Professor Helene Marsh was awarded a BSc Hons from the University of Queensland in 1968 and a PhD from James Cook University of North Queensland in 1973. In 1973 she began her lifelong work on marine mammals and their habitat, focusing initially on dugongs. As well as studying marine and coastal animals she also started a longitudinal study of Black Rock wallabies in 1986. This study is still ongoing. Professor Marsh was awarded a Personal Chair in Zoology at James Cook University of North Queensland in 1991 and became Professor of Environmental Science at this same institution in 1994. She served as the chair of the Great Barrier Reef Consultative Committee from 1998 to 2000. In 1998 she was the recipient of an international Pew Charitable Trust Award for marine conservation. Professor Marsh is currently leading a program at the Cooperative Research Centre for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area (CRC Reef Research Centre) that is looking for sustainable solutions to human impacts on the Great Barrier Reef.
Interviewed by Dr Hugh Tyndale-Biscoe in 2000.
An attraction to biology and research
Marine elephants, manatees and terrestrial dugongs
The sustainability of traditional dugong catches
By-catch threats to marine wildlife
'Think about losing 1000 square kilometres of habitat'
'Marine koalas': weighing lifestyles and conservation
The can of worms: bio-political connections
Synergies between dugong and manatee research
A move into cetacean research
Amazing implications of whale age–sex research
Some consequences of producing unwelcome data
Rock wallabies: the mammal research moves inland
Is there an ideal blend of research skills, curiosity and creativity?
Peer review, integrity and challenges to responsible research publication
Women scientists' balancing act
Funded by 100 Years of Australian Science (National Council for the Centenary of Federation)
Helene, it’s a great pleasure to interview you for the Academy series. First of all, what is your family background? Were you supported much by your parents?
Yes, very much. My parents were both well educated. My mother trained as a teacher before the war and then went into the army during the war as an education officer, in fact the only woman army education officer in the Northern Territory. (I think she had a very independent view about what women could do, although she probably wouldn’t like to be called a feminist.) And later my mother gained a masters degree. My father had degrees in law and economics, probably quite an unusual combination at the time. As a child I definitely was encouraged to do well academically, and for as long as I can remember it was always expected that we would go to university. That was never in doubt learning, knowledge, was just incredibly valued in my family. One of my brothers is a professor of English at the University of London. My other brother makes films and videos; he was always considered the odd one out because he didn’t excel academically, but he is very creative.
There was no question that you would get as much opportunity as your brothers?
Well, my father died when I was 13, so I don’t know what his views were. But I think my mother expected that I would have an excellent education, go to university, and probably get married. She might have found it surprising for me to have the sort of career I have had. I think that for a long time, particularly when I had young children, she had mixed feelings about that, but if so she seems now to have forgotten those feelings. I think she believed that women should have excellent education but perhaps not the same sort of career commitment as, say, my brothers. In fact, for a long time when I was at school I wanted to do medicine, and my mother used to say, ‘Oh, it’s such a long course for a girl.’ That now seems a ridiculous thing to say, but it did influence me at the time.
What got you started as a biologist? Was it family influence, or teachers at school?
Neither, really. I went to the University of Queensland with the aim of doing a science degree with a joint major in psychology and physiology, and as a prerequisite for physiology I did first year zoology. By the end of the first year I decided that psychology definitely wasn’t for me but I was interested in biology. I was particularly inspired by the field excursion to Moreton Bay that we undertook that year. In second year I thought I would continue with biology with a view to doing genetics, but again I was rather seduced by the field work. And so by the end of my third year I wanted to do honours in a more field related project on cone shell venoms, actually, and quite different from what I’ve done since then.
Did your honours supervisor provide a role model as a research biologist?
My supervisor was Dr Bob Endean. I liked the combination of the field work and the lab work and maybe I still do and the possibilities for practical applications of the work he was doing. He was working on venoms. Cone shells, particularly the species that are fish eaters, are very venomous to people, and they have remarkable physiological actions on mammals. I was very attracted to the thought that these venoms might help us understand neurological function, although I don’t think that his work did particularly have those insights. (I have noticed in recent years, actually, that some people are using them again in that way.)
And you never doubted that you would have a research career?
Not from the time I was in first year at university, when we had the opportunity to do a small psychology research project. What I did for that was quite creative but quite outrageous when I look back; no first year would ever be allowed to do such a thing now. We had done an incredibly primitive laboratory exercise, looking at skin sensitivity by testing the ability to differentiate between two points when they are touched onto various areas of the body. I had the idea to see whether profoundly blind and profoundly deaf children would have patterns of skin sensitivity differing from those in normal children. I wrote to the Blind School and the Deaf School in Brisbane, got access to these kids, and did the very crude tests with normal controls. I spent far too long in the second term of my first year doing this project that wasn’t really worth very much, and without ethics approval or anything. But I got some interesting results, particularly with the blind children. From memory, the skin sensitivity on their hands was very different from that of sighted children.
