Adventures in freshwater ecosystems: Profile of Dr Simon Hart

A picture of an elephant seal is responsible. I think I was about 10 or 12 or something and I was obsessed with Antarctica and saw a picture of a scientist working on an elephant seal on a subantarctic island. That was what I was going to be when I grew up…

Possums, pinnipeds and Parascyllium

During my science degree at The University of Melbourne, I began working as a research assistant on a project to understand the population dynamics of ringtail possums. At the same time, I was developing an interest in marine ecology after an internship at CSIRO Marine in Hobart together with a newfound love of diving. But my world was shaken when my dad passed away at the end of my undergraduate degree. I needed some space, and so I went travelling in South America where, among other things, I spent a memorable two months reading the Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, and Chiloe chapters of The Voyage of the Beagle while in those very locations. After a year off, I did my Honours research with Professor Mick Keough, who taught me the power of experiments and statistical  modelling for understanding how the world works, and with whom I shared one of those rare and exciting moments when a new finding – no matter how trivial – becomes clear. I was hooked, but in hindsight I didn’t quite know it yet. And I wasn’t ready to ignore the lure of more exciting field work.

So, I lived a “micro-version” of my pinniped dream. I spent some time on Kanowna Island assisting with a study on the Australian fur seal. What I remember most about this work was not so much the research but helping to remove fishing nets from around seals’ necks. But the biggest opportunities over the next few years were all underwater. Working for a small environmental consulting company,  I had the enormous privilege of being involved in the first formal surveys of each of Victoria’s 24 new marine protected areas. This is probably the first time I was immersed (seriously – no pun intended) in a single ecosystem type for a long enough period to really start to “notice” things. And it was amazing. I spent hours, day after day, swimming over and crawling under lush canopies of swirling kelp identifying and counting every vertebrate, mobile invertebrate and macroalgal species I could find. There were surprises around every corner and in every crack and crevice, and plenty of moments that had my heart racing; the secretive, crevice-loving, eel-like Parascyllium variolatum was responsible for a few of those.

Distracted by biology

After a few more digressions I started a PhD at The University of Queensland, where I began working on tight experimental systems and developed an interest in using statistical model fitting to formally link mathematical theory to ecological data. The field work was no longer fun but immersing (no pun at all this time) myself in biological problems certainly was. I then spent a year exploring the US while doing a postdoc at Washington University, after which I moved to ETH Zürich in Switzerland, where I met my future wife, Wilma, in the photocopy room (yep.) on my very first day at work. My time in Switzerland was incredible. I had the opportunity to work with a wonderful group of friends, and a lot of freedom to explore how stochasticity, environmental variation and rapid evolution influence the rise and fall of species in ecological communities. But during this time I could never shake the sense that as much as I was enjoying myself, I was somewhat “distracted by biology” even as many of its wonders and the “services” it provides were under threat.

Basic and applied (freshwater) quantitative biology at UQ

Flying through Singapore as COVID-19 hit hardly felt like the right time to be thinking about making the most of new opportunities. But I was just about to begin my position as a Lecturer at UQ, and I was thinking hard about what to do next. Besides helping to develop a new Master of Quantitative Biology, I also knew that I could no longer “look away” from what the science clearly indicates is a geologically significant (!) – and desperately sad and consequential – global extinction event.

In her own research designed to understand how to best meet conservation, climate and food production goals in West Africa, Wilma was showing me how genuinely useful science can be for solving big problems (“Well, duh”, I hear you all say). So, in my new position at UQ I have decided to turn my attention to a relatively understudied system and a big conservation problem. Freshwater ecosystems are, per unit area, one of the most species-rich and phylogenetically diverse ecosystems on the planet, and yet they remain underexplored, underappreciated and under threat. Indeed, the evidence suggests that population declines and extinctions of species living in freshwater habitats far exceed those occurring in terrestrial and marine habitats. So, tentatively and  somewhat naively – and together with many of you I hope – I am now focusing on problems of biology and conservation in freshwater ecosystems, in the hope that my future work can go some way to redressing these issues.


Teaser image: Photo credit - Wilma Hart

Image above: Touring across the rapidly retreating Aletsch GLacier, Berner Oberland, Switzerland. Seeing glaciers literally retreat during my time in Switzerland was both shocking and depressing. Photo credit - SImon Hart

Project members

Dr Simon Hart

Lecturer in Quantitative Biology
School of the Environment