Find the time during your postdoc to develop some of these skills. Craft yourself as a candidate for the job you want, ideally by building skills that you can apply to your research now. The counter to this is: Avoid sinking time into skills that are not marketable outside academia. This is a tough line to walk, because some skills that might serve you in research are a hard sell on the outside. For example, learning to master that peculiar and poorly-written R package for detecting hybrids in polyploid organisms, or the latest technique for extracting DNA from sub-fossil sea-urchins might be useful for your research program now, but long-term useless. Can you get a collaborator on that, and instead spend time learning general stats and programming skills to analyse and visualise the results?

– Network, and learn from others. Don’t just sit on the internet reading quit-lit. Tee-up coffee meetings with other scientists who have made the jump. Ask them the obvious and practical questions you think sound dumb. Meet for coffee with people you don’t know who work in the jobs markets you want to explore. Find out: where are the jobs?, how are people getting them?, what are the attractive things about the job you might be overlooking?, what are the negative things you might be overlooking? Networks pay off in unforeseen ways. A 30 minute coffee meeting with someone new is never a wasted 30 minutes.

– Share job information, help each other! Whether or not it’s an academic job, keep your close colleagues and collaborators in the loop. While an isolated job ad can be zero-sum, you operate in an environment of repeated opportunities that is certainly not zero-sum. If you’re applying for a lectureship, don’t let it pass by your postdoc colleagues, share the job ad (but only to the nice, supportive, friendly ones). If you don’t get the position, you’d prefer they got it than a stranger, right? If you see an attractive non-academic job that’s not for you, pass it on to that postdoc colleague who seems like a good fit, even if they are not looking for jobs. A small network of colleagues helping one another catch the opportunities that fall through individual nets.

Overall, the most important and productive thing is to prepare yourself for an exit before you need it, even if you never need it. Taking concrete and practical steps towards building a safety net will give you confidence working under uncertainty. Even if you stay in academia your whole life, never having to break the emergency glass, planning for the event will be invaluable experience to pass on to your future students.

sankeymatic_1200x1200(4)

All 16 fixed-term roles and fellowships I have applied for since 2013.

 

Project update: Contrasting bird and insect pollination through use of novel camera and genetic technologies.

I recently put together some material on my work for the University of Melbourne open day. As a teaser for the papers in current preparation, here’s an abstract and some visuals on the project.

While we simply do not know what pollinates many of Australia’s plants, there is good evidence emerging showing Australia to be a global hotspot for bird-pollination. This raises questions about what ecological and evolutionary factors might encourage plant lineages to adapt to use birds as couriers for their pollen. As well, we might ask what the outcomes are when a plant species ties its reproductive fortunes to a bird, rather than an insect.

My project employs custom cameras designed for motion-capture data capture of insect visitors to flowers, in order to demonstrate contrasting bird versus insect visitation in pairs of closely related native shrubs. Fine-scale population genetic analysis in these plants is revealing evidence for systemic differences in the movement of pollen under these different pollinator regimes.

IMG1 Stomarrhena

Styphelia stomarrhena is pollinated exclusively by birds.

The video below shows bird visitation by a number of honeyeater species, as well as the way in which floral morphology excludes bee pollinators from accessing pollen or nectar in Styphelia stomarrhena.

IMG2 Xerophyllum

Styphelia xerophylla is the sister species to S. stomarrhena and has evolved a tight relationship with a single species of native bee: Leioproctus macmillanii.

 

The videos below show motion-captured footage of the native pollinator of Styphelia xerophyllum, a female native bee (Leioproctus macmillani).

However the flowers are also visited by introduced honeybees (Apis mellifera).

 

A quick note on plant names: These species recently underwent taxonomic revision, moving them from genus Astroloma to Styphelia. It is rather new, hence the confusion over these shrubs apparently having two names.

The Resilient Postdoc: How to be ok with uncertainty.

Building resilience in the face of career anxiety…
One of my favourite plants.