I was very intrigued by this exceptionally crude little experiment, and from then on I wanted to be a research scientist. Maybe we should be allowing first year students with a little more guidance than I had to undertake research, because I think some students will be very inspired by the experience.
I wasn’t really attracted to doing any more psychology, even though I had done very well in it. There seemed to be too much about it that was ‘soft’. Later, however, when I did my honours project in biology, the elements that attracted me were the combination of field and lab work, and the potential for the work to make a difference. That is not to say that I’m not a great admirer of and advocate for basic research. I acknowledge that it is incredibly important, but I always liked the idea that there would be an applied element in what I did.
Did you go straight from the honours degree to do a PhD at James Cook University?
No. I had won a postgraduate award to go either to the West Indies to work on a marine invertebrate problem or to a Canadian marine laboratory, so I hadn’t applied for a Commonwealth award in Australia. But then Lachlan and I decided to get married and I had to wait a year to get an award in Australia. I went to Townsville because Lachlan had a job there, and for the first year I worked at CSIRO.
So did your private life change the direction of your work towards dugong research?
Not exactly. I continued on the cone shell work for my PhD. After that, though quite by chance I started work on dugongs. I still clearly remember Alister Spain telling me at a dinner party about the work on dugongs that he was doing at the university with George Heinsohn, and my mental response, ‘Golly, I’d love to do that.’ The thing that attracted me even then was the mix of pure science and potential application, the fact that dugongs were traditionally important to indigenous people. But I didn’t say anything to him at that time.
One afternoon in 1973, while I was tutoring in Alister’s undergraduate statistics class, he came in and said, ‘I’ve just had an interview with the Australian Research Grants Scheme people’ (ARGS became the Australian Research Council, ARC) ‘who say that these dugong carcasses that we are getting from the shark nets are incredibly valuable, and we should make sure that we get the maximum value out of every one.’ He went on to say that the interesting question as to whether or not dugongs are ruminants could probably be solved by fairly anatomical and histological examination of the carcasses. ‘Helene, there’s $1000. Would you like to do it?’ There I was, a young scientist with a PhD and commitments to a young family I had one young child and was expecting my second and even then $1000 wasn’t very much money. But I said yes, and I guess that really changed my life: from just this small project I got more and more involved.
Could you tell us a bit about the biology of the dugong, and about your research?
A dugong is a sea cow, a member of the order Sirenia. Their closest living relatives in the marine sense are the manatees, but in other groups of extant mammals they are the elephants. Dugongs are like marine elephants, I guess.
The Sirenia species are vegetarian. Four species exist now three species of manatee and the dugong. The manatees are much less specialist herbivores than the dugong. For example, the Florida manatee eats both freshwater and marine vegetation, and about 70 different species of plant. Dugongs, on the other hand, are seagrass specialists and I guess that makes them, like other specialist species, a lot more vulnerable to human-induced disturbance.
Do dugongs occur only in Australia?
No, they have a huge range: they occur from east Africa across to the Solomon Islands, in the waters of more than 40 countries. But Australia is recognised as their stronghold. Australia and Japan are the only two developed countries with dugongs in their waters. Japan has just a remnant population off the coast of Okinawa. (Fascinatingly, the dugong is currently being used by the Japanese as the symbol for a major dispute about the American military presence in Okinawa.) I think Australia has a pretty big international responsibility for dugong conservation; the reports from all of the other countries are not encouraging.
The research on dugongs started, essentially, as carcass analysis. Dugongs were dying in shark nets set for bather protection; they were being eaten by indigenous people for food. Through George Heinsohn, who set up a program of salvaging carcasses, we got material from quite a lot of animals, and after I’d looked at whether or not they’re ruminants (they’re not) I used that material to start looking at life history. We developed a method of age determination very similar to what had been used for other marine mammals, looking at growth layers in the tusks, which are like growth layers in a tree. They were remarkably clear and we established the periodicity of the rings through an annual increment method: one dark layer and one light layer were laid down per year.
Is that related to the seasonal pattern of the seagrass growth?
We think so. It certainly coincides with that. Seagrass growth is highly seasonal, even in tropical Australia. We then found that dugongs were long-lived and late breeders. They can live to over 70 years of age (as the maximum life span; we’ve seen very few animals that have lived as long as that) and they probably don’t reproduce for the first time before the age of 10. Actually, I have a student doing some more of this work and I think she has an indication that when they’re well fed, such as up in Torres Strait, the pre-reproductive period might be a bit less than in some other animals. But she’s getting a fair range.
