Learning the Complexities of Conservation Biology

Posted: September 29, 2015

Conservation biology is often described as a ‘crisis discipline’. Resources for conservation are usually limited, demanding prioritization under inclusion of strict criteria. Furthermore, our knowledge on ecological patterns and processes is often insufficient to assess whether a planned conservation action can be successful. Students at the SFS Center for Rainforest Studies (CRS) get familiar with conservation issues of the Wet Tropics of Australia and discover research needs to assist in better conservation of the values of the Wet Tropics. Towards the end of the semester students will become involved in research projects that are part of the Centre’s long-term strategic research agenda and are closely linked with urgent conservation issues of Australia’s Wet Tropics.

But research entails more than just the accumulation of results by conservation biologists. Unlike scientists of other disciplines, conservation biologists have an additional unusual burden, namely the responsibility to disseminate their results in order to ensure their application and use in management and policy making (Dickman 2013). This makes conservation biology a very complex discipline. Students at CRS become aware of this complexity by the many linkages that exist between the three courses they attend here during their semester abroad. While they learn about the various damaging impacts of human activities on our ecosystems and species and attempts to investigate how to mitigate these impacts, they also become familiar with ways to explore human perceptions on these damaging impacts, how to inform the public about new ways to achieve effective conservation, and how to assess the willingness of people to apply new mitigating measures.

Current students at CRS have already experienced some examples of this complexity during their first three weeks here in Australia. For example: they learned about invasive species and how these species can reduce and even destroy the biodiversity of our native species. They then attended a public lecture at James Cook University in which scientists demonstrated their research results to the public and explained what community members can do in their backyards to control the spread of the very invasive and destructive Yellow Crazy Ant (Anoplolepis gracilipes) which poses a threat to the biodiversity of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area.

At another occasion students learned about the impact of feral predators, such as dogs and cats, on our unique Australian animals. Dog control and management can become very sensitive issues as they may interfere with the privacy of individuals’ right to manage their own dogs. It is essential to explore whether people are aware of the threat domestic predators pose to our wildlife and to assess people’s perceptions to dog control. Students tried to find this out and used World Cassowary Day, which was held in Mission Beach on the 26th of September, to interview people on theses topics.

Like many conservation-minded groups, SFS also presented itself on that day with a booth in which it displayed examples of its educational and research mission on various posters. One poster informed the public about the susceptibility of Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos (Dendrolagus lumholtzi) to domestic dogs. Some of my recent research shows that Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos recognize the odor of dogs as odor from a predator, but respond to it in an inappropriate way (Heise-Pavlov 2015). Instead of climbing further up on a tree, they select an antipredatory strategy that helped their ancestors, the rock-wallabies, to escape from the predator, namely to run away on the ground. But this is an insufficient tactic for tree-kangaroos that have now well adapted to a life in the canopies which made them incapable of running fast enough on the ground. Any encounter of a tree-kangaroo with a dog is likely to be fatal for the tree-kangaroo.

Students interviewed more than 100 people and will now start to analyse the data to assess whether people are aware of the impact dogs can have on our wildlife and whether they are willing to manage their dog in an appropriate way. With these interviews students make a valuable contribution to the conservation work of CRS which consists of education, research, and dissemination of knowledge to the public.


Dickman, C. R. (2013): Human community ecology: making connections for conservation. – Pacific Conservation Biology 19: 312-319.

Heise-Pavlov, S. (2015): Evolutionary aspects of the use of predator odors in antipredator behaviors of Lumholtz’s tree-kangaroos (Dendrolagus lumholtzi). – In: Chemical Signals in Vertebrates 13, (Eds. Schulte, B. Goodwin, T.), Springer New York, in print