In arid Southern Africa there exists a most fantastic species of cucumber. Like other cucumbers, its fleshy fruits are refreshingly high in water. Unlike just about any other flowering plant, these fruits develop beneath the ground, concealed and entombed by soil and sand. This bizarre trait gives the cucumber its scientific name: Cucumis humifructus, humi- referring to soil, fructus referring to fruit. To understand this deviant fruit, you must know who or what is responsible for fulfilling the purpose of this, or indeed any fruit: to promote the spread of its seeds. The only creature capable of finding and eating the fruit of Cucumis humifructus is one of our most fanciful and enigmatic mammals: the Aardvark. And this gives the plant its common name: the “Aardvark Cucumber“. In the context of seed dispersal, Cucumis humifructus is an extreme ecological specialist, having evolved to employ just a single species to eat its fruit and distribute its seed. The Aardvark itself is also an ecological specialist, its diet is composed exclusively of ants, plus the occasional Aardvark cucumber.

One of my favourite animals.

The Queensland Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri) is one of only a handful of extant lobe-finned fishes, having existed largely unchanged for over 100 million years—a time when the Cretaceous Empire of the Dinosaurs was at its ferocious zenith. The fish is remarkable for having the ability to breathe air via a rudimentary lung, which when combined with its fleshy limb-lobes, gives it the power to locomote and survive for days out of water. It is also the only fish with a soul (Figure 1). The age of first breeding for a lungfish female is 22 years. Read that again. 22 years! Lungfish development and reproduction is a longer and more drawn-out affair than our own spawning. You see, the lungfish is what ecologists would class as a K-selected organism, she grows slow, reproduces slow, and invests heavily in a few offspring. A temperate and upstanding lungfish will lay a few hundred eggs over her lifetime, while for contrast, the profligate and rapacious common carp can spawn 300,000 in a single season.

tetrapodsouls

Figure 1: Cladogram for the vertebrates placing the evolutionary origin of the soul approximate to the divergence of the Actinopterygii.

The maladapted postdoc

So here I’ve described the extremities of two separate axes in ecological strategy. The generalist-specialist axis describes the narrowness with which certain organisms have adapted to specific niches in their environment. A generalist can tolerate a wide range of environmental variables, while specialists (Aardvark cucumbers) are exquisitely adapted to maximising the narrow case. The r- and K- selected life histories describe how organisms reproduce and grow, from boom-bust generations and mass dissemination of cheap offspring, to the heavy investment and delayed pay-off of fewer offspring, with better odds of survival for each one.

Academic science incentivizes production of K-selected specialists. Specialists are encouraged, and rewarded, because one has to specialise to not only reach the horizon of knowledge for a subject, but also to contribute to moving it back a meaningful amount. And academic scientists are K-selected. The gestation and development of a scientist is slow and long (4 years undergraduate and 3 years PhD at minimum), and the best outputs of academics take years to produce. It routinely takes years to get an original study from idea, to funded, to conducted, to published. It can routinely take a year to merely progress a paper from first submission to publication!

The problem with being a K-selected specialist however, is that they do very poorly in unpredictable and variable environments. The early career trajectory in research science is both highly unpredictable, and highly variable. With the scarcity of jobs, fixed term contracts lasting a maximum of three years and most frequently shorter, and low funding rates in grant schemes exacerbated for the young, those navigating this foggy career path frequently find themselves dealing with the anxiety of not knowing where or who they will be working with in the coming months. Add to that most support for ECRs drops off after five years, and its a direly unpredictable environment for a K-selected specialist to find itself in.
There are plenty of other careers that are similarly “contract-to-contract”. Freelancers, some Government roles, creatives, consultants, and so on. Compared to those careers though, academic success depends on the outcomes of projects borne of very long gestation periods (K- selected outputs). For a researcher, it can feel pointless developing new ideas, growing new collaborations, and applying for research funding if the funding outcomes are not known for nine months, and the money won’t be available for another six months—a future point for which they cannot forecast their own employment status. Therefore, many researchers must prepare to walk away every couple of years, a cycle that corrodes career momentum and mental health.