Then we looked at the reproductives. The dugongs had a zonary placenta like elephants and that left conspicuous placental scars in the uterus, so it was pretty easy to identify parous individuals. They also had female reproductive cycles which were incredibly like those of elephants in Dick Laws’ papers on elephants I could almost cross out ‘elephant’ and write in ‘dugong’. And we showed that on average they were only having a calf every three years. Again it was very variable, and in some populations at some times it was much less frequently. I think it’s all tied up with the food supply.
How long do they lactate?
We have limited data on that, but lactating females and their calves have been caught in nets and we have aged some calves attending lactating females at 18 months. That all fits in pretty well with the manatee data, except that manatees can breed younger and faster. But they also can eat freshwater vegetation, and they can consume a good deal more in a day than a dugong can. A dugong, being such a specialist feeder, is often quite restricted in what it can eat in a day.
Have you any comments on the recent idea from Roger Short’s group that elephants might have been water-living animals?
I loved that. I found it absolutely fascinating, given the paenungulate links with Sirenia. There has been a suggestion that elephants are terrestrial dugongs, which might indeed be a new way of thinking about it. But probably the more plausible explanation is that they have a common ancestor that lived in marshy country, probably on the interface between land and sea. That fits in with the fossil evidence.
From what you’re saying, the dugong has a life span very similar to humans and it reproduces at about the same age. How do the Torres Strait Islanders and other people around northern Australia who use the dugong regard it? Is it a totemic animal to them?
It is certainly highly valued throughout northern Australia by coastal Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders, and for some groups it’s a totemic animal. Some groups also value green turtles very highly, but usually when there is access to both dugongs and green turtles, dugongs are valued more. A lot of that is tied up with manhood, especially since catching a dugong (particularly with a spear, from a bark canoe) is quite a challenging thing to do. Early this century, for a man in the western islands of Torres Strait to be considered eligible to marry he had to have killed a dugong. So it’s very important to Aboriginality and manhood.
In places such as the western islands of Torres Strait and the remote areas it’s also a really important part of the food supply. I had a student who worked on Mabuiag Island for 18 months, and her census of the number of animals taken indicates that the people are taking enough meat to provide about 300 grams per person per day. Now, I’m sure that not everyone on the island is eating 300 grams of dugong meat per day some would be exported but that gives you an idea of how important it is. (As well it might be, considering how little there is to buy in the store on Mabuiag Island.)
I gather the status of the dugongs is not very healthy. In the traditional culture of the Islanders and the coastal Aborigines, was their hunting sustainable?
I think it was, but whether it is still so is another question and probably varies from place to place. Certainly there is evidence from Torres Strait of a dugong hunting culture that lasted thousands of years, so it must have been sustainable. Torres Strait is the most important dugong area in the world, with seagrass supporting habitat of the order of 17,000 square kilometres, which is huge. It may still be sustainable in that area the jury has to be out. There is probably evidence of local depletion, but some of the most important dugong areas there are not easily accessible by indigenous hunters because they’re right out in the middle and a long way from land. The hunting culture has changed, but I don’t think there is evidence of really serious depletion in Torres Strait.
And around the Queensland coast?
That’s a very different situation. On the Cape York coast there is no evidence of serious depletion in the short term that is, since the mid-’80s when we started developing aerial survey techniques. But on the urban coast of Queensland, loosely defined as Port Douglas south, there is evidence from a number of sources of quite serious depletion. On the anecdotal evidence, in the historical records the numbers of dugongs are so large it’s almost unbelievable. Secondly, our aerial survey evidence indicated a decline between the mid-’80s and the mid-’90s, although recently we’ve done work which suggests that animals have now moved back into the northern part of that area, probably from the more remote regions further north.
We have just analysed a 40-year data set of dugong by-catch in shark nets set for bather protection. (Such a long data set in biology is quite rare, and we got hold of this one only after a lot of debate, the Department of Primary Industries being fairly reluctant to release it.) There are shark nets set at a number of beaches on the Queensland coast with a view to making the beaches safer to bathers, not by providing a wall to stop sharks from coming to the beach but rather as a fishing device to deplete the local population of sharks. Unfortunately, there is a serious by-catch of marine wildlife such as dugongs and dolphins which get tangled in the nets and drown, and our analysis indicates a significant decline in the dugong catch per unit effort of the order of 8.7 per cent a year, for 40 years.
The program also has a serious by-catch of small sharks. They are certainly not fatal to humans, but I guess shark attacks are such an emotive issue that it would now be very difficult for the government to stop the program. Advocates have said, ‘Well, there has been no fatal attack at a meshed beach since it was introduced.’ Other data suggests that the catch per unit effort of major man-eating sharks such as tiger sharks off Townsville, for example, has not changed over the 40-year period, and that the tiger sharks are coming into the region to breed. Because they are not resident in the region, the shark nets may be having no effect at all. But shark meshing on the Queensland and New South Wales coasts is a response to the sort of hysteria and emotive media response we saw last week when two people were killed by white pointer sharks off South Australia.
