BIOS3161 - Student Perspectives

Please enjoy a collection of student perspectives about BIOS3161 - Life in Arid Lands.

Arid 1.0

by Ben J.J. Walker

You can follow Ben on Twitter (@BenJJWalker) or LinkedIn.

Look at the lens flare: 11/10 photographers say you can only get it out at Fowlers Gap. Source: Charlotte Beloe 2016

I thought this course was Life in Desserts. Gordon Ramsey didn’t prepare me for this.

Life in Arid Lands was a popular choice at the time I started it, due to its limited numbers and the promise of no exam. Our timetable was quite relaxed since the course only had one class per week. This was a two-hour lecture-come-tutorial, taught by Lisa Schwanz or guest lecturers such as Mike Letnic and David Eldridge, then analysed some pre-selected paper readings via a class discussion led by two or three of our classmates. Not only was this a time to understand the content more broadly, it allowed me to engage with people who I’d otherwise not encountered during my time at Uni. We discussed scientific ideas, plus when the time came, we formed into groups of people who shared similar research interests. From this, Lisa guided us in choosing a research project to fully investigate on our time away at the UNSW Arid research station, Fowlers Gap.

At Fowlers Gap, I gained many close friends; the most from any single course.  The field station is situated in the more-West-than-North part of New South Wales, past even Broken Hill. To get there, we travelled via CountryLink to Dubbo, and then took a bus to Broken Hill, where we were picked up outside the train station the next day. Having already travelled to the Strzlecki Desert in late 2015 as a volunteer on a real UNSW funded trip, I perhaps had some idea of the landscape out there. Though this time, instead of camping out on the bare sand dunes, we were in cabins separated by the “party” and “sleep” varieties. These even had proper plumbing, what a treat!

There with us were Lisa, Neil Jordan, Floret Meredith, Ben Feit, Frank Hemmings, and the station director Keith Leggett. Each of them acted as a mentor for the five days we enjoyed the research station.A day at Fowlers Gap consisted of waking up early morning, getting some breakfast, then conducting tutorials to learn about certain aspects of the landscape, followed by lunch, and time in the afternoon to gather data and investigate the research questions you’d decided upon before the trip. Dinner was obviously a staple of the evening, and then we had time to relax and hang out with one another.

Just appreciating some rocks (incl. Variegated Dtella) of the late afternoon variety. Pictured: Ben Walker & Meena Sritharan (@MeenaExplorer). Source: © Karen Zeng 2016

One tutorial that remains with me involved identifying water birds at a local watering hole with Neil Jordan from a covered shed-like observatory. Now, identifying birds is fun in and of itself, but the real drawcard was the person conducting the tutorial. From what can generally be a tedious task, especially if you’re short-sighted and forgot your glasses back at your cabin (like I did), to an engaged observation of the ways wildlife interacted, including how sheep and kangaroos moved along the water-bank, with predatory falcons in the sky above, plus a few wild pigs trawling through the mud, Neil managed to engage me in the landscape of the place. Now, I might be a little biased, since we had a chat or two afterwards, but that experience led me to pursue him as my main supervisor for my Honours project. As an aside; you really want a supervisor who engages you and communicates readily and easily.

The main point of this anecdote for me is that opportunity for future learning/research and potential projects in years to come centres around the subjects you take during Undergrad., and your ability to ask someone about their research. On this, I also currently volunteer with Lisa, as do many of my friends who completed the course with me. The opportunities are there; you just have to take them.

Tympanocryptis spp.’ (Earless Dragons) having a good ol’ sunbake.
Gehyra variegata (Variegated Dtella) doing some wall-climbs to research us.

Let me return you to Fowlers Gap. My group and I worked hard and efficiently, and got a wealth of data on our research project; “Spider Fighting: Morphological Implications and Fight Technique Differences”. That’s right, we studied spider fighting. Such was the freedom in choosing our own project and research ideas, especially being encouraged by Lisa to pursue this. We hunted spiders by night, and let them fight by day. Finding spiders was great because it was cool and relaxing, and you’d see the glint of light reflected in a spider’s set of eyes from the ground, then rush over to where it stood, but not too heavily or it’d just run from you. We had maybe eight people hunting at one time, though our group was only of three. For our efforts, we found approximately 70 spiders, or thereabouts. Once we’d measured their behaviours and morphology, we released them ethically and with minimal harm.

Lycosidae spp. (Wolf Spiders) were our chosen model animal. Source: Adriana Zaja 2016

Apart from the group work, there was time to enjoy just being out in arid Australia. After finishing for the day, I’d often go and read in the comfy chairs on the verandah whilst watching the sun set over the hills. Groups of us would go out to explore the surrounding hills and environs, with a certain rock memorial placed high up on one of those hills: the subject of many an Instagram photo.

We even made our own art from one of the trees overhanging the dried-up river, where we hung a large broken-off branch using twine and embedded leaves and twigs throughout. I suppose we wanted to give back to the land that was allowing us to experience its unique characteristics.