Learning to be ok with uncertainty

At the end of my first postdoc, I had a crisis. The end was steaming up and I had nothing to go to. While it’s a common feature of academic careers, no one knows how they will handle it until they get there. For many, it’s tough. The anxiety of the unknown can run riot through your life, dominating thoughts, detracting from focus at work, interrupting sleep, and sapping motivation—a cloud of noxious gas growing in saturation as the contract end date approaches.

I wasn’t totally surprised that it was hard to nail down another job straight away. What really caught me by surprise was how I responded to the uncertainty. Since I was a kid I had wanted to be a scientist, and now confronting the long-held idea that I may not be a professional biologist challenged a deeply held and largely unexamined part of my identity.

I was able to jump that chasm in 2015, and I’m on my third contract since that time. But I’m glad I went through that, because it forced me to face uncertainty, reflect, and adapt. I have learned to be ok with uncertainty, and today look at the possible future extinction of my research science career with much less emotion than I did four years ago. Not to say I don’t occasionally have bad days, but the days of amity now outweigh the days of anxiety.

8258581220_a906d53112_o

The resilient postdoc

In case the time I have invested in wrestling this might return some interest for postgrad students and postdocs with the same worries, here’s some unsolicited advice on building resilience in the face of postdoc career anxiety.

Where are the exits? The most important and productive thing to do is prepare yourself for an exit before you need it. I have a whole post on this in the works. So for now, lie down on this couch and lets talk about our feelings.

Is your job your identity? This is both an asset and a liability. Academic careers reward those who let career conform the shape of their lives. Surrender to it and your platter of opportunities broadens. But hitching your identity to a job also makes you vulnerable when things aren’t working out at work. Finding meaning outside of work is a healthy strategy for taking pressure off career as a means to fulfillment. Think of it like an investment portfolio, spreading risk and associated reward. If your relationships, family, pets, hobbies, community work etc are thriving and fulfilling, you’ll be buffered against career anxiety.

Another sensible strategy is re-framing your identity around skills, rather than a role. The talents and skills you hone are more a part of you than the job title, however society more often places prestige on the title, not the skills.

Thinking about what else you could or should be doing is totally normal. Everyone is doing it, all the time. Most postdocs I talk to, many lecturers, most people in most jobs. I don’t know if this cognitive bias has a name, but it probably should. There’s no harm in occasionally fantasizing about the vineyard/cafe/photography/alpaca business you could go and open, but you’re probably falling victim to the focusing effect (see below).

Exiting academia won’t be your last move. There’s only so much momentum a publication record gives you to exit, re-enter and remain competitive. This increases the stakes on the decision to leave or not. However your first move out of academia need not be immune to revision. Release yourself from the pressure of finding the perfect job straight out of research. Trying new things is the only way to settle on what works for you, and in many ways researchers have been conditioned to avoid swapping and changing, because singular focus and narrow expertise is rewarded in academia.

Beware the grass-is-greener. Focusing on contract impermanence might lead you to think that other jobs with ongoing status are more desirable than they really are. This is the focusing effect, where we compare complex things along only one or two axes of variation. Plenty of people with ongoing jobs are unhappy and think your job looks marvelous because…

There are perks to this job. In science and academia we have the opportunity, at times, to make work a pleasure. Take advantage of that. If you’re not going to get to do this job forever, focus on the good things, don’t make it shit for yourself. Enjoy the moment.

The abyss is exciting. The end of a contract and unemployment can be seen as a career existential oubliette, or an exciting opportunity forcing your hand into taking a risk and trying some new things. Framing is powerful. Deliberately try to look at the same event from different angles.

8257513861_e330441dd6_o

Talking to colleagues can get tough. Don’t whinge, but never avoid communicating the facts. If you let your anxiety too often cloud your interactions with co-workers, you will find no one wants to get stuck in a conversation with you. When you need to talk, find the colleagues/mentors who you trust and can speak to in confidence, vent to family/friends, or speak to a counselor.