Whether the number of dugongs caught in shark nets is a reliable index of the dugong population, by the way, is debatable. There is no evidence that the dugongs could learn to avoid the nets, but the human use of the beaches over that 40-year period may have meant that dugongs are less likely to use those areas. We have no data on that. But we do have a data set which indicates a significant depletion in catches over a very long period, and when I combine that with the anecdotal information and the aerial survey data and triangulate, adding in the belief of the indigenous people who use that coast that there has been a serious decline, I think the evidence suggests quite a significant depletion.
Is the problem that people want to bathe at the beaches where the seagrass grows?
In some areas. The causes of the dugong decline are very complicated and difficult to disaggregate, and probably vary in different regions. In the Cairns region, for example, we have the account by Colin Bertram of his visit to that area. He was a biologist who worked on dugongs in the 1960s, and he says that when he went to the Yarrabah community in 1965, those indigenous people claimed to be catching 200 dugongs a year. But now when we’ve done aerial surveys in that region we have seen dugongs in such low numbers that we can’t make a reliable population estimate. In some regions we certainly find evidence of dugongs being caught in gill nets set by commercial fishermen; in other areas there is evidence of significant habitat loss.
Unfortunately we don’t have a 40-year data set for habitat, but we do know the effects of some extreme weather events. For example, in 1992 there were two floods and a cyclone in very quick succession in the Maryborough region. The floods themselves were not remarkable, although one was the fifth highest flood this century, but the fact that there were two of them, three weeks apart, was very unusual. And 1000 square kilometres of seagrass in Hervey Bay was destroyed.
By silt formation?
It was deepwater seagrass that is, seagrass growing near the limits of its light tolerance in greater than 15 metres and with a prolonged flood plume it just had to die. A seagrass survey had been done only a few months before, and then it was repeated. Well, dead dugongs were found all along the New South Wales coast, and some live ones; about 100 dugongs were recovered in the few months after that event, and more were found that year on the New South Wales coast than in all other years put together. So something very strange was going on.
Think about losing 1000 square kilometres of habitat. It has come back, but the concern is that we have extreme weather events coupled with bad land-use practices. For example, the sediment going into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon per year has increased by four or five times since European settlement. We have dugongs in both intertidal and subtidal areas. The intertidal seagrass is probably okay, because it’s getting light when the tide goes out, but the likelihood is that the depth margin of the subtidal seagrass has shrunk. We have no idea, over those sorts of time scales, what habitat loss there has been. But it’s hard to believe, given the Hervey Bay story and similar events, that it hasn’t been quite serious.
So two factors have been affecting the dugong population in the last 40 years: the shark nets and the effects on water quality of changes in agricultural practices?
I think it is more than that, Hugh. There are also gill nets set by commercial fishermen for barramundi, in particular. That fishing industry has grown remarkably in the last 50 years. On the other hand, dugongs are no longer caught commercially for oil, as they were in the early part of the century.
The other thing that has probably been important on a local scale is the changed population distribution of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Before European settlement they would have been strung out along the coast, but now as a result of government policy they’re concentrated in communities. As a related example, one day an elder on Palm Island (a big Aboriginal community near Townsville) was telling me that they couldn’t hunt turtles any more because the turtles were being caught by the trawlers operating offshore. That’s probably true to a certain extent, but as I sat and looked at that community I thought that even to have those 3000 people hunting turtles from bark canoes in one bay would never be sustainable.
When people talk about indigenous hunting they always talk about changes in technology, but the complications include changes in the spatial distribution of people. There are now more Torres Strait Islanders living in mainland Queensland than in Torres Strait. Suppose you come down to Townsville as an economic refugee. You’ve come from dugong city 17,000 square kilometres of habitat, thousands of animals to Cleveland Bay, where there are certainly quite a lot of animals but only in the hundreds. No way could the Torres Strait level of hunting be sustainable there.
So all these young men are unable to meet their manhood requirements and marry?
Well, those customs are breaking down now. But the cultural practices are probably very important. There are very complicated reasons for what has happened to dugongs on the urban coast of Queensland, and they probably vary in different areas.
Have you talked with those people in Cleveland Bay about the findings?
I’ve certainly talked to them. Whether they believe what we tell them is another matter. There has been considerable resistance from the fishing industry about some of our findings. A few years ago the dugong became a symbol for concerns by the conservation movement about fishing. They demanded action on the aerial survey data that indicated a decline, and there were lots of demonstrations about it. In particular, they wanted commercial gill netting banned from the Great Barrier Reef region. This is a broader agenda than just dugongs, however: many conservationists want all commercial fishing banned from the Barrier Reef region. The Commonwealth Minister, Senator Hill, responded to these concerns with quite strong intervention: he introduced ‘dugong protection areas’ in which gill netting was banned, and refused to issue permits for dugong hunting by indigenous people south of Cooktown. And 38 fishing businesses were closed. The fishermen were compensated, but for many of these people it’s a lifestyle issue and they felt very angry indeed about it.
