7 April 2012

Questions, Questions

By Australian guest blogger Rachel Slatyer. Rachel is a PhD candidate studying adaptation in alpine grasshoppers. She spends her spare time sailing on tall ships and hopes to combine her science and sailing passions through involvement in the HMS Beagle Project.

When Charles Darwin put forward his theory of evolution by natural selection, could he have imagined the enormous number of questions that would arise from it? 150 years on, the huge volume of research on evolution and how it works still seems to provide more questions than answers.

A little over a month ago, I was sailing into Adelaide on HMB Endeavour, seven weeks after leaving Fremantle. I left the ship to start a 3-year PhD, and during my last days on board I was asked multiple times “So, why are you starting a PhD?” As I sat at my desk, struggling to absorb an overwhelming amount of new information about mountains, physiology, genetics and grasshoppers, I asked myself the same question. Why was I back at university when I could be sailing?

My research is looking into adaptations to life in alpine environments, with a focus on grasshoppers. In Australia, true alpine regions make up a tiny proportion of the country’s land area – 0.15% to be precise. Mountains here aren’t very high either (our highest, Mount Kosciuszko, is 2200m), so there is not a lot of room for animals or plants to shift up-mountain with increasing global warming. 

Feral horses or "Brumbies", one of the region's more robust species / Rachel Slatyer

Here we have a dilemma – species must adapt to cope with warmer temperatures or face extinction. While there is little doubt such adaptation is possible given enough time, whether evolution can occur at a pace equal to global warming is less clear. Finding out exactly what features allow animals to live in the alpine environment (not the easiest of places) is the first step in answering this big question.

The Bogong High Plains, regenerating after 2003 wildfires / Rachel Slatyer

Science can be a lonely road, especially at the beginning of a new project. Everybody is busy on their own work, writing, doing fieldwork, preparing talks. This was a hard change after the camaraderie of the ship. However, I was soon to be reminded how tremendously stimulating and exciting science research can be. 

Last week I was lucky enough to join a group from a different university on a trip to Thredbo, a mountain village in the Australian Alps. At our lodge on the first evening, we pored over a huge book covering every Australian grasshopper species, trying to make sense of cryptic species descriptions (“frontal costa not, or very little sulcate”?!). We studied our specimens under the microscope and had a lengthy discussion about whether a particular part of the body was best described as a “thin transverse plate” or “wedge-shaped”. 

Can she adapt? Chameleon grasshopper / Rachel Slatyer
The next day, we watched tiny males locked in fierce combat, and pondered why grasshoppers near the bottom of the mountain would jump when you disturb them, while those at the top would bury themselves in the grass. This must surely be an evolutionary adaptation, and I’m now curious about what would happen if you took a grasshopper from the top of a mountain and put it near the bottom – would it start jumping?

Questioning, proposing explanations, and weighing up the merits of different arguments is, I think, the essence of science, and what makes it exciting. We didn’t agree on an answer to any of our questions and merely came up with more, but that didn’t really matter.

Like finding a needle in a haystack: a view of Central Ramshead
from a field site / Rachel Slatyer
Hiking for two hours up a mountain to look at something on the top and spending an hour searching for an animal that isn’t there doesn’t feel like work. Studying in an environment that is virtually unchanged from what it would have been a hundred or two hundred years ago, and in which there is still such a huge amount to learn provides a sense of freedom and discovery that is remarkably akin to being out in the open ocean on a sailing ship…

So next time somebody asks me why I’m doing a PhD when I could be sailing, I’ll have an answer for them. 

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