Stop looking sideways. People are going to get the jobs you want and missed out on. People are holding jobs you could probably do better than them. Dwelling on the number of people with your equivalent expertise who have found an ongoing role is demoralizing and unhelpful. It is also classic survivorship bias. It is easy to count the number of jobs that get filled by someone other than you, but much harder to count the number of failed job applications alongside yours.

If you’re feeling down, get off Twitter. Academics on Twitter are commonly whining or flexing, neither of which will make you feel better.

You won’t starve, life goes on. You’re a highly trained, intelligent individual with skills to offer. I cannot speak for all economies, but in Australia there are jobs everywhere for people like you. It’s also the case that for most of us, we return to baseline fairly quickly and adapt to what’s in front of us. The very worst outcome of a career change is highly unlikely to live up to the weight of anxiety the transition can create.

Densey Clyne 1922 – 2019

I must have been around six or seven years old, but I vividly remember being captivated by Densey’s work on late 80’s Burke’s Backyard. Her subjects were mostly invertebrates, the natural history of which she brought to life with superb macro and timelapse filmography. (For classic Densey and awesome 80’s music check out this vid about cicadas). It might not even be too far-fetched to draw a direct line from Densey’s work—  some of my earliest recollections of a natural history fascination—to my life and work now, preoccupied with the flowers and insects she revealed to me so long ago.

Clyne’s clips of flowers blooming in timelapse made a particular impression on me. In a moment of frustration with a bored and annoying child, I remember Mum sending me into the backyard to wait for a flower to bloom. Soaked in the false impressions of timelapse filmography, I stood staring at a Callistemon for what felt an age before finally conceding defeat and coming back indoors.

In the last couple of years I had the desire and embryonic plan to go and visit her, knowing she was getting on, wanting to meet her and tell her the impression she made on me, and perhaps write up an interview to share her experience and wisdom with others. But I never got around to prioritising it, and now that opportunity is gone.

From the tiniest, dankest little crevices in the bottom of my heart; thanks Densey.

(For more information about her life and achievements, the Port Macquarie news have a nice write-up)

r0_2_977_551_w1200_h678_fmax

Photos from the field: The Great Western Woodlands.

The Great Western Woodlands (GWW) form the largest tracts of temperate woodlands left on Earth. They hold approximately 30% of Australia’s Eucalypt species, and close to 20% of Australia’s plant species overall. This is truly an overlooked gem of Australian biodiversity. Last Spring I was lucky enough to visit for my work on pollination in our native plants.

IMG_2273-5

IMG_2242

My target there was Eremophila, a genus of approximately 250 species largely confined to arid and semi-arid Australia. The GWW represents one of the centres of diversity for the genus, and so I chose it as a likely spot to set up a new study contrasting bird and insect pollination.

IMG_2191-1

Eremophila alternifolia was one of about 15 Eremophilas I saw flowering despite the drier than average conditions.

I was joined by perhaps the best kind of field assistant: a trained and accomplished professional ecologist who also happens to be my beautiful wife. After driving 2800km from Melbourne to field sites near Norseman, Western Australia, we spent a little under two weeks observing pollinators, surveying and mapping populations of plants, and collecting samples for population genetics.

IMG_2006-4

IMG_2019-7

One of the many viewpoints south of the Nullarbor Plain.

I left in awe of the scale of these woodlands, in love with the peace and isolation they offer, and a bit concerned over their insecure future. Fully 60% of the GWW is tenured “unallocated Crown land”, unmanaged and open access. With more visitors, and more appreciation of the value of these vast woodlands, I hope we can find a way to secure more of it into ongoing reserve for future generations.

IMG_2124-3

The bluebush understory contrasts dramatically with red sand in many areas. Front left is one of my study species Eremophila scoparia.

IMG_2235-26

The whole region is dotted with salt-pans.

IMG_2388-10

As predicted from the small, violet flowers, Eremophila scoparia was visited by a host of native bees.