Have you been involved in any other controversy over development areas?
Yes. Dugongs were seen very much as a symbol for Oyster Point, the Port Hinchinbrook development. I think the debate was really about something else, in that the conservation groups were affronted about the Hamilton Island development, which is a product of the same developer as at Hinchinbrook and is seen as very unsympathetic to the environment. But because people find it unacceptable to debate on the grounds of aesthetics, there was a lot of fuss about the dugongs’ seagrass disappearing locally. And dugongs became a symbol for this campaign in effect, ‘marine koalas’.
How do you equip your students with political science as well as biology for their dugong research?
It’s actually quite difficult, and it depends greatly on the student. For example, some of my students have worked extensively in indigenous communities and probably know more about the protocols required than I do. One grew up in Papua New Guinea of mixed racial background, and she is excellent in an indigenous community. Others I wouldn’t let near an indigenous community because they tend to have such a strong pro-conservation stance that they would be quite doctrinaire in their dealings with the people, and that can be very inappropriate.
I talk a lot to my students about the political dimensions of these problems, and some are much more receptive than others. One of my former postdocs, who wears his heart on his sleeve and has a very ‘green’ view, recently completed a report for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. He insisted that a photograph of a boat travelling very close to a dugong clearly, the captain of the boat was oblivious had to be on the front of the report. But the Marine Park Authority were advised that if they went ahead and released the report with this photograph on the front, they could be sued by the owner of the boat. There is now an ongoing debate between the Reef Cooperative Research Centre and this person, who is not prepared to compromise in relation to the political reality of placing the photograph like that. I personally think he’s unwise: he could make his point in other ways but with fewer legal implications. People do differ in how they react to the political nature of the problem.
Does your School of Tropical Environment Studies and Geography have any law as a course component?
Yes, we have a subject in environmental law and policy, which is taught by someone from the School of Law at James Cook University. So our undergraduate students are exposed very much to the broader dimensions of environmental policy but not all graduate students, of course, have such a background.
You have attended overseas conferences on manatees. What have you been able to offer from your Australian experience in dugong research?
Thanks to assistance and advice from Graeme Caughley, we developed aerial survey techniques which were probably more sophisticated than those of the manatee researchers. I’m not totally certain that the way we do it is directly applicable to manatees because they have a more linear distribution, using a very narrow area around the coast, and the spatial scales are really different. Some of our ideas, though, have been influential. The life history data approach that we used for dugongs was then copied for manatees; the converse was that we were able to adapt for dugongs the techniques that had been developed for satellite-tracking manatees. So there’s been quite a bit of synergy, which has helped both groups.
Are manatees common, or are they also threatened by changes?
Well, the absolute number of Florida manatees, just occurring off the Florida coast which is much smaller than the northern Australian coast is considerably smaller than the number of dugongs. However, there’s increasing data that despite the extraordinary urbanisation of the Florida coast, numbers have actually increased since the ’70s perhaps because we’re dealing with a generalist species rather than a specialist one. Florida manatees have teeth very different from dugong teeth, and their jaw opens almost horizontally. Consequently they can feed anywhere in the water column, whereas in dugongs the jaw opens ventrally and they’re obligate bottom feeders. So manatees are a totally different animal, and they have actually been able to take advantage of the huge increase in freshwater aquatic vegetation that has occurred concomitant with the urban development. Some animals just seem to cope very well with urbanisation. To use a possum analogy, manatees are more like brush-tails and dugongs might be like some of the specialist rainforest ringtails.
Let’s now turn to the other marine mammals that you’ve worked with: the porpoises and whales. How did that cetacean work begin?
Again rather by chance. When I first started working on dugong life history and reproductive biology, I had the opportunity to go to an international workshop in La Jolla, California, on age determination in marine mammals. There I met Toshio Kasuya, who was doing a lot of work on cetacean life history based on the Japanese drive fisheries for small cetaceans. Because Japan is so close to ocean environments, it has access to an extraordinary cetacean fauna and these traditional fisheries for so-called small-type whaling have been operating off the Japanese coast since the 15th century at least. The fishermen would drive schools of dolphins or small whales into bays, seal off the bay and kill all the animals in the school.
So when the Japanese say that whale meat is a traditional meat, this is actually true of the small whales?
