Herpetologist, wildlife photographer and self-confessed lizard nerd, Dr Sophie Cross (pronouns: she/her) has spent the past few years working to understand the behaviour and ecology of vertebrate fauna, specifically reptiles following mine site restoration in the remote mid-west of Western Australia. Today, Sophie shares her journey as well as some great career advice for getting to where you want to be in the wildlife space…
MEASURING THE IMPACTS OF MINE RESTORATION
Sophie finished up her PhD about a year ago now, focused on how reptiles in the mid-west region of Western Australia respond to mine site restoration. In terms of mine sites, Sophie focused on the waste rock dump of open-cut mines (which is basically the “left over rock” from the extraction process). Mining companies are required to meet standards of restoration in this area following the end of a mine sites life. Sophie explains:
“Most mine site restoration is focused around plant communities with little attention given to animals. I was specifically looking at how animals, particularly the monitor lizards (goannas), returned to restored habitats: whether or not they returned, and if they did, understanding their behaviour”
Monitor lizards have always fascinated Sophie and quickly became the focus of her thesis:
“They are an incredibly diverse group with huge variety of ecologies and size, ranging from about 20 centimeters in length up to Komodo dragon size (three meters!)”
Sophie anticipated that the restoration site might be quite different to undisturbed sites in terms of the animals that were using it, which to a certain extent was true. But her research had some exciting results: at an early stage within the restoration process (two-three years in), particular animal groups were returning, including mammals like kangaroos as well as large reptiles.
“I ended up attaching a GPS tracker to a young perentie goanna, Australia’s largest lizard species, and found they were actually using the site and not just passing through”
Sophie originally thought that large animals like this might not be settling in restored areas as they may not have the resources necessary to promote long-term use. But Sophie’s tracker found reptiles like the perentie were sheltering, burrowing and even mating within the site!
“This could be an excellent sign for the restoration if Perentie’s are mating in the area”
As restored sites become more established with increased vegetation cover over time, animals with more specific requirements may also begin to return to re-paint the ecosystem picture, and be representative of conditions prior to the mine construction. Of course, plants are an important part of habitats, but Sophie would love to see animals as a primary consideration in mine site restoration:
“It would be fantastic to start bringing animals into the restoration equation more often, as they are often overlooked with a general assumption that they’ll return to the landscape as plants re-establish”.
There are often critical interactions between the animals and plants, and often when we bring back animals into landscapes, we bring with them essential ecosystem services they provide like seed dispersal, pollination and increasing water infiltration by burrow digging. Without understanding how animals respond to restoration, sites may look vegetated but lack key interactions to actually keep these ecosystems functional.
Like so many ecologists, Sophie’s journey has been far from linear although she’s had a passion for wildlife since she was very young:
“I always had a huge interest in animals. Since I was a kid all I wanted to do was work with them although I didn’t realize being a scientist was an actual career path until later”
Throughout her undergraduate degree in wildlife management, Sophie was looking to narrow down her niche. During work experience at Perth Zoo, where she made friends with a man who was in charge of the reptile enclosures.
“At that point, I was a little hesitant about reptiles but he basically kept handing me snakes to hold and kind of forced that fear out and ended up taking me to look for some wild reptiles in local bushland areas… that really kick-started my love of reptiles.”
So, it was just a chance meeting with one person where Sophie finally found what it was that she was passionate about. At the time Sophie graduated, there was a hiring freeze, so it was difficult to get a job in biology. After working a couple of casual jobs to get by, the opportunity to do a PhD came up – with a couple of topics they were looking to address.
“None of them were really that interesting to me as they were plant-focused, so I pitched the idea which became my PhD”
CHANGING THE STIGMA AROUND REPTILES
Sophie believes that much of the stigma around reptiles, such a snakes, comes from ignorance which is harmful to the reputation of reptiles. She explains –
“I never really understood a lot about reptiles and grew up with the ideas that snakes were aggressive and dangerous even when unprovoked. But when I started to understand their ecology and behavior, my perspective started to shift”
“Australia is basically the coolest place to be if you’re interested in reptiles and there is a huge opportunity to educate people to reduce that stigma around reptiles”
Sophie uses her passion for wildlife photography, research and outreach opportunities to show the fascinating and beautiful side of reptiles, and ultimately change the negative stigma associated with them. Sophie has a wealth of resources available on her website for this purpose.
FINDING A JOB IN WILDLIFE BIOLOGY
Like so many others, a big challenge for Sophie was landing a job in wildlife biology, largely because it is such a competitive and underfunded field. So, what helped Sophie?
- Find your passion (volunteering on different projects is a great way to do this)
“What helped me was cementing where I wanted to be, the understanding of what it was that really drove me… and then learning that to further that career I could go back and do some more research and get specific skills in this field”
- Take opportunities presented
“Go out and seek opportunities presented to you – this has helped further me in my career, especially whilst studying… my primary supervisor was exceptionally encouraging and suggested opportunities to speak at conferences or help out on research projects”
“For me, the hardest part was my own self-confidence because when I started out, I was afraid of public speaking. But the opportunities and encouragement, ultimately shifted my perspective and now I love presenting my research!”
“I know that that is not always the case for women in science, but I have had fantastic luck and a lot of support which has been amazing”
- Build your network
KEEP IN TOUCH
Want to hear more from Sophie? Tune into the podcast for more insight into her research and journey. You can follow her adventures and wildlife photography on Instagram @squamataout, her website and read her research on Google Scholar.
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Sophie acknowledges all funding partners who helped throughout her thesis research, including the Curtin University ARC Centre for Mine Site Restoration, and the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment. Her research was done through the Behavioural Ecology Lab at Curtin University.