IMG_2488-3IMG_2525-1IMG_2593-1

IMG_2606-19

Eremophila decipiens has characteristic bird-adapted flowers.

IMG_2203-21

Camera traps being expertly arranged by Samantha. Footage revealed that E. decipiens was being visited by a range of honeyeater species.

IMG_2109-16

IMG_2565-15

Eremophila calorhabdos

IMG_2543-2

This spectacular Grevillea hid a massive bloom of flowers underneath it

IMG_2546-3

The inflorescences are held on stems that grow along the ground underneath the shrub. The very long style with pollen-presenter is suggestive of adaptation to birds, but mammals might not be out of the question.

IMG_2087-12

Eucalyptus loxophleba with daggy botanist for scale

IMG_2092-13

Majestic Salmon gum (Eucalyptus salmonophloia) with Samantha for scale.

IMG_2096-2

The serenity of wandering amongst giant Salmon gums at dusk was magic.

IMG_2296-6

Gleaming bark on Eucalyptus salubris

IMG_2067-10

Elevating on Lake Cowan. Photo: S. Vertucci.

20181001_113958

For the second half of the trip I was joined by collaborator and all-round legend Dr. Renee Catullo. I made us walk 10km to collect camp gear following a single poor decision.

Stay tuned as research results emerge. The study should tell us about the way pollen moves under bee and bird pollination, and how those fine scale patterns play out on a grand landscape level.

Wild yeasts are everywhere. Some of them will even make beer for you.

I spend a lot of time thinking about flowers and beer. Thinking about flowers is part of my job, and beer—that’s my current obsession. Thoughts collide, and I recently found myself dwelling upon what they have in common: that most marvellous microbe, yeast.

Yeast is that critical fungus that converts sugar solutions into beer and wine, and while we’ve got a handful of domesticated strains harnessed for beverage production, diverse and untamed wild yeasts are everywhere. They are in the air, on plants and animals, on your skin, in your hair. Wild yeasts are particularly abundant in flowers, and that’s because flowers provide a source of freely available sugar by way of nectar.

Saccharomyces_cerevisiae_SEM

Brewers/baker’s yeast (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Given this obvious overlap, a natural and totally irresistible work-hobby collaboration sprang to mind. Could I capture a wild yeast from flowers of my study species and use it to make beer?

Now I am not the first to try this. Wild yeasts and other microbes have had a long history of use in creating beer. Belgian brewers have perhaps the most celebrated and storied traditions in this area—their Lambic beers are created by leaving fresh, unfermented beer (wort) to be inoculated by whatever yeast and bacteria the atmosphere may gift them. Wild fermentation is a growing global trend now, with numerous craft breweries here in Australia (e.g. La Sirene and Wildflower), and internationally (e.g. Allagash, Trinity) establishing strong reputations for artisanal ales fermented with the help of local microbial biodiversity.

While the diversity of wild yeasts might be wide, not all are useful for producing beer however. Many yeasts die in the presence of moderate alcohol, many cannot ferment all but the simplest of sugars, many produce unpalatable by-products during fermentation.

So where are we most likely to find the best, most useful wild yeasts for beer production? This is where floral biology meets brewing.

Floral biology meets beer brewing

Nectars are produced by flowers as rewards for the service of pollinating animals. Because some flowers specialize in being pollinated by particular kinds of animals, they evolve specific traits that cater to the biology of those animals. For example, moth-pollinated flowers are white so that they are visible in low light, bee-pollinated flowers evolve UV-reflective runway markers to guide accurate landing and foraging, carrion-fly pollinated flowers smell like rotting flesh. In the same fashion, nectar is shaped by evolution to cater to the specific creatures most likely to consume it.

