How a friendship with ‘Crow Patrick’ inspired a fascination with animal behaviour

5 Aug 2020

Marina Mulligan, conservation biologist. Image: Marina Mulligan

Conservation biologist Marina Mulligan became fascinated with animal behaviour after a chance rescue of a rook in her garden.

After finishing her BSc in zoology at University College Cork (UCC), Marina Mulligan got an opportunity to study orangutan behaviour with the Borneo Nature Foundation and took two years out to pursue animal behaviour research in the Sabangau National Park in Indonesia.

She then completed a MSc in conservation and biodiversity from the University of Exeter which included a stint at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) to carry out research on bioacoustics of great tits.

Earlier this year, she was a participant in the finals of the FameLab Ireland science communication competition.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I haven’t branded myself as a researcher and as a result, I have a broad mix of experience in research, science communication and conservation education. Research is fascinating in conservation, as there are still so many unknowns and it is an area requiring innovation and creativity to overcome some of the most complex issues relating to climate change, biodiversity loss and tackling human-wildlife conflict.

Personally, I want to make a difference, as clichéd as that may sound.

I was classed a nature nerd from a very young age, a badge that I carry with pride. In terms of research, the curiosity I had then for the natural world has remained. One specific memory is that of a rook that we rescued in the garden, Crow Patrick.

Feeding him, teaching him how to fly and setting him free was one thing, but it was his intelligence that struck me. This bird flew back every day when he heard the car engine and found my father in the garden when he whistled.

Incredibly, he worked out which bedroom window was mine and used to tap on it with his beak at 7am, fly down to the back door and wait to be fed. This changed my mind from wanting to be a vet to hoping that I could become an animal behaviourist.

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

Currently, I am involved in management planning for national parks and looking at how best to approach environmental education, interpretation for visitors, citizen science involvement and sustainability at visitor centre sites.

Finding creative ways to present facts to the public without overwhelming people with figures they cannot relate to is the only way to tackle conservation issues head on. At the same time, humans need to understand the scale of these issues – these are not small things that we can take years to fix but require big action in a short space of time.

Aside from my current role, I have a huge interest in conservation technology, particularly bioacoustics. This is a field that is ever-evolving and one in which I see myself rooted in the near future.

My research with CNRS in France looked at the frequency shifts in male great tits in the Pyrenees. This was a self-designed project set out over four sites using directional microphones to record males at varying distances and through different habitat types to measure the frequencies used. In addition, I accounted for the attenuation through different habitat types using a speaker-mic set-up to measure the degradation of sound through the habitats.

My findings showed that there were different dialects in different populations and consequently this may result in sub-populations due to females having preference for the frequencies used by the males in her own area.

This can be applied to studies on climate change (species moving poleward), human disturbance (where birds use different frequencies to overcome a change in soundscapes) and in reverse, to attract species back into areas where they have deserted.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Soundscapes are vastly important in well-functioning ecosystems and the extent of the bioacoustics of habitats is relatively unknown, especially relating to infrasound and ultrasound.

Bioacoustics has been elevated in the last 10 years and the technology is getting better – it’s a research area that has huge potential applications from tackling poaching to facilitating reintroductions and rewilding.

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

Conservation research is extremely underfunded and most projects take place in disadvantaged, economically poor regions. It is important to recognise the need to protect species, habitats and natural resources from overexploitation as biodiversity unpins everything we do.

Protecting biodiversity is not a profitable business and so unfortunately, it falls to the wayside when compared with research that will produce profit.

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

The illegal wildlife trade – tackling the demand for illegal wildlife products. There is a lot of work already being carried out in this area and it’s a battle to reduce the demand for these products.

Using bioacoustics for habitat restoration and species reintroductions. The recent study by University of Exeter, University of Bristol, Australia’s James Cook University and Australian Institute of Marine Science on acoustic enrichment of coral reefs has shown the potential here.

Development of innovative technologies to monitor illegal activities in protected areas and in the monitoring of reintroduced and endangered species.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.