Entry for:The Peer Prize for Women in Science 2017
1. Please give a brief summary of your work.
Many ecologists study ‘woodland birds’ because it is thought that habitat loss and degradation have led to their decline. However, only a subset of studies find evidence of a decline in ‘woodland birds’. Analysis of ‘woodland bird’ studies reveals that each considers a different group of species, and that classification differences alone are sufficient to determine whether we find a decline in ‘woodland birds’.
It seems strange that there is inconsistency in how ecologists define ‘woodland birds’ given that it impedes our ecological understanding but inconsistently using important terms is actually common practice in ecology. Many central terms such as ‘environment’ and ‘fragmentation’ are used inconsistently. These inconsistencies are rarely accounted for and may have a profound impact on our ecological understanding. My research draws attention to terminological inconsistency in ecology and demonstrates one way that it might be resolved through the case study of ‘woodland birds’.
2. Describe your approach and broader findings.
Scientists rely on terms to convey complex ideas but often use these terms differently. The need for ecologists to use terms consistently is debated. On one hand, if all ecologists subscribed to a single use of each term, it would be easier to synthesize results between studies and communicate findings between ecologists. On the other hand, there is no proof that standardizing terminology is necessary and it could inhibit ecologists from answering certain questions. My research investigates, and attempts to address, inconsistent terminology in ecology using ‘woodland birds’ as a case study.
I examined how consistently ecologists use the term ‘woodland bird’ and whether using the term differently impacts on ecological inference. I found that the term ‘woodland birds’ is used to refer to different groups of species. How ‘woodland birds’ are classified has a profound impact on our understanding of the ecology of ‘woodland birds’; influencing whether we believe they are declining and how we understand their response to habitat fragmentation.
I have attempted to resolve the inconsistency around ‘woodland bird’ classification two methods. Firstly, by building a model to investigate which species should be regarded ‘woodland birds’ depending on their traits and relative occurrence in woodland vs other habitat types. Secondly, by eliciting expert opinion on which species should be included in a ‘woodland bird’ community to be listed as a Threatened Ecological Community under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. There is a high level of agreement between the two methods about which species should be considered ‘woodland birds’ but they serve different purposes. The first method provides valuable insight into what makes species ‘woodland birds’. The second method devises lists of ‘woodland birds’ that, if the listing is successful, will provide national level protection to the ‘woodland bird’ community. Earlier this year, some colleagues and I applied for EPBC Act protection for the ‘woodland bird’ community (as specified by experts). I believe that the existence of a nationally listed ‘woodland bird threatened ecological community’ will motivate ecologists to study that exact group of species if they are interested in ‘woodland birds’ (rather than including different species) because it will enhance the conservation significance of their research.
My research provides proof that, at least in one instance, using terms inconsistently is detrimental. I hope that my findings will encourage ecologists to think carefully about exactly what they mean when they use ambiguous terms like ‘habitat’ or ‘fragmentation’ and when they group species into ecological units like ‘woodland birds’ or ‘invasive species’. Further, I hope that I have provided an example for how we could resolve inconsistencies around ecological terms.
3. What is the wider contribution, or impact, to your scientific field(s)?
Impact on the Field of Ecology
Despite widespread concern among ecologists, terminology is used inconsistently in ecology which may be partly because there is no definitive proof that it is problematic and partly because it seems too difficult to resolve. One of my intentions in conducting this research was to highlight the problem, show its detrimental effects and demonstrate a way of resolving it. I believe that my research on ‘woodland birds’ achieves both ends and provides a road map to encourage other ecologists to try and resolve terminological inconsistency.
Impact on ‘Woodland Bird’ Conservation
The ‘woodland bird’ community exists in the temperate and sub-tropical regions of Australia and most of the suitable habitat has been cut down and degraded. The majority of habitat destruction in the southern states occurred historically but in Queensland the threat is ongoing with about a million hectares of suitable habitat cleared since 2012. What is left is subject to many degrading influences such as grazing, weed invasion and the proliferation of Noisy Miners. All of these factors make habitat less suitable. Regardless of these threats, ‘woodland bird’ species are patchily protected with only a few species protected and most of these only across a subset of their range.
I spearheaded efforts to nominate the ‘woodland bird’ community as an endangered Threatened Ecological Community under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. This involved evaluating how much the ‘woodland bird’ community has declined in condition and extent and thoroughly describing the processes that threaten it. Our submission has progressed passed the first stage of review. If the nomination is successful it will restrict the clearing of suitable habitat across Australia, helping to ensure the persistence of the community into the future.
4. Are there any potential ideas you would like to explore to take this research further?
Future Work for the Good of Ecology
I believe that ecologists need to start using terms more consistently and am keen to help progress the field in this direction. My ‘woodland bird’ case study is a good starting point but may not be sufficient alone. Firstly, the fact that using the term woodland bird differently influences ecological inference does not necessarily mean that this will be true of any other term. There is also an issue of scale. While the term ‘woodland bird’ is commonly used, the number of researchers in the field is small, meaning that resolving the problem may be more tractable than for terms that are used inconsistently by more researchers. For example, it would not be remotely possible to get all researchers studying ‘habitat fragmentation’ together in a room to discuss how to use the term consistently. I would like to explore a range of other inconsistently used terms and devise methods for decreasing inconsistency that work at different scales and in different contexts.
Future Work for the Good of ‘Woodland Birds’
In the best case scenario, the ‘woodland bird’ community will obtain protection under the EPBC Act and the attendant bird lists would be used in future research. However even in this case, there is a vast body of existing ‘woodland bird’ research which will not be directly applicable to the EPBC protected ‘woodland bird’ community. I would like to address this by asking authors of prominent articles to rerun their analyses for the inclusion in a book that would summarise what is currently known about the endangered ‘woodland bird’ community. This would further rectify the effect of inconsistent classification as well as providing a useful resource for land managers and conservationists trying to protect the endangered ‘woodland bird’ community.
5. Please share a link for researchers to access a relevant publication, data-set, or thesis.
Fraser, H., G. E. Garrard, L. Rumpff, C. E. Hauser, and M. A. McCarthy. 2016, February. What’s in a name? The consequences of inconsistently classifying woodland birds (and other terms). Decision Point.
I would also like to acknowledge Kate Cranney for the fantastic artwork about my research that she produced for the University of Melbourne student magazine Farago. You can find the full article at my website here. For my of her works see http://www.katecranney.com/