One way nectar becomes tailored to its consumer is by its sugar concentration, which varies wildly. At the concentrated end, exceeding 50% sugar by weight, nectar is very viscous and sticky and difficult to suck up through long or thin mouth parts. These nectars cater to insects with short tongues like bees, flies, wasps and beetles. On the other end you have dilute nectars, with 10 – 25% sugar concentrations, and these are perfect for birds to lap up. By a happy coincidence, the sugar concentrations of bird-adapted nectars are in the same range as unfermented wort. Recognizing this was what led me to try hunting for yeasts in the flowers of my study species—the bird-pollinated shrub Prostanthera walteri.

img_2623

Monkey Mint-bush (Prostanthera walteri)

Also known as the Monkey Mint-bush, this is a rare shrub growing amongst boulders on a few misty, granite peaks in remote East Gippsland, Victoria. I have been getting to know the plant for a couple of years now, using it in a study to understand how bird-pollination might differ from insect-pollination. And so on a January field trip to collect some data, I took the opportunity to collect some fresh flowers and take them back to my home lab (kitchen bench) for bioprospecting. At home, I made up a test wort: a low concentration malt-extract solution to mimic the conditions of beer, then I syringed out the nectar from several flowers and spiked the test jars with whatever might be living in the nectar.

Screenshot 2019-05-14 14.50.19.png

Kitchen-bench inoculation of test wort

And it worked. Most of the test jars began fermentation, and sniffing the results revealed various aromas of bright apple juice, white wine, earth and smoke. After months of re-culturing these initial samples I now have what I think are two different strains* of nectar yeast, one of which just produced its first beer.

So how does it taste?

Interesting, and not bad… and that’s all I’m willing to venture at this stage of the experiment! The yeast fermented very quickly, and chewed through 79% of the available sugars (which is more than some domesticated brewing strains). It has a somewhat Belgian Saison-like character, with strong pear and floral esters, some smoke and spice, and a very slight tartness.

IMG_4219

I was quite blown away at how well this yeast performed, fermenting much like a domesticated yeast, yet with a much bigger, bolder, dare I say “wild” flavour. It is stunning to think that it has probably existed in flowers in remote eastern Victoria for some thousands to many thousands of years, and one can just go and pick it up and persuade it to make interesting beer. And as I get to know it better, perhaps that beer will become both interesting and delicious.

 

Thanks to Ruth Barry (Boatrocker Brewery) for inspiring conversation and advice on this.

*These are technically mixed cultures, but I believe they each have come to be dominated by single strain of yeast.

We don’t know what pollinates most Australian plants.

Australian flowering plant diversity is legendary. Within an hour trip outside of our major metro centres anyone can quite easily witness unique Australian plant diversity in subtropical forest (Brisbane), grassland (Melbourne), and sandstone heath (Sydney). The diversity close to home is fairly well catalogued, and while it is hard to discover a new plant species, merely spending time around our native plants is very likely to reveal something that has never before been documented.

Something like 90% of our native plants rely on animals for pollination in order to set seed. Despite this, we simply do not know what pollinates most of our Australian native plants. The fact that the private lives for many of our native plants remains mysterious is due to their great diversity and the limited time and resources available to document what’s going on every day in the bush.

IMG_2488-3

Two native bees (Hylaeus (Rhodohylaeus) sp.) visiting flowers of the Broom Bush (Eremophila scoparia) in Western Australia.

And these uncharted interactions are totally critical for the functioning of our native ecosystems. Pollination underpins production of seed for the next generation, builds seed banks for post-fire regeneration, and also produces fruits and seeds that are critical food resources for our native animals.

Our ignorance of native pollination networks is therefore vastly out of step with their importance. This is illustrated in the example of bee declines, where we have all heard about the threats impinging on honeybees and pollination service for food crops, yet when it comes to Australian native bees, we lack the basic benchmark data needed to make a solid judgment about whether they too are declining*. It is therefore imperative that we commit effort to recording native pollination networks now, before they are lost to us. While it is hard for long term ecological monitoring projects to attract funding, ongoing development of automated imaging of flower visitors and large scale citizen science projects offer some promise for increased capability in filling this ecological blind spot.

But our ignorance here can also be thrilling. This means that every time you are in the bush, and witness an insect or bird taking nectar or pollen from a flower, there is a reasonable chance it has never been documented before. In my work with University of Melbourne I have been studying several native shrubs to understand their pollination, and for many of these species, it is gratifying to know that my work will be the first documented evidence of what is visiting them. But you don’t have to be a trained scientist to do this, you just need some patience, luck, and some fine weather. And while discovering and photographing an unusual native bee pollinating one of our native flowers won’t win you a Nobel Prize, I guarantee it will provide any enquiring mind with a hit of electric discovery every single time.

 

IMG_2784-1

Photographed on Mount Buffalo, Ken Walker (Victoria Museum) later identified this bee as the very rare Lasioglossum (Callalictus) callomelittinum. Few photos of it exist. This individual is buzz-pollinating a Fringe Lily (Thysanotus tuberosus).

 

Links for pollinator observations:

Bowerbird: Nature observations database

Wild Pollinator Count

Government pollinators repository

*But given native bees need native habitat, and native habitat is being cleared at astonishing levels, we can, with a high degree of confidence, say that native bees are declining too.

The whimsical long-tongue fly and its favourite colour.

test

The flowers on one of these plants conceal drops of sticky nectar. The other is a cheating orchid, presenting empty flowers and false promises. Can you tell which is which? Even if you knew which one carried nectar, how can you tell the difference between them? The two plants might look a bit different to human high-res optics, but now try blurring your eyes. Pretty similar, huh?

What about this pair?

Screenshot 2018-10-30 15.09.50If it’s difficult for our brains and eyes to discern the difference between the flower with the reward and the one that’s falsely advertising, then what hope does a nectar-hunting fly with low resolution compound eyes and a smear of a central nervous system have?

Specifically, I’m talking about this fly…

8486215062_35dceb5890_z

If this fly looks embarrassed, its because it has orchid pollen stuck to its face.

Until now, you probably thought lion, or elephant, or rhino were the most impressive animals roaming the grasslands of southern Africa. Well you’re wrong, and it’s ok to change your mind after seeing the majestic long-proboscid fly of South Africa. There are several species of these magnificent beasts, and this one is named Prosoeca ganglbaueri.

IMG_3624-1 copy

That giant proboscis hanging from its face is a tool crafted by evolution for sucking nectar from the bottom of long flower tubes, and it can grow as long as 5 cm (which is longer than the fly’s own body length). Unlike butterflies who coil their proboscises, the long-proboscid flies simply hinge the instrument down, tucking it away underneath their bodies to trail out behind them. And this species isn’t even the most extreme: proboscises in Moegistorhynchus longirostris get up to 8 cm!

Sometimes handling that long instrument can be a challenge…

PROBOSCIS PROBLEMS - Imgur

In some areas of South Africa, P. ganglbaueri is the only creature capable of extracting nectar from flowers with very long floral tubes, and because of this it has become the exclusive pollinator for 20 species of plant. Altogether, the long-proboscid flies as a group bear the great responsibility as the only pollinator for approximately 130 species of plant, making them a truly important creature for the ongoing survival of many South African plants.

Figure1Photosv2

Figure 1 from Whitehead et al. (2018): Prosoeca ganglbaueri feeding from a variety of nectar sources. (a) Zaluzianskya microsiphon, (b) Scabiosa columbaria, (c) Agapanthus campanulatus, (d) Dianthus basuticus.

An interesting fact about flowers that are pollinated by long-proboscid flies, is that most of them are pink, or white, or some variation in between (with one blue exception). This strong colour preference is a critical feature directing the evolution of the cheating orchid flowers introduced earlier. For a deceptive orchid to attract this fly, the orchids’ flower colour must match the flies’ colour preference, or the mimicry simply won’t work.

