Dr Tahneal Hawke (pronouns: she/her) is an ecologist working with the Platypus Conservation Initiative, a group at University of New South Wales dedicated to, as they put it, reducing the risk of extinction to platypuses through scientific research, improved management, and increased awareness. Tahneal shares her experience working with these elusive and quirky critters, as well as her career advice for anyone looking to do the same!
Since she can remember Tahneal has always loved animals, so working in wildlife conservation was always on the cards. She says –
“I loved having pets when I was a kid and I thought maybe I wanted to do something like work at a zoo.”
During her undergrad with a major in ecology and biology, Tahneal was exposed to fieldwork through the course and volunteer opportunities. And she was sold –
“On field trips, you’re out in the middle of nowhere working long days with sleepless nights, but you’re having fun with a group of friends and because of the work you’re doing you feel like you’re really making a difference”
This set Tahneal on the path towards wildlife conservation. Although she wasn’t set on academia, when she saw a PhD project advertised in platypus conservation – she couldn’t say no! The project, through the Platypus Conservation Initiative at the center for ecosystem science, University of NSW was looking at the impacts of dams and platypus declines.
“Since I finished my PhD, I’ve kept in the Platypus world, looking further into the threats and working towards re-introducing platypus into the Royal National Park.”
The work that Tahneal has been doing with the Platypus Conservation Initiative has been trying to understand the impacts of threats to platypuses in order to accurately assess their conservation status. And now, Tahneal and her team are trying to do something more proactive to halt the decline of platypuses, through translocation!
“At the moment, we’re working to reintroduce platypus to Royal National Park, just south of Sydney, where they haven’t been seen for about 20 years. The aim is to re-establish a viable population of platypus, and give us really good insights into developing translocation protocols.”
This will be really important in the context of climate change and forecasts of severe drought in the not-too-distant future. Drought doesn’t sound like a good idea for the semi-aquatic platypuses who may need to be moved if rivers dry out. This work should allow the Platypus Conservation Initiative and their partner organizations to manage these situations as they arise in the future.
WORKING WITH THE PLATYPUS
The Platypus is a pretty special animal, best described as a cross between beaver-like creature with a duck’s bill! They’re, semi-aquatic, endemic (only found in Australia) monotreme mammals (they lay eggs!), found in waterways from about Cooktown in Queensland, all the way down to Tasmania. One other crazy feature is the spurs on the hind legs of male platypus – which contain venom!
“I was really interested in working with platypuses as I think they’re a little bit crazy… and the more we learn about them, the more I realize just how unique this animal is!”
Although they nest and rest along river banks, actually the best way to get your hands on a platypus for monitoring and translocation is in the water! As Tahneal explains, the process of catching platypus is quite intensive –
If the platypus is in a large deep pool, we use what’s called an unweighted gill net or mesh net, set parallel to the bank: when platypus swim into the net they rise to the surface for air where they are seen or heard and Tahneal can jump in the tinny and extract them into a pillow case.
Otherwise, if it’s a shallower, narrower creek, Tahneal uses Fyke nets, essentially two wings that block a river channel with a series of funnels where the Platypus can rest in or out of the water.
“With these nets, we’ll set them in the afternoon and check them every three hours until dawn – so we’re definitely a little bit nocturnal when we’re trapping this way!”
HOW YOU CAN HELP PLATYPUS
Tahneal says there are several ways that YOU can help protect the platypus (if you live within their range). Here are three ways:
- Report your platypus sightings – so much platypus research relies on citizen science data!
- Participate in riparian (riverside) restoration
- Try to minimize plastic consumption and cut hair ties and elastic bands before you bin them in case they end up in the waterways – wildlife can become tangled in them!
- If you fish, never leave lines unattended and always take your fishing line with you.
WORKING IN RESEARCH
Like so many people, as Tahneal went through her undergrad, she was always aware that there were concerns about the limited opportunities to work in conservation and with wildlife.