Giving the tree a helping branch. Source: Adriana Zaja 2016

All too soon we were back in Sydney and trawling through another semester. But because of this field trip, I had a little skip to my step, which provided the boost I needed to power through to the mid-year break.

This just about sums up my feelings towards LAL. Source: © Janelle So 2016

Text and photos are by Ben Walker, except where noted otherwise. Ben completed BIOS3161 in 2016, and submitted this perspective17 February 2017.

A class about Aridiculous Lands

by Naomi Huynh

You can follow Naomi on YouTube and Instagram.

Before enrolling into the class, the timetabling for Arid Lands looked heavenly - only 6 lectures, no final exam and a week’s field trip to Fowlers Gap Research Station. What a steal! I had previously gone to Fowlers Gap with Lisa Schwanz, and as soon as I saw the field trip heading back there, I knew it was an opportunity I could not miss. Fowlers Gap is one of my favourite places to go. It is so remote, and it is not often one gets to go to the other side of New South Wales. 

A map of the different sections of Fowlers Gap Field Station that was bolted outside the office.

The class started off with everyone within their small friendship groups, keen to start the new year with a fresh and coordinated class but still a bit shy with talking to other table groups. Lisa introduced herself and some of the topics her lectures would cover as well as some of the people associated with the course, which included guest lecturers, demonstrators and field station staff. The structure of each 2-hour class was that Lisa or a guest lecturer would present a topic relating to arid lands, then 2-3 students would lead a discussion for approximately 15 minutes from a primary article that was allocated to them. The remaining time was used to discuss ideas for a group project that we would conduct in the field when we travel to Fowlers Gap. 

The class time we had was enjoyable since without the pressure of a final exam, it makes learning much more fun, and I feel that I absorb more information that way. The lectures were engaging and covered a range of topics from species specific adaptations to ecosystem level interactions. The discussions that we lead were a thing that not many of us students have done or were familiar with. It allowed us to critically analyse a peer reviewed paper and present it to the class whilst engaging them in activities or discussions relating to the paper. The paper that my group was allocated was called “Are Lizards Toast?” by Huey et al., about which the sensationalised title gave us too many creative ideas. The paper was a response article to another published paper, mainly arguing that lizards may avoid extinction due to climate change, countering the original study Huey et al. is reviewing. To critically analyse a peer reviewed paper is not something university students do often, as we tend to not question the validity of a paper. We always used to have that mentality that if a paper is published, then their results are legitimate. To take the time and think as to whether a study has been conducted adequately was a great skill to learn, and opened my eyes to not take everything at face value. 

Conducting your own research project is nothing new amongst many third year courses, as they provide us with close-to-real-world experiences that are commonly faced by scientists. Our group decided to look at the species abundance and biodiversity of skinks and geckos in five different microhabitats at different times of the day. Since I had previously been to Fowlers Gap, I knew skinks and geckos were the most abundant types of lizards out there, and choosing different microhabitats allowed us to explore the area (keeping in mind that some of us may never go back to Fowlers Gap). We all got our ethics training and proposal approved, it was time to go on the field trip!

We had to plan our own way there to Broken Hill. Those fortunate enough to nab a seat on the Indian Pacific got to lay back and not worry about anything till we arrived at Broken Hill, while others who were not so fortunate had to take a train the day before to Dubbo, take a bus to Broken Hill then stay the night at Broken Hill till we were to be picked up by the bus that would drive us an hour north to Fowlers Gap. I was fortunate enough to get a ticket on the midnight train going anywhere (well just to Broken Hill) and being stuck on a train for 14 hours did mean some quality bonding time with classmates I have never met before. After “sleeping” on the train (economy class was never going to be extremely comfortable) we arrived at Broken Hill, the other side of New South Wales! After a brisk breakfast and a meet up with other classmates who had stayed the night at Broken Hill, we took the bus to the field station. 

After we had arrived at the research station, chosen our beds and unpacked a bit, everyone went out to set up pitfall traps. It wasn’t exactly the easiest thing to do when your fencing keeps blowing over because of the wind, but after coming back from setting up the traps, we were treated with a few drops of rain then a double rainbow! That lifted everyone’s spirits from the tiring diggng we had done.

A double rainbow at the field station.


The rainbow also spurred a few hilarious photos, and from that inspiration, a classmate had created a facebook group where we could freely share all the photos we took during the trip.

Bao taking advantage of a photoshoot opportunity with Luke assisting and Charlotte photographing.

Throughout the rest of the trip, the day would have begun with breakfast (or at least for a few people considering not many of us are willing to wake up that early to eat breakfast), then a tutorial that ran for a few hours on different topics such as plants, pitfall trapping and bird watching. After that was done, the rest of the day or night was dedicated to our group projects or free time in between conducting our research.

