From British bugs to biosecurity down under

An island Nature Reserve where environmental conservation and industrial resource extraction go hand-in-hand? This may be hard to imagine but such a place does exist, and this is where Adam McVeigh calls home for two weeks, every month.

As a Senior Environmental Scientist for Stantec consultancy in Australia, Adam works on a particularly unique island, historically a nature reserve for over 110 years. Many endangered species there are found almost exclusively on and around the island, from marsupials to marine species.

Oil and gas have been extracted from the island for over 60 years and this has played a vital part in the economy of both the local region and the country. Given the high protection provided to a nature reserve, the industry can only operate under strict conditions and legislation.

The unlikely harmony of a nature reserve and resource extraction

While this combination might seem unconventional, Adam suggests that it may have mitigated the impact of recreational tourism, particularly the strain associated with camping or fishing, on the island ecosystem (the name of which is confidential for security reasons). However, the industry’s presence necessitates constant monitoring to ensure that there is no harm or change to the local environment.

Australia recognizes the severe impact of invasive species, evident on both the mainland and islands. Feral introduced species like foxes, cats, pigs, and rabbits have significantly threatened native species. While some islands have managed successful control programs, it often comes at great expense.

Adam and his team aim to learn from Australia’s past experiences and implement best practices. They conduct essential surveys for non-native animals and plants to prevent cargo and shipments from causing invasive pest outbreaks on this island.

Pests such as rats pose significant threats to native species not accustomed to their presence. Adam’s surveys also include checks for invasive marine pests like mussels, crabs, and microorganisms, as well as conducting nocturnal wildlife surveys and specialised live-trapping of mammals and reptiles.

Ants, Adam described, are another threat to the island’s pristine wildlife, with their tiny armies rapidly overturning native habitats on the mainland. Surveying for the presence of such specific non-native creatures on a reserve sometimes requires some ingenious thinking. A bucket with tiny ant-sized holes was the crucial answer in this case, baited with enticing ant delicacies such as jam or meat.

An ecologist in his blue and yellow uniform looking out over an Island's coastline.

Getting a handle on an ecological abyss

In Australia it is estimated about 80% of invertebrate species are yet to be described. How do you begin to survey organisms within such an unknown context? Is the newly discovered species invasive or just undescribed?

Adam acknowledges this aspect presents a significant challenge. While all specimens are sent for further analysis and independent verification, his expertise in invertebrates allows him to prioritize between native and non-native species. Surveys on the island assess for presence rather than abundance and it takes confidence in his eye and knowledge when walking transects, searching for potential invasive species.

Adam described a species of small jumping spider, which until recently was known as a different species. When taxonomists get to study the invertebrates in question, this can trigger discussions at governmental levels regarding their naturalised or introduced status. It is hard to imagine how anyone comes to make a final decision on such a confusing topic!

A beautiful dappled, relatively large lizard

Fulfilling professional needs through butterflies and bees

Adam’s professional journey has followed a rather unexpected but deliberate trajectory. He pursued each opportunity with the specific aim of acquiring new experiences and skills.

As an undergraduate, he trained to be a history teacher, which complemented his childhood love of insects when he became an educational tour-guide at a butterfly farm. He later enhanced his entomology credibility through a Masters degree in Conservation & Biodiversity at Lancaster University, studying the Mountain Ringlet butterfly in the Lake District.

As a research assistant for a conservation charity, he surveyed British farmland insects whilst furthering another of his skills, honeybee keeping. This proved surprisingly crucial, as he joined Nottingham Trent University’s honeybee project. Adam enjoyed the holistic and non-invasive approach to beekeeping the team emphasised and through the project he furthered his credentials, publishing a number of scientific papers.

Grasping such opportunities when working in research is essential to demonstrate your abilities to future employers. Undeniably his career developed the key skills he needed to fulfil his current role, despite being on the other side of the world. Trapping methods such as pitfall trapping, walked survey transects and the understanding to identify organisms confidently and precisely.

Adams’s journey is a story of finding balance and where he feels most fulfilled. He described this as just one example of a story many find themselves in:

“Everyone knows the shared definition for Conservation but it’s about finding what that means to you, where you feel you can make the impact you want.”

The reality of a career in conservation is you may not always feel like you are making the scale of impact you imagined, but Adam insists there is comfort in knowing you can be one piece of a much larger, global puzzle, creating a team all working towards similar goals.

A stunning glