Today we are speaking with the beautiful and bubbly Jenna Diehl who is in the final year of her PhD at Monash University studying impacts of temperature on two species of fairywren nestlings: the Superb in the south-east and Purple-crowned Fairywrens in the north-west of Australia.
Climate change predictions are turning up the heat for many species as they risk being pushed to conditions outside of their thermal tolerances. This could reduce their capacity to feed and breed, and ultimately lead to sharp population declines: an outcome best avoided if at all possible.
Luckily, ecologists like Jenna are working very hard to better understand and protect our beautiful birds in the context of climate change. And while most studies are focused on adults, Jenna is looking after the little ones, the nestlings, as after all it is important to look at species across their lifespan and nestlings are the future!
Jenna’s fairywren project
She has just finished her final field season which has been a massive undertaking: following Superb Fairywrens from hatching to breeding (1 year later) by looking to resight individuals often and finding lots of nests. She has also looked at the metabolic responses of both Superb and Purple-crowned Fairywren nestlings in response to increasing temperatures.
Jenna measured over 500 Superb Fairywrens and followed 50 birds for resightings. The main goal of keeping track of adults is to determine how heat exposure as a nestling affects them later on.
Jenna explains, “So, I collect the nest temperatures of all the nestlings I measure and then follow them into adult hood.”
Males tend to remain on their home territory while females seem to be more dispersive, allowing her to keep track of the lifetime success for many male nestlings. The past 2 years were relatively cold, making it difficult to study the effects of heat, however a heatwave after Christmas stopped nesting attempts by the fairywrens.
And what about the nestlings? Most species have a thermal tolerance, above which they start to face heat stress, expressed as a rapid increase in metabolic rate (measure of energy use). Jenna’s research found the tropical Purple-crowned Fairywrens maintained constant metabolic rates between 35 and 41oC and didn’t express heat stress until they were exposed to temperatures above 41oC! The Superb Fairywren nestlings had similar thermal limits but pervious research had found that adults experienced stress above 35oC, much different to the nestlings. This is potentially good news for fairywrens – could their developmental temperature influence adult coping plasticity?
Project highlights and lowlights?
For someone as passionate about birdwatching as Jenna, it’s been the little moments she’s enjoyed: watching a female Superb Fairywren taking flower petals from a male, building nests and once, she watched a bird catapulted back into its nest after trying to grab a piece of vine!
Unfortunately, the fairywrens are vulnerable to high predation rates, especially as young birds. Despite this, Jenna says you can still grow attached to them and has even named some birds!
Jenna says one of the scariest moments of her project was when she was asleep in her hut one night at the Purple-crowned Fairywren field research station and a 2 m Olive Python slithered into bed with her! Once she was over the initial shock, she has since been able to laugh about the experience!
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Jenna always loved birds, and after receiving her first pair of binoculars from her Dad at only 6 years old, she began watching her backyard birds and taking long hikes in nature. When she finished high school, she began volunteering at a wild bird rescue and enrolled in engineering at university. However, on the first day, Jenna walked into the wrong orientation where she heard about an internship, working with Common Terns on Lake Ontario, Canada. Would you call that fate? She immediately swapped to a degree in conservation ecology and in-tern-ed throughout her undergrad, completing her own research with Common Terns at the end.
After university, Jenna spent 6 months working with Greater Sage Grouse in Nevada while she applied for Masters and PhD projects.
“I knew I wanted to go back to research… it’s so nice to see everything come together, and see the results of the data you work so hard to collect”
When she saw an advert for the fairywren project in Australia, Jenna took a leap of faith and jumped at the opportunity.
“Such a magical name the “fairy wren” – I loved the idea of being in remote areas studying birds, spending most of my time outside”
Advice for working with wildlife
You can start your journey as an ecologist today – get outdoors – enjoy nature and wild places. There are so many “field skills” that can’t be taught in the classroom: preparing your gear, hiking in all conditions and even popping a squat in the bush!
Experience is everything, especially early on – and in the field of wildlife conservation, experience can be broad and help you refine what you do and don’t like.
As for PhD advice – Jenna says there are so many ways to find a project – while some are advertised, many are not – and reaching out to supervisors or organisations is a great way to find a project within your field of passion. So be brave and go after what YOU want!
There are so many things you learn from a PhD aside from your actual thesis: you’ll learn more about yourself, you’ll become more comfortable independently and become a self-starter when you design and implement your very own project.
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Collaborations and funding:
This project is being completed through Monash University with additional funding from Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment (Ecological Society of Australia), BirdLife Australia and ABSA.
Links of importance: