How do you accidentally become a mammalogist? Ask this researcher

18 Jul 2018

TCD zoologist Darren O’Connell living the high life during his research in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Image: Darren O’Connell

Zoologist Darren O’Connell of TCD has spent the past few years in the thick jungles of Indonesia, and on the way he encountered a clumsy mammal that sparked an ecological adventure.

How far would you go to better understand the world?

For zoologist Darren O’Connell of Trinity College Dublin (TCD), his desire to understand the natural world took him to the depths of the Indonesian jungle on the island of Sulawesi.

After completing his bachelor’s degree in zoology from TCD in 2013, O’Connell went on to work with BirdWatch Ireland, running seabird conservation projects in the summer of 2013 and 2014.

In between, he worked for the University of Exeter for seven months studying social evolution in birds in the Kalahari Desert, South Africa.

Since 2014, he has been back at TCD where he is now soon to complete his PhD on bird biodiversity and evolution in Sulawesi.

What inspired you to become a researcher? Do you have any specific memories that set off a spark?

Despite growing up in the centre of Dublin, something always drew me to the natural world. From an early age, my favourite activity was walking in the woods, and many of my earliest and fondest memories are of summers with my grandparents in the mountains of south Kerry.

I dreamed of exploring untamed wilderness and finding new species. My research career has allowed me to follow that dream.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

Studying island bird evolution in the tropics for my PhD has presented many weird and wonderful opportunities – none more so than when I ‘accidentally’ became a mammalogist along the way!

My study region of Sulawesi, Indonesia, is home to the westernmost marsupial species in Asia, the cuscus, which are like marsupial sloths living life in the slow lane and spending most of their time foraging for and digesting leaves.

Chasing the birds of south-east Sulawesi has allowed me to access a number of islands that received little or no scientific attention in the past. This is how the opportunity to join the cuscus collaboration fell into my lap – nearly literally – as a bear cuscus inexplicably plummeted out of a tree in front of me on remote Kabaena Island.

It stared at me aghast long enough for me to snap a photo before it scarpered off into the trees. That encounter turned out to be the first evidence of bear cuscus on the island.

The main focus has been Buton Island, where researchers with Operation Wallacea have monitored populations for the past 15 years.

We have revealed the bear cuscus to be common, and provided the first evidence of the small Sulawesi cuscus on the island.

Further surveys on the very remote Manui Island added a new cuscus to the fauna of south-east Sulawesi, as we found peleng cuscus here, some 210km of ocean away from the nearest populations on the Banggai and Sula Islands. These results are in the latest Australian Mammalogy.

Bear cuscus

A bear cuscus, similar to what fell in front of Darren O’Connell. Image: Kristina Vackova/Shutterstock

In your opinion, why is your research important?

South-east Sulawesi may become a stronghold for cuscus due to a cultural quirk. While they’re regularly eaten in Christian northern Sulawesi, a taboo against eating clawed animals exists amongst the majority Muslim south-eastern province. We hope that by finding these peculiar creatures, their forest home will be protected.

From a bigger-picture perspective, if important populations of these large mammals could remain unrecorded until now, it illustrates how huge amounts of unaccounted-for biodiversity is likely to be present in other less obvious groups (birds, reptiles, plants etc).

The need to investigate this unrecorded biodiversity is critical, given the rapid pace of change in the region. Buton, Kabaena and Manui are experiencing severe deforestation – a pattern being repeated throughout the Asian tropics.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

As a field biologist in the tropics, I often work in unforgiving environments. Temperatures and humidity are high, mosquitos are common and the terrain is often brutal. Malaria, dengue fever, viruses and even a collapsed lung have struck members of our team over the years.

Some aspects of a very welcoming Indonesian culture take more getting used to than others. Sleep is not generally associated with either darkness or quiet, and I do not have the ability to fall asleep with the TV blaring and lights on! Groups of children followed our every move, too, so blending into our forest surroundings wasn’t always easy.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

There can be a perception that ecologists and conservationists are ‘tree-huggers’ attempting to stall human industry for some green ideal, but most researchers I’ve met are pragmatic problem-solvers, seeking solutions that will enable progress without destroying the natural environment, for the benefit of both people and wildlife.

We can address these misconceptions by communicating with the public. Most people have an appreciation for wildlife and the environment, so effective dialogue can rally support for environmental policies.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

Conservation is often relegated to a fire-fighting role, and demands on limited resources make long-term planning difficult.

I’m keen to see an expansion of research focusing on biodiversity monitoring, which could inform conservationists on where to concentrate resources to preserve as much biodiversity as possible.

Conservation cannot succeed without public support, so more research to better understand public attitudes to it would be useful.