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Under the Mistletoe, out in the meadow – Dave Watson joins Real Scientists – Real Scientists

Under the Mistletoe, out in the meadow – Dave Watson joins Real Scientists

What happens to ecosystems when humans arrive?  What did the planet look like before humans started farming? How do habitats change over time? Our next curator, Associate Professor David Watson of Charles Sturt University, works on ecosystems, fragmented habitats and introduced species – in fact, he’s the King of Misteltoe!  While mistletoe is a fun Christmas prop in the Northern Hemisphere, in Australia, misteltoe is a significant invasive parasitic plant that can destroy forests. We’re delighted to welcome David to Real Scientists, where he will be live-tweeting from the field in regional New South Wales.  David has spent many years working in different ecosystems from the United States to Australia studying the subtle and not so subtle interactions between different species and the environment. What this kind of work tells us is how to track changes in the environment with all its variables, as well as giving us a greater understanding of the planet we live in, with it’s astounding biodiversity. Here’s David in his own words:


“I grew up in Melbourne, Australia and apparently I announced to my family at the tender age of three that I was going to be a biologist.  My father trained as a behavioural ecologist (both in Australia and post-graduate work at Princeton) and my Mum has a Masters in fine arts, so scholarship, learning and natural history were always around and encouraged in the family home.   Biodiversity–especially the many and varied forms of animals–have long fascinated me, and to this day still provide my inspiration as a researcher.

Throughout my school days, science was always my favourite subject, but physics and chemistry felt a lot like cough medicine–although I was sure they were good for me, I didn’t enjoy the experience very much!  It was when I got to university (Monash) when I first studied biology, and realised all the books and documentaries that I’d been voraciously devouring gave me a solid base to work from.  I loved every aspect of university, got involved in the Monash Biology Society in first year, eventually becoming President and leading trips to northern Australia.

For my honours degree, I worked with Ralph Mac Nally and Andrew Bennett looking at the effects of habitat fragmentation on wildlife–focusing on birds in a poorly-known habitat type in western Victoria–Buloke woodlands.  These two scholars were generous with their time and their wisdom, and are still mentors for me (as well as close friends).  it was during field trips to these woodlands surrounded by agricultural land that I made two important realisations— whole lot of amazing habitat exists on private land; and mistletoes are really cool!

I moved to the USA for my doctoral research, working with Town Peterson, Bob Holt and norm Slade at The University of Kansas.  My interest was still on habitat fragmentation, but I was conscious of the mismatch in timescales between how long ecosystems take to adjust from major disturbances, and the age of many of the fragmented landscapes that were being studied–generally, less than 100 years since they were cleared for cities and agriculture.  So, for my PhD, I undertook a series of studies in Mesoamerica to investigate the long-term effects of habitat fragmentation, looking at high elevation habitats (cloud forests and humid pine-oak forests) that became fragmented 30,000 years ago or so, as these cold-adapated forests that used to extend throughout the region (from Texas to Colombia) retreated up-slope as regional climates became warmer and drier.  During this work, I spent many months in remote areas visited by very few people, gaining privileged access to some amazing places.  Birds abundance, also undescribed reptiles and amphibians, unbelievable food and, oh yes, lots of mistletoes.

Having completed my PhD, i was madly applying for jobs (back in Australia and also is Canada and the USA), but decided to look into this mistletoe caper in a bit more depth.  The University of Kansas had two key resources–a library that contained an immense collection of biological literature, and an editor of a very influential ‘by invitation only’ journal.  So, I did a bunch of reading, decided that my hunch based on limited experience may actually be more generalizable, and pitched a review paper to the editor on the topic of mistletoes as a keystone resource.  She though it sounded worthwhile, encourage me to formally approach the journal, and so it began–Dr Dave was on the road to becoming a mistletoe expert!  The paper was published in 2001 with the humble title: ‘Mistletoe–a keystone resource in forests and woodlands worldwide’ and it had three effects for me: widespread agreement’ offers of collaboration, and recognition that I was a mistletoe expert.

Meanwhile, I had accepted a job offer from a small regional university back in Australia, Charles Sturt University, which taught a graduate-level course in ornithology.  With a wife and first child on the way, I accepted the position, re-located to regional New South Wales and have been there ever since.  I’m now an Associate Professor, working on a whole range of projects in three main themes–The ecology of parasitic plants, the biological consequences of habitat fragmentation, and biodiversity conservation in agricultural landscapes.  I currently have five research students and a wide range of collaborators (17 at last count) with ongoing projects in southern Australian woodlands, central Australian deserts and Mesoamerican rain forests.”


Please welcome Dr David Watson/@D0ct0r_Dave to Real Scientists!

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