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Students get real (wild) life experience

3 March 2017
Field trip unit allows students to get up close with wildlife

Run every two years, the Tropical Wildlife Biology field trip takes students to the Northern Territory and into the natural habitat of lizards, crocodiles and snakes - lots of snakes.

One of the highlights of every trip is when students realise that they are literally sharing the field base with saltwater crocodiles.
Dr Matt Greenlees
Black headed python

A black headed python observed on the field trip

Every second year just prior to Semester One, a group of second or third year students embark on a week-long trip to the Northern Territory and the chance to get up close and personal with some tropical wildlife.

Run out of the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, the Tropical Wildlife Biology field trip takes place at Mary River, between Darwin and Kakadu National Park, and gives students the chance to learn techniques in biodiversity surveys, vertebrate identification and skills in designing and executing field-based behavioural experiments.

Whilst in the field and then back in Sydney, they attend lectures taught by a range of scientists who both are employed in academia and in applied ecological management – though all with particular expertise in the wet-dry tropics of Australia. The lecture series is designed to provide a detailed picture of a particular system incorporating a range of disciplines from pure organismal biology to applied management of contemporary issues.

The unit is coordinated and run by Dr Matt Greenlees, a post-doctoral researcher in Professor Rick Shine’s lab, and whose research work focuses on the cane toad invasion of Australia. "In teaching this subject, I am very lucky to have been mentored by both Associate Professor Mathew Crowther and Professor Rick Shine."

The week I spent in the Northern Territory was one of the most rewarding weeks of study I have undertaken.
Nicole Bugeja, Bachelor of International and Global Studies student

Dr Matt Greenlees

Describing himself as an avid natural historian with a particular fondness for reptiles and amphibians, Dr Greenlees obviously sees the Tropical Wildlife Biology field trip as a great part of his work.

“This is the only undergraduate subject run that trains students in identifying vertebrates in the field. The subject also exposes them to a great variety of practical skills and experiences in field biology. In addition to the academic component, it is an opportunity to network with peers and academics, not to mention a unique opportunity to experience a special part of this continent.”

Real world projects and experience are a key focus of the University’s new undergraduate experience, and field trip units such as Tropical Wildlife Biology play a key role in providing students with the skills they need.

“Too frequently you hear of industry employers lamenting the lack of practical capability and experience in ecology that graduates have.” Dr Greenlees said. “Having subjects that train students in a range of these skills puts graduates of the University of Sydney a step ahead of the competition when it comes to employability. Alternatively, should they decide to pursue further field-based study – they are at a distinct advantage in appreciating the logistics and experience of field research.”

Having just returned from the 2017 field trip, third year Bachelor of International and Global Studies student Nicole Bugeja believes it was a highlight of her university study so far. “Being hands on with the animals, going out during the day and night to explore and having amazing and helpful supervisors taught me so much. The week I spent in the Northern Territory was one of the most rewarding weeks of study I have undertaken. I can't recommend this unit enough!”

Dr Greenlees says that every trip is an adventure with its own set of great experiences. “One of the highlights of every trip is when students realise that they are literally sharing the field base with the saltwater crocodiles of the Mary River adjacent to where we stay. This of course presents a very particular set of workplace health and safety ‘issues’ – though to see the awe and wonder the students have for everything from the crocs to the abundant and diverse frog fauna at the field site is, in my opinion – very cool.”

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