There was large whaling there too, as a sort of cottage industry. But no-one could say that Antarctic whaling is traditional. I’ve been to places such as Taiji, which has operated as a whaling village for hundreds of years. In fact, I had the privilege of going to a town meeting where the community were having great problems in dealing with the international criticism by so many people of what they had been doing for such a long time. I guess it’s the same sort of reaction as timber workers in Australia have had on discovering that what they’ve spent their life doing is unacceptable. I have often thought how I would feel if being an academic became unacceptable.
Molecular biologists might be in that position nowadays!
You’re right, and it can be hard when people do things generally in good faith, often in ignorance of the broader ramifications of their work.
When Toshio Kasuyo told me, in La Jolla, that he was working on both the reproduction and age determination, I said I was about to start studying dugong reproductive organs but there was nothing written. ‘Can you help me?’ I asked. His reply was, ‘Helene, how about working with me on pilot whale ovaries? You could 'cut your teeth' on ovaries about which a lot more is known, and then go back to the dugong ovaries.’
This was in about 1978. In 1980 I went on a study leave to Canada, and had the opportunity to go to Japan several times and to work with Toshio on the pilot whale ovaries. But because I was based in Vancouver and he was in Tokyo, he did all the age determination completely independently of my looking at the ovaries which in the light of what happened was a great strength to the study. These pilot whales lived to up to age 63, but when Toshio and I met and put all the data together, we had such big samples that we could calculate that when the whales stopped breeding at age 35 they had a mean life expectancy of 14 years. We had found a post-reproductive stage. I did the histology on the ovaries and they were like post-menopausal human ovaries: there weren’t any follicles left. All this was pretty amazing.
This was the first time it had been recorded in a wild mammal, wasn’t it?
That’s right. Even more amazingly, some females were still lactating into their early 50s, even though they had post-reproductive ovaries. We don’t know whether they were suckling their own calves, but when we analysed the age composition of all the schools it was certainly plausible that they were.
Then Peter Best, in South Africa, who had done work on sperm whales, got permission to take some sperm whale calves under scientific permit. Sperm whales are another long-lived group of tooth whales that live in matrifocal kinship groups. That is, the females are very closely related. They stay in the same group for life, with their mothers, and the males the sons move away. (The genetics that has subsequently been done on pilot whales, by the way, substantiates that.)
Apparently, when sperm whales were being hunted for commercial whaling there was a debate about how long their mothers suckled their young. But because even quite young sperm whales eat fish and squid, just looking at what is in their stomachs cannot indicate whether they’re still suckling. So Peter tested for lactose. He found that male sperm whales were suckling up to age 13 and females up to age nine. Whether the males are suckling for that very long time from their mothers or whether there is communal suckling isn’t definitely known, but when we put that together with the pilot whale data and then looked again at the school analysis to correlate the age–sex composition of these schools with these very old lactating females, the most plausible explanation was that they were lactating male calves up to, say, age 13.
Were the male pilot whales living as long as the females?
No. That’s something that has always intrigued me. The differences between human male and female life spans are always attributed to modern stresses on the male, but when you actually review it across mammals and there are species that are sexually dimorphic it’s usual for the larger sex not to live as long as the other sex. We aged the oldest of the male whales at about 45, and once they reached sexual maturity they had a really different mortality profile than the females. They reached sexual maturity much later than the females: not until the late teens, whereas the female pilot whales were reaching sexual maturity about nine. It seemed the mothers or other females were feeding milk to the male whales right up until they reached sexual maturity, and then they were several times bigger than the females.
We don’t know the nutritional advantage of this long lactation, but being a pilot whale could be quite complicated, with a lot of learning involved. There is probably a link between this very long association with the mother and a very long learning period. There seemed to be a trade-off for female pilot whales between bearing and rearing. Only the older females particularly the ones who had reached their last offspring were suckling for such long periods, investing a huge amount in each offspring. The young females were calving much more frequently, probably investing much less. And data from human populations suggests a similar pattern.
Female elephant seals do the same sort of thing, supporting a male offspring for much longer because it’s got a much longer growth period.
Has the political debate about whaling impinged on you as a result of this work?
Not directly. But my colleague, Toshio Kasuya, no longer has access to this material, because the fishermen in Japan don’t like him and so he now works for a university, not the Fisheries Agency. He still goes to International Whaling Commission meetings with funding from the Whaling Commission themselves, but it is really difficult for him to go because the Japanese government always object. They believe that his data don’t support the government stance on whaling. He and I collaborate on dugong work (in which he has been involved in Japan) but not on pilot whales any more. And I haven’t been directly involved with the whaling debate.
I understand that when you became Professor of Environmental Science you wanted a study site on land, and that was the beginning of the Black Rock wallaby study.
Yes. This was really at Rhondda Jones’s instigation. Marine mammal work is logistically difficult and expensive for graduate students, and she was very keen that I set up a terrestrial project. Also, after doing the pilot whale work I was quite intrigued by the idea of setting up a longitudinal study, tracing individuals through time. Black Rock is an isolated outcrop which supports quite a large population (it varies between about 60 and 100) of rock wallabies, Petrogale assimilis. If you’re going to conduct a long-term study like that it is less controversial to work on a relatively common species like Petrogale assimilis than on an endangered species.
The Black Rock site is many kilometres from the nearest such outcrops, and we would have thought that the population was very isolated. But the genetics done by one of my students, Peter Spencer, shows that the colony has very high genetic diversity, so there must be far more connectivity with the other colonies than we’ve ever been able to establish directly. Another of my students did a lot of radio tracking work at the site and never recorded feeding rock wallabies going more than 700 metres from the rock, yet the genetics don’t support that pattern at all. So there’s a really interesting question about dispersal from Black Rock. The study started in 1986 and is still going, but just in maintenance mode now: we’re checking it a couple of times a year. I would like another student to work on that dispersal problem, particularly, although it’s a very hard problem to crack.
The fourth PhD from Black Rock is very close to completion and will be the most exciting. Steve Delean, who is statistically very competent indeed, has taken the longitudinal data set and looked at the patterns over time. (Steve worked as a research officer on the project for a while, so he collected some of the data himself, but he has also used the long-term data collected by everyone else.) He has shown that the size of the population is almost totally explained by variations in the climate. When we have good years, the population booms; when there is a series of droughts, there is almost no recruitment into the colony.
But also Steve has found something absolutely fascinating about the survivorship of the pouch young, before pouch emergence. Correcting back for other components like the age of the mother, the season and the climate at the time of conception these are not seasonal breeders he has found very strong differential survivorship of pouch young of males and females, depending on the season and the climate at the time. When the going is very tough, the male pouch young have a much lower survivorship than the females; when the going is very good, the situation is reversed and male survivorship improves incredibly. That fits in exactly with what one would expect on theoretical grounds, and also with the sorts of things that Clutton-Brock found for red deer. But the nice thing about the rock wallabies is that their long period of pouch life, in which they’re accessible, has allowed Steve to see exactly when this differential survivorship occurs. It’s during the second stage, which is very interesting.
The study has been going almost for the full life of a wallaby, which is normally about 15 years. Are you going to continue it?
It’s getting much harder, which is why I really would like to have another student working there. John Winter has become involved in the study and we have applied for money through the Savanna Cooperative Research Centre, so we hope it’s re-funded. They’re interested in long-term sites and it’s very hard to keep long-term studies going, but that’s a pretty valuable one. The overwhelming influence of climate in that environment is probably not surprising, but it is good to actually have the data.
Helene, after being appointed to a personal chair for research and being involved with students in these fascinating studies, you’re now getting more involved in top management. How are you finding the change to university manager?
It’s a bit of a problem. I probably enjoy everything I do, which makes choices harder. I very much enjoyed being head of the School of Tropical Environment Studies and Geography, but I doubt that I will ever want to be head of school again. I don’t miss fighting with the dean over money, for example. Being dean of postgraduate studies for the university is about policy rather than line management. It is really fascinating during these very turbulent times for research training in Australia, with very dramatic government intervention. Some of it is very good; some is awful.
The good aspect is that the funding for research training is being made much more transparent and universities are being required to respond by spending that money on research training rather than on underwriting undergraduate work as in these recent tight years. We’re also being asked to ensure that supervisors are trained. That’s good, because while some people are excellent supervisors without training, others are not. I suspect that some people are beyond improvement in teaching, but there is certainly potential to make a lot of people a lot better.
We are also being asked to look at skills development for research students, largely because many them will not become academics or researchers but will use their postgraduate training in other ways. Also, because everybody is getting busier and busier, the one-to-one apprenticeship model which we’ve always favoured in this country may not be working as well as it did when time was at less of a premium. So we must provide students, in a rather more organised way, with the opportunity to get the training and the skills they need for both their project and their career. When students come in, we really have to look at their needs. For example, if they’re going to need multivariate statistics to analyse their data in year three, we have to do something to make sure that they have those skills in advance. I guess there’s enough of a missionary in me to be quite attracted to the challenge of implementing excellence in research training. Because I have had a lot of students myself, I’m very committed to excellent research training.
To an older generation, training seems almost the antithesis of research. I think that in your own career the ideas and the questions have come first and then you’ve got the tools to solve them just as in the traditional view of research. Does the increased emphasis on necessary training diminish the curiosity side of research?