“I think I persevered through that by getting as much experience as I could – and then going on to do my Honours and PhD working with animals… although I definitely don’t think having a PhD is required to do this kind of work, but if you find your niche and you love answering questions, research could be amazing!”
Working in research or academia is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in your passion and dedicate your time to answering ecological and conservation-focused questions.
For Tahneal, the benefits of working in research have been the field work and flexibility to design your own research questions and actually head out in the field to answer them!
“And as you’re working, you’re coming up with new questions and new ideas, and I really love the concept of creating knowledge and answering questions. I think that aspect of research is amazing – why I love it.”
One big frustration to research work for Tahneal is the focus on publications which creates pressure because of the implications for grant opportunities and ultimately your future in academia. In terms of getting started on building your publication record, Tahneal has some advice –
“Make it a priority from the beginning of your post-grad journey and don’t leave it too long to publish your research – it’s so hard to get back into it when you have to re-learn and re-do your project results… starting the process and chipping away at it each day will get you there!”
WORK-LIFE BALANCE IN ACADEMIA
Like so many wildlife professionals, Tahneal has found burnout and an absence of work-life balance to be of huge concern amongst the wildlife research and conservation space. She explains –
“Especially in higher research, there’s a mentality of working all the time, which can cause exhaustion and burnout, as well as reduce your productivity.”
Dealing with this is a constant learning process – it’s all about setting boundaries and listening to your body to learn your limitations. As Tahneal explains –
“I think I’m much better at it than I was during my PhD when I had deadlines and commitments and felt I was working all the time… And I think you feel as though that’s a requirement of you as a PhD student, but now I see balance is really important”
If you feel like this applies to you – Tahneal has advice –
“The first step is acknowledging it. In the office, I try to have set work hours and avoid responding to emails outside of these and after long periods in the field, I try to schedule a guilt-free day off to recover. I’m more than two years out of my PhD now and I still struggle with the guilt of taking time off or not being as productive as I should be so it’s a constant process”.
WOMEN IN ACADEMIA
Tahnealhas had a largely positive experience as a woman working in natural sciences, thanks to female role models, she never felt out of place.
“It’s really nice to be part of something with women in similar roles – it feels inspiring and very natural for me to progress in these areas… but I understand this isn’t everyone’s experience.”
However, there is definitely room for more women to take on higher positions of leadership which she believes is something universities are working to improve.
OVERCOMING IMPOSTER SYNDROME
Imposter syndrome is something that affects so many people, especially women in competitive fields like ecology. Tahneal agrees –
“I think it’s a huge problem, something I still suffer with so in that sense, I don’t have any tips on how to fully overcome it… Rather, I think it’s one of those things you work on every day”
To navigate this space – Tahneal suggests affirmations, and trying not to compare yourself to others – after all, everyone is on their own path and you never know what’s going on behind the scenes!
“This has certainly helped me in terms of having a voice and supporting myself a bit more.”
OVERALL ADVICE FOR YOU
From her experience, Tahneal has her three top tips for getting your foot in the door in the wildlife world –
- Get involved in projects to figure out what you love and want to pursue (volunteering can be a great way to do this!)
- Try not to become disheartened –
“Conservation can be a bit of a mental game if you’re working on a threatened species and you’re watching it decline. That can be tough. My advice would be to try and use that as your motivation to keep pursuing positive conservation outcomes.”
- When the going get’s tough, remember your why
KEEP IN TOUCH
Want to hear more from Tahneal or the Platypus Conservation Initiative? Tune into the podcast! You can also follow their adventures on Instagram @platypus_ci
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Tahneal works as part of the Platypus Conservation Initiative (PCI), a group formed by the University of New South Wales but everything that they do for Platypus is a big collaboration. Tahneal and the PCI work closely with Taronga Conservation Society, WWF Australia, Australian Conservation Foundation, New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Services, as well as Healesville Sanctuary and other platypus organizations. So, there’s a lot of people as around Australia who collaborate on a regular basis to deliver positive outcomes for platypus conservation.