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Gamifying ecology to promote wildlife conservation with Dillon Jones

Dillon Jones (pronouns: he/him) is a biologist and science communicator who wears many hats in both of these worlds. His Masters research is combining ecology and evolution to examine the diversity and biogeography of reptiles and amphibians in Central America. Over on his online platform, @dillonthebiologist, Dillon gamifies ecology with live-streamed nature-themed gameshows, iNaturalist bio blitz challenges and even field trips to engage people in wildlife conservation and natural sciences in a totally unique way!

Gamifying ecology to promote wildlife conservation with Dillon Jones @dillonthebiologist | #itsawildlife

DILLON’S JOURNEY

Based in Texas, USA, Dillon grew up with a fear of all things squelchy, slimy, creepy or crawly. No, you didn’t read that wrong!

I wouldn’t go gardening because I was scared of worms, I wouldn’t swim in lakes because I was scared of sharks… I could probably blame nineties shows like Top 10 Deadliest”

Then one day, the switch just flipped and he wasn’t scared anymore. From that moment forwards, you couldn’t keep this kid out of the outdoors! Dillon nurtured his passion for reptiles and amphibians, started keeping many different animals as pets and as soon as he finished high school, enrolled to study biology. From his first semester of undergrad, Dillon got really involved in research and this evolved as time went on.

“I really wanted to do animal behavior and captive management, possibly work at a zoo but then I sort of fell in love with ecological research and just kept pursuing that pathway”

Dillon started working with natural specimens at a museum and did an internship in Belize during his undergraduate degree. These experiences ignited his passion for ecological research and gave him the skills and confidence to be the biologist he has become today. Having focused on ecology early on, Dillon was interested in learning more about the evolution side of life… introducing Dillon’s masters.

MASTERING REPTILE BIOGEOGRAPHY

If ecology and evolution got married and had a kid, it would be Dillon’s Masters project: a massive, data-intensive macro evolution study which is trying to understand why there are so many species of reptiles and amphibians in central and middle America like that area between Mexico and Panama.

This region has a massive amount of diversity, over 2,500 species – with many groups found nowhere else in the world – and understanding the influences of both evolution and ecology!

“My research basically manages a large, open-access dataset which tries to incorporate the entire evolutionary history of each organism with their geographic distributions, as well as other variables attached to each record like temperature, humidity, elevation.”

This means that there are massive conservation implications for understanding the distributions and abundances of organisms within this biodiversity hotspot. Rather than just drawing lines on a map, Dillon is teasing apart the influences and identifying areas of unique biodiversity, and in doing so, he is painting a picture that spans millions of years:

“That’s what drew me to it. Ecology is like the most gorgeous cover to a book and evolution is the story told within it.”

GAMIFYING ECOLOGY WITH @DILLONTHEBIOLOGIST

Dillon has always loved science communication. An early professional experience was writing online articles during a six-month internship for the Kashmir Wildlife Foundation, an organization trying to establish a wildlife sanctuary in Kashmir. From this, Dillon started working closer to home to educate people in-person about the local native wildlife.

“And that naturally led into science communication on social media, and it just snowballed from there over the past 5 or 6 years… and I guess it’s sort of my career now in a way.”

Through his Instagram, @dillonthebiologist, Dillon hosts online events including live-streamed nature-themed gameshows, mystery nature theatre and iNaturalist bio blitz challenges that encourage citizen science. Dillon also runs fieldtrips in central America that showcase the unique and exciting species of this region and teach skills in natural science. Information about these can be found on Dillon’s website, Learn Adventurously. Dillon uses these experiences, not just for engaging and educating people about the wonderful world of wildlife, but also to raise money for important research and conservation work being done to protect it.

Dillon is all about citizen science and recognizes that we are currently in the age where the next billion users will get on the internet – and this will make nature-based citizen science more easily accessible than ever before. For Dillon this is really important for breaking down barriers to entry:

“Citizen science is a really important way of breaking down entry barriers into science and ecology in particular, when people can start to empower themselves with knowledge of the natural world, without needing a degree or 10-years-experience – and contribute to an important nature database.”

ADVICE FOR (ASPIRING) BIOLOGISTS

“It’s tough… beyond tough… way tougher than it should be.”

With high workloads, minimal financial support and tight deadlines, academia can be a difficult space to navigate and Dillon reminds us that while it is so exciting to work in research if that’s what you want to pursue – there are so many other options as well worth considering: working in laboratories, government positions, consultancies, field roles or even science communication.

He has the following advice for entry-level biologists:

  • Your passion doesn’t have to be your job – some things should stay a hobby, while other things will make you money.
  • Take breaks
  • Getting organized really does matter (even if you’re not an organized person)
  • Set hard deadlines for yourself and try your best to stick to them

Above all, in biology, in science communication, in general life really, especially when you’re starting out, don’t worry about making it perfect, instead focus on consistently creating content or taking steps towards your goal.

Just start, do something simple and don’t worry about it being perfect. Perfection will come eventually. Just worry about getting stuff out there. It’s something I always like to leave off with: if you want to educate, if you want to do science communication or research, if you want to be an activist or a biologist or anything really – just get started!”

KEEP IN TOUCH

Want to hear more from Dillon? Tune into the podcast! You can follow Dillon’s adventures on Instagram @dillonthebiologist and head there for more information on naturalist showdowns, iNaturalist bio blitz challenges and so many more fun biology-themed online events! You can also check him out on Twitter and YouTube. For more information on Dillon’s Learn Adventurously business including field trips check out his website!

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