I think it does, and that is a major concern. I worry to see more and more research scholarships tied to specific projects. Like you, I routinely review for the Australian Research Council. I get concerned when an ARC project is developed in enormous detail and we are told that most of the work will be done by a student who will start on 30 January, say, and go out collecting data as from 5 February. (I have actually seen such a thing in a proposal.) Where does that leave the student? Is the student being turned into a research assistant? I don’t like that. I am not opposed to the idea of some of our students doing projects where the topic is predetermined, but I hate it when the project is determined in incredible detail. Students have to put their own stamp on the work. We’re training creative researchers, not automatons.
Could we turn from influences on research training to influences on the way the research results are published. With funds coming now from outside stakeholders, there may be a tendency to think it is necessary only to write the report for the stakeholder, not to publish in refereed journals. Is peer review still of value?
Peer review is absolutely essential. Even when I have to write reports, I now insist on peer review as part of the contract. Some government agencies require peer review to protect them; I want peer review to protect me and my integrity as a researcher. When my research has led to controversial policy, I have found that the people impacted by the policy have reacted by hiring their own researchers with the specific agenda of destroying the research reputation and destroying the research on which the policy is built. I feel very, very strongly that the only protection against that is peer review.
I believe that when peer review standards are paramount, that fact colours the whole research process right from the beginning: you design all the research with the aim that it will satisfy an impartial judge. Is that your view?
I agree. I support Cooperative Research Centres, but I am seeing the flip side. For example, the government agency most involved with the Reef CRC, the Marine Park Authority, see research as providing the information they want, often for political ends. I think that an agency which asks for the research, the information, that it wants will be less concerned about the process of research and the rigour of the process. When you know something is going to be subjected to peer review, your integrity as a scientist becomes very important and you’re not going to compromise the process. But I feel we are under increased pressure to compromise process.
I am concerned also that a set of data can be interpreted in different ways depending on the theoretical paradigm of the researcher. (This is acknowledged in the code of conduct of the Ecological Society of Australia.) I’ve certainly found that fisheries scientists and conservation biologists interpret data quite differently. Regardless of who might be right or wrong there, we have to acknowledge that those different paradigms exist and that research presented only as information can very much be misinterpreted. We do need to have those debates and it is important that different people might look at the same set of data in different ways. I am concerned that when research is seen purely as information we’ll lose this. It is too easy to select information that supports your argument or, more scarily, to bury the information that doesn’t support your argument.
It is really important to make young scientists more aware of the dangers of their research being used wrongly. I think they often have too idealistic a view of research. I certainly found, when my research was criticised in a pretty nasty way by the fishing industry, that I was very unprepared for such an attack. But senior colleagues who had been involved in the forest debate were surprised at my naivety. We don’t talk nearly enough about these broader dimensions of research, but unless we do, other researchers will be burned. So I would like us to be talking about these problems.
I have a Pew Fellowship in marine conservation. The Fellows get together every year at wonderful meetings of the Pew Foundation to talk about their work and its broader dimensions, but even in that forum I find that scientists who have never been exposed to the darker side of science tend to be very dismissive of the concerns of those that have. One of the Pew Fellows is a woman who works on Pfiesteria, a toxic marine dinoflagellate about which there have been programs on Australian television. There was evidence that the effluent from pig farming in Chesapeake Bay in the United States was influencing the outbreaks of Pfiesteria, but of course the pig farmers didn’t want to know about it: the researcher was subjected to the most extraordinary abuse. (She has since been vindicated.) We have to prepare young scientists to recognise that these things can happen.
There is a long tradition of challenging science with calumny. Rachel Carson was pilloried by the chemical industry when she wrote her original book, Silent Spring. Do you address this problem in your postgraduate courses?
I do, actually. I give examples and I talk about it. I also talk to students a lot about the continuum from being what I call an analyst to being an advocate. I tell them that where they want to be on that continuum is up to them, but I certainly warn them about taking the extreme advocate position, because I believe that scientists who do that usually diminish their reputation as scientists. I don’t tell them not to do it, but I tell them to think very carefully if they’re going to do it.
We come back to peer review, don’t we?
Absolutely. Peer review is absolutely critical to the standards in science.
Let’s look at one more question facing some students. You had a very supportive family who didn’t see that being a girl precluded being a research worker. But for others there have been big problems. What is it like for your women students today?
I think women are now less confused about the potential for a dual role. Whereas for a long time I felt quite confused about how I could undertake a dual role, or even whether I should, I think my women students have no doubts. On the other hand, some of them seem not very pragmatic about managing the complexity of that dual role. The fact that I had a child while I was a PhD student seems to have been a licence for a number of my students to do likewise, but many of them have probably done it in a much less supportive environment than mine was. Some of them may have been quite unrealistic about what they could and couldn’t do. So the belief that you can do everything does have a flip side. People do need to be a bit pragmatic and look at what’s realistic.
This has been a most interesting day, Helene, and I hope that many other people will take heart from what you’ve been saying. Thank you very much.
Thanks, Hugh. I’ve enjoyed it.