The tutorials were great fun as it allowed us to explore around Fowlers Gap as well as gain some good practical skills that we might use later on in our science careers. The plants tutorial included a lot of walking and the day my group was scheduled on to have this, the temperature was approximately 4°C, so not everyone was keen on stepping outside and walking around, but it was a good tutorial as we were shown some of the cool adaptations plants have in the desert. There were two pitfall trapping tutorials, each in different areas of Fowlers Gap but due to the cold weather at around the time of our trip, we were quite unsuccessful in capturing many animals (especially compared to other times I have been pitfall trapping at Fowlers Gap). Some animals that fell into the pitfall traps on this trip were centipedes, wolf spiders, a tarantula, scorpions, an earless dragon, an immature brown snake and stripe-faced dunnart. Bird watching was my favourite tutorial (I have a passion for birds) and that involved walking to the nearby dam, sitting in a tin shed and watching the birds gather around the water. It was also one of the lazier tutorials that involved a short walk and just sitting down for about an hour or two. 

A Stripe-faced dunnart (Sminthopsis macroura) caught from a pitfall trap and getting tagged.

After tutorials we were left with free time/project time so off we went to survey lizards in different microhabitats. We found some pretty cool lizards during this time and here are some pictures of them below. 

A skink (Cryptoblepharus sp.).
A tree dtella (Gehyra variegata).
A Bynoe's gecko/Trash lizard (Heteronotia binoei).

When not working on our projects, our down time involved napping, playing cards, drinking milo (this ended up a serious issue when we had a milo ban due to our high consumption of milk since there was not enough milk for breakfast), hiking up hills, exploring, star gazing/meteor shower watching and celebrating. This allowed for us to mingle with other people in the class and this made me feel closer to other classmates, so much that we occasionally go on weekend trips out of Sydney (for example Hawks Nest and Jervis Bay) with classmates from this class to whom I previously have not met.

After an amazing week, it was time to head home and so like any field trip, we cleaned up after ourselves from the celebratory night before and headed for the bus. We then dragged our exhausted selves off the bus onto the train that was to take everyone back to Sydney, and thus ended our field trip and the bulk of our course.

A few weeks later, we gathered back into the classroom, happy to see everyone and ready to present our research to the class. A week later from the presentation class, we handed in our individual report on the project we had been working on throughout our time at Fowlers Gap and that was the end of the Life in Arid Lands – new and improved by Lisa Schwanz.

Overall, this was the most enjoyable class I have taken as an undergrad for many reasons. The class structure was great, having no final exam means that I can listen to lectures stress free and the field trip was definitely the highlight of the class. You don’t often get the chance to go to the desert and going to Fowlers Gap was definitely an experience I will never forget. From all the cool animals I’ve seen, the places we’ve gone and the friendships I’ve made from that field trip, I have to say it was pretty epic.

Text and photos are by Naomi Huynh. Naomi completed BIOS3161 in 2016, and submitted this perspective15 February 2017. 

Slice of desert life

by Adriana Zaja

You can follow Adriana on LinkedIn.

My first impression of Fowler’s Gap – after not too many hours sleep on the overnight train – was that it would be a warm, windy, and long week (without the internet). I bring up the ‘no internet’ thing, not because I think anyone struggled without it, but because it is a safety net for anyone not so familiar with biological/ecological terms. My prior studies of biology were limited to first year BIOS1101 and year ten science, but all I could really remember was that the ‘mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell’.

If you are not inclined to study one particular animal behavior, have a fear of insects or spiders, and value your sleep, you may consider formulating a plant project. Whatever it is, do your best to ensure it is something you will enjoy with people you can easily work alongside, as you may be out for long periods of time or even late at night. Having a subject that did not run away nor try to bite was certainly appealing for our group, although we still encountered some local fauna.

A young Eastern Grey Kangaroo (left), and the overly attached flies in the emu pen (right)

On that note, many hands make light work but having a group of three helped speed up decision-making as there was always a majority. You should still be prepared to work hard and smart, adapting to the conditions and collecting as much data as you can. The rest of the time you can expect to be spending on morning workshops outside; or in the laboratory, library, mess hall or the kitchen. Yes, for one day you will also share the duty of preparing meals for everyone and cleaning up. But the good news is that your chore group is different to your project group (in case you’re a little too familiar). In the evening, sunset from the summit overlooking Fowler’s Gap and surrounds cannot be missed.

The sunset from the summit across the highway is so good you won’t need any filters

Life in Arid lands is undoubtedly the course I made the most friends in at UNSW. It felt more like a collaborative effort than ‘dreaded’ group work and the course is ideal if you want to control your research direction. You are more invested in the project because you have designed and executed it. By the end, you will be itching to read more to find the answers to your project. The best part is, you won’t even be missing internet because there are plenty of researchers and scientists-in-training to throw questions at.

Since taking this course in 2016 I have been to the outback twice, each time experiencing a completely different arid environment. If you are thinking about taking part then go for it because the possibilities are endless. At the very least, if the research doesn’t pique your interest, you will have seen a whole heap of plants and animals, and formed new friendships. My key piece of advice (and this goes for any field trip) is to bring a deck of cards, funny stories, and food/drink to share – trust me, you can’t go wrong.

Jumping for joy at the sign for Fowler’s Gap Research Station on the Silver City Highway 

Text and photos are by Adriana Zaja. Adriana completed BIOS3161 in 2016, and submitted this perspective13 February 2017.