In my recent paper, we asked whether the colour preference of flies was something that they learned, like we learn to associate that perfect golden-brown hue of fried food with a mouth-watering culinary experience, or if it was instead a more hardwired innate response, like a moth drawn to a lamp. The answer is important for understanding ultimately what is driving the evolution of false advertisement signals in mimic orchids. So, for example, if flies had an innate bias to pink or white, then cheating orchid flowers would evolve to match that bias, in the same way that any good advertisements are designed to appeal to the fundamental desires of its audience. On the other hand, if flies learned to associate nectar reward with certain colours, their preference should be determined by the colour of their local nectar diet. Under the learned scenario, orchids should be evolving to match local flowers’ colours, not any intrinsic bias of the fly.

To test this, I took advantage of just how easy it is to bamboozle these flies. With a home-made artificial flower, painted to match the pink and white flowers visited by the fly, anyone can fool a fly into attempting to feed. So I mounted a pink and a white model to my “interview stick”, and travelled across the rugged Drakensberg Mountains to interview various populations of flies. In each location, I recorded whether the local flies preferred probing the pink or white model flower, as well as the colour and species of flower that the flies were using for nectar there.


The results were clear. Flies used to feeding mainly on pink flowers preferred the pink model. Flies that fed mainly on white flowers preferred the white model. And flies that fed on both pink, white, and violet flowers, showed no clear preference between pink and white.

Figure3ChoiceV5

Figure 3 from Whitehead et al (2018): Pink-white preference for flies at seven sites. The x-axis shows colour preference, with pink on the right, white on the left. Measured preference at seven sites is represented, with the colour of local nectar sources depicted in the small pie charts.

This tells us that the flies are very flexible in their preferences, and the strong implication is that these flies are learning to associate colour and reward. A further result showed that as the variation of colours flies fed from increased, this made them less choosy in the pink-white preference choice. So the bottom line is that the colour of their local nectar-buffet strongly controls a fly’s colour preference.

What does this mean for orchid cheats? Well, the colour of nectar cheats is all important, and what matters most for the success of a deceptive orchid is the colour composition of the surrounding nectar-rich floral community.

dianth

Post-script:
Still wondering about which flowers in the opening images were cheats, and which had nectar?

In both cases the deceptive orchid is on the left. The first image features Disa nivea (left), and Zaluzianskya microsiphon (right), the second features Disa pulchra (left) and Watsonia lepida (right).

Reference:

Whitehead MR, Gaskett AC, Johnson SD. (in press) Floral community predicts pollinators’ color preference: implications for Batesian floral mimicry. Behavioral Ecology 

Photos from the field: Northern Sand-plains, WA

Peaceful woodlands of widely spaced gnarled Eucalypts lie in mosaic with spiny, scratchy, shrubby heath on the sand-plains north of Perth. They form one of the most floristically diverse regions on earth, with estimates of over 60 species of plant per 0.01 ha (an area smaller than half an an IMAX screen).

With so many species packed on top of one another, it is perhaps not surprising that in the effort to co-exist, some plants have been forced to flower outside the traditional Spring-flowering window. Winter in the sand-plains, while often wet and cloudy, is therefore anything but dull. While daily insect activity is very low, resident birds and honey possums must still feed, and so there are a comparatively high number of vertebrate-pollinated species in full flower at this time of year.

IMG_1591-1

Omphalina chromacea in its diminutive but sulphureous glory

IMG_1596-2

Bird-pollinated Astroloma glaucenscens excludes insect visitors with a tiny corolla-tube opening

IMG_1599-3

Pterostylis sanguinea: a sexually-deceptive trap-pollination orchid

IMG_1601-4

Astroloma stomarrhena, bird-pollinated. This individual has curiously short corolla tubes.

IMG_1603-5

Calothamnus sanguineus mixed in with Conostephium

IMG_1604-6

Calothamnus sanguineus

IMG_1610-7

An early-flowering Caladenia latifolia

IMG_1616-8

Diuris corymbosa

IMG_1678-12

Tiny pgymy Drosera

IMG_1667-11

One of the most common orchids in the area, but I’ve never seen it flower. Pyrorchis leaf.

IMG_1636-10

Very rare, and while this specimen is a little tired late in the season, the winter-flowering Cleopatra’s Needles (Thelymitra apiculata) is a stunning contrast of hues.