#TasmanianLitMonth – Tasmanian Science Writing

Written by Dr. Michael Stoddart, introduction and book reviews by guest curator, Bec Taylor

Throughout this series of blog posts on Tasmanian authors, the focus has mostly been on fiction creators. What many don’t know is that Tasmania has a thriving scientific community. Today’s post features one of the most eminent Tasmanian scientists, Dr. Michael Stoddart, as well as the review of two narrative non-fiction picture books celebrating the efforts of environmental scientists working to ensure the survival of critically endangered Tasmanian animals.

Narrative Non-Fiction Book Reviews

As a busy teacher librarian wishing to make the most of every minute with students, I know the power of an engaging read aloud. One of my favourite kinds of books that never fails to capture the interest of learners is narrative non-fiction. Two visually stunning and environmentally important titles I have used recently with my young students are “Bouncing Back” and Hold On!”, both featuring endangered Tasmanian animals.

Remarkably, both books have connections to the work of scientist, Dr. Michael Stoddart, featured in this blog post!

“Bouncing Back, an Eastern Barred Bandicoot Story” written by Rohan Cleave and illustrated by Coral Tulloch, outlines the steps communities have taken to bring the bandicoot back from the critically endangered list. With beautiful pencil water color drawings, and told from the bandicoots perspective, this book is a perfect read aloud for Grade 2 and up.

Read an interview with illustrator, Coral Tulloch, about her process in creating this book.

“Bouncing Back” was shortlisted for the 2019 Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Eve Pownell Award. This Award celebrates books which have the prime intention of documenting factual material with consideration given to imaginative presentation, interpretation and variation of style.

Fish with hands?! There isn’t a young child who can resist being hooked by that tagline! Today only 14 species of handfish remain in the wild and all are Australian! Three of these are found only in the cold waters around southern Tasmania. The book clearly outlines the reasons for dwindling numbers and also the amazing work scientists are doing to manage the threats to their survival. “Hold On! Saving the Spotted Handfish,” by Gina M. Newton, and illustrated by Rachel Tribout, is a great choice for a narrative nonfiction read aloud for Grade 2 and up as the scientific language is easily accessible and the illustrations are eye catching.

Text features such as timelines, fact boxes, and glossaries are present in both books making them excellent mentor texts for teaching non-fiction writing.

About Michael

Dr. Michael Stoddart was trained as a zoologist at the Universities of Aberdeen and Oxford before being appointed Lecturer, and later Reader in Zoology at King’s College, London University.  He has written four books on the mammalian sense of smell and published over 120 research papers.  

About a week after I arrived in Hobart to take up my post as Professor of Zoology at the University of Tasmania my secretary ushered into my office a big man who looked like a lumberjack. He held out a small plastic bag containing the mangled remains of a small furry animal with the request that I identify it for him. He seemed unimpressed when I said I was newly arrived from London and didn’t know the local fauna of Tasmania very well. Had he held up a dead thylacine I’d probably have performed better but he didn’t, so I took his phone number and sent him on his way. The scientific study of zoology is quite distinct from that of natural history; I could have told him all about the skeletal differences between marsupial and placental mammals, or how brush-tailed possums manage to digest the toxins in Eucalyptus leaves, but I couldn’t identify his gory remains. 

Tasmania is a zoologist’s paradise. Not only is its wildlife extraordinarily abundant, as anyone who has driven around the island and observed the number of road kills knows, but the fauna contains many endemic species which occur nowhere else. Animals such as the Tasmanian Devil, Eastern Quoll and Eastern Bettong can still be found, though none is common and several kinds of mammals are endangered. Endemic plants such as the deciduous southern beech, King Billy pine and Huon pine give our wilderness landscape the quintessentially Tasmanian look you find nowhere else on Earth.  

It’s not only the big animals that are special; Tasmania has an amazing fauna of 34 species of freshwater crayfish, from the endangered giant (Gould’s) crayfish that weighs up to 6 kg, to the tiny mountain shrimp living in rivulets and tarns at high altitude. The mountain shrimp is described as a ‘living fossil’ and one of the most primitive freshwater crayfish known; study of its anatomy has revealed much about the evolution of all other freshwater crayfish.  

Fossicking around in damp, decaying logs you can find velvet worms, curious little creatures looking like a cross between an earthworm and a caterpillar, with clawed legs along each side of the body, and with a velvety appearance. They are a true zoological ‘missing link’ which date back 500 million years, and provide insights into how the arthropods (animals like insects, crabs, and centipedes which have a hard external skeleton) evolved from the soft-bodied round worms (earthworms, leeches, and marine rag worms). In one of the curious connections in my life I first encountered velvet worms in a museum jar at King’s College London, where I started my academic career. The collector, back in the 1950s, was Dr. Sidnie Manton, FRS, one of the leading British zoologists of her day. Needing some specimens for her work on evolution of the arthropods, Dr Manton travelled to Hobart by ship, climbed Mt. Wellington, and searched for them herself. 

Connections are everywhere in science, and perhaps even more so in our island state than elsewhere in Australia. When I was Head of the Department of Zoology in the mid 1980s I set up a ‘Beat the Bass Strait’ fund for my colleagues to be able to travel to the mainland for conferences and the all-important collaborative work with people at other universities.

The Bass Strait, to which our island owes so much of its special quality, is a barrier to travel which can be overcome only by hopping on a plane, or a ship if you need to transport equipment or other gear. Travel is important to scientists; all Australian scientists wishing to maintain an international profile must find the means to travel around the world. The fact that Australian research, and Tasmanian research in certain fields is internationally renowned is a testament to the countless hours spent sitting at airports and on long-haul planes. Today Zoom and Skype have helped overcome the ‘tyranny of distance’, as so eloquently defined by historian Geoffrey Blainey, but in reality there is no alternative but to interact with colleagues over cups of coffee, steins of beer, bowls of sweet and sour pork, or hamburgers with fries on the side. 

The Tasmanian scientific community is remarkable to the extent that researchers from the University, CSIRO, and the Australian Antarctic Division are all clustered around Hobart and its docks. Collaborative studies between all three work well because nobody has to travel too far to attend conferences and seminars, and new research funding vehicles designed to encourage cross-fertilisation provide the mortar to bind the bricks of science. With Hobart the home port for RV Investigator (the National Marine Research Facility), and the Antarctic program’s icebreaker RSV Nuyina, the city is alive with scientists coming and going to some of the most fascinating places on Earth.  

The Antarctic program runs a program through which writers, artists, musicians and others can apply for a spare berth on a voyage to Antarctica. On my first visit to Antarctica after taking up the post of Chief Scientist to Australia’s Antarctic program in 1998, I met Coral Tulloch who was researching a children’s book on the southern continent. Coral has written a number of books, including ‘Bouncing Back; an Eastern Barred Bandicoot Story’, reminding me of the work of my first Honours student who studied a population of the more common eastern brown bandicoot on a golf course south of Hobart (to the greenkeeper’s chagrin, for the bandicoots don’t care where they dig for insects, worms and other tasty morsels!), and my own work on this fascinating marsupial on a nature reserve south-east of Melbourne. 

I’ve lived in Tasmania since 1985, with the exception of a five-year period when I was Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of New England in Armidale, NSW, and have come to love its people and its history, its flora and its fauna. Its sweeping mountain ranges, its boundless tracts of rain forests, and its endless pristine beaches are the undoubted jewels in Australia’s crown.

Our ‘best kept secret’ is slowly being discovered however, and we must make sure that the 300,000+ visitors who come annually can experience Tasmania’s vibrant tranquillity without damaging what draws them here. That way Tasmania will remain a zoologist’s paradise for generations to come. 

By the way, the gory remains handed to me during my first week in Tasmania were those of a young sugar glider. 

More About Michael

In 1985 he was appointed to the Chair of Zoology at the University of Tasmania and in 1994 joined the University of New England as Deputy Vice-Chancellor.  In 1998 he returned to Hobart as Chief Scientist of Australia’s Antarctic Program, a position he held for 10 years.  He oversaw the transformation of Australia’s program of scientific research in Antarctica, and contributed strongly to its emerging climate change agenda in which Antarctica plays a central role.   

Between 2009 and 2011 he was the first Director of the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies.  Since 2011 has been a researcher at the Maritime Museum of Tasmania.   In 2017 he published Tassie’s Whale Boys, an account of the young Tasmanians who went whaling in the Ross Sea with Norwegian whaling fleets.  The BLYTHE STAR Tragedy was published in 2022. 

Michael’s incredible list of achievements can be viewed here. He is truly a national treasure to the Tasmanian scientific community.

I would like to pay my respects to the traditional custodians of the land, the Palawa people of Tasmania, and to their Elders, past, present, and emerging. I acknowledge their deep spiritual connection to the land and their ongoing contributions to the culture of this nation.  

About Guest Curator, Bec Taylor

I’m Bec Taylor, the EY3 – Grade 2 cybrarian* at the International School of Beijing, China. I’m a global nomad with Australian roots and a Chinese family home – all my immediate family have lived and worked in Beijing as international school teachers for many, many years.  

Overly enthusiastic about everything especially children’s literature, Australian Rules Football (go Doggies!) and food, glorious food, I am easily bribed with coffee and dark chocolate. I am a passionate advocate of social justice, female financial literacy, and finding ways to tread more lightly on the planet. Alongside the demands of a busy family and professional life, I enjoy cultivating community through volunteer work that focuses on healthy families.

I am the current Chair of the Chinese international schools reading promotion, the Panda Book Awards. Titles chosen for the shortlists of the Panda Book Awards meet selection criteria that focus on social justice, diversity and inclusion by up and coming authors and illustrators from across the world. There is an added spotlight on titles that feature Asian settings, characters or creators. 

Twitter is my favourite professional development space so please come find me there: @becinthelibrary

The educational hills I will die on are:

  • a child’s right to choose what they love to read,
  • there is serious magic in reading aloud,
  • and the belief that schools are happier, more equitable places with better academic outcomes when the properly funded school library is well staffed with qualified, collaborative and passionate professionals.

*a fancy name that formalises and acknowledges the incredible work teacher librarians do each day to find authentic ways to integrate and explore educational technology in order to capture, expand, and enhance student learning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s