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Author: Thea Nicholas
Date: 02 August, 2013

 Normally I teach biodiversity from the comfort of a warm classroom using a textbook and snippets from the latest David Attenborough documentaries. I demonstrate to the kids the ecological importance of nightmarish animals through the safety of a TV screen. Who would have thought I would have the opportunity to get up close and personal with a very large bird-eating spider by teaching live from the rainforest? Students got to witness me sliding through the mud, getting covered in leeches (in places no-one should find leeches) and catching disease-infested vampire bats. Rather than reading about biodiversity in a textbook, they had their own episode of ‘Teacher Vs Wild’. The things I do for my students.

 I love professional development! It’s the perfect way to escape the daily grind of school life and recharge the batteries. The best way to renew your passion for environmental science is to undertake a professional development opportunity in the depths of the rainforest. So when I got a letter confirming that I was undertaking an Earthwatch expedition, I was pumped for the challenge. 

I was off to the pristine rainforest of the Wet Tropics of Queensland. It is listed as a World Heritage Area primarily as it is the most biologically rich region in Australia. It is home to over 700 species of vertebrates, 90 of which are endemic. There are over 4700 species of vascular plants, 700 of which are endemic, including primitive taxa that have high evolutionary values. 

At that stage, I had no idea what I was in for. All I knew was that I was about to get first hand experience in the three topics I am most passionate about; education, climate change and biodiversity. Getting a glimpse into the life of research scientists and a deeper understanding of one of the most amazingly biodiverse ‘hot spots’ in the world certainly beats PD on the Australian Curriculum. What was best was that my students were coming along for the ride too.

For two weeks a group of seven teachers assumed the life of the research scientists. We slept in the depths of the rainforest, and let me tell you, I now know why they call it a rain-forest. It did not stop raining for the entire two weeks. Our homes were a cluster of tiny, muddy tents, which I shared with a range of the worst bedfellows you could think of – most of which had more than 2 legs.

On the plus side, we were amongst some of the most beautiful flora and fauna in the world. Each day consisted of trudging through the depths of the rainforest collecting bird, reptile, marsupial and flora surveys. The aim of the scientific research was to determine the effects of climate change on the biodiversity of the area. Our students back home followed our progress via a digital platform and gained a real sense of what our lifestyle was like. They completed learning tasks, listening to podcasts and asking questions about our experiences.

Students especially enjoyed the fact that our day began at 4.00am. Clambering out of the tent in the rainy, pitch black early morning was not an easy task. Once we were upright and had finished pouring hot coffee down our throats, we climbed into the vehicles and traveled to various altitudinal transects to complete bird surveys. The surveying technique consisted of walking fifty meters up the length of the road then turning and walking directly into the heart of the rainforest. We collected data based on visual observations and listening to birdcalls. It was astounding that the trained ear of the researchers could detect hundreds of different birdcalls. It was like the researchers understood an entirely different language; it all sounded the same to me. By the end of the two weeks I could distinguish between the call of a catbird and a kookaburra.

Apparently the research scientists haven’t heard the saying “Early to bed, early to rise”. Despite the crack of dawn bird surveys, we needed to spend all hours of the night spot-lighting for mammals, reptiles and amphibians. I haven’t kept these sorts of hours since O-Week in my first year of university. The survey consisted of teams walking along the roads and looking for movement and the eye shine of various species. The most common species that we found were, Eastern barred-frogs, Cane toads, Green Ring Tailed Possums, leaf-tailed geckos and other varieties of possums.

The night time bat trapping was one of my favorite surveys. Each night we would set up the Harp Trap and Mist Nets in the hope of catching some grotesque looking little bat to take it’s morphological measurements. When you do catch one, it’s like a flashback to the 80’s classic; Gremlins. Their razor sharp teeth and frantically flapping wings come at you in a small bundle of furry fury. One bite from these little suckers and you could end up losing a digit or frothing at the mouth with a nasty case of rabies. In the grand scheme of things, we did not have much luck catching the bats (probably just as well, I might not have been able to continue playing the violin). Most nights we would just sit in deck chairs in the freezing rain compulsively checking ourselves for leeches. On one fateful night a leech happened to crawl into one of the teachers eyes – but that’s a story for another time. 

The data that we collected was contributing to a world-renowned research project run by the esteemed Professor Steven Williams. Steve is one of the leading experts on biodiversity and climate change and over the past 15 years he has undertaken internationally acclaimed and ground breaking research on the effects of climate change on the biodiversity of the Wet Tropics of Far North Queensland. Steve and his dedicated research team have tirelessly completed a portfolio of standardised data, completing over 300,000 surveys, equating to over 150,000 hours in the field.

Steve was initially driven by a desire to understand patterns of biodiversity and why some species are so rare, especially species endemic to the area. He identified that organisms native to the wet tropics have adapted to an environment that is cool, wet and stable. These organisms are particularly vulnerable to climate change as these are exactly the environmental factors that are predicted to change. Climate change models suggest that temperatures will increase and rainfall will decrease resulting in a dryer and hotter environment. Another factor will be that the cloud cover will lift and retreat to higher altitudes. This will result in habitat decline and have serious implications for the long-term survival of many species.

The outcome of the study has some pretty grim findings. The bottom line being – a global increase in temperature of 3.5 degrees will result in the loss of up to 46% of the unique rainforest fauna. It was difficult to share this despairing information with my students. They had just engaged and connected with the myriad of crazy critters I had encountered in the rainforest and now I was telling them that almost half might disappear within their lifetime. Would they lose hope and switch off? Or would they be empowered to take personal action?

Thankfully it was the latter of the two options. Upon my return to school I found an army of 26 inspired teenagers ready to take action and help combat the effects of climate change. The students started a climate change collective group to look at behaviour changes in our local community. They wanted to ensure that the global temperature would not rise by 3.5 degrees. The good intentions and collective passion of my students reassured me that the kids of today are the sustainability leaders of tomorrow. As long as education continues to focus on issues of our environment and puts it as a high priority, we can have a sustainable future.

For me personally, the research lifestyle was challenging. I think I’d rather take my chances with a class of Year 9 boys during period 6 than wake up next to a bird-eating spider again. But this experience was incredibly rewarding and I encourage all teachers to jump at professional opportunities such as this Earthwatch expedition. Observing our precious biodiversity first hand allowed my students to connect with our environment on a level that a textbook cannot possible achieve. The most important outcome of the experience was the fact that I could give my students a real sense of the importance of science and a deeper understanding of the significance of biodiversity, which empowered them to take action.

 Thea Nicholas 

Sustainability Educator – Cool Australia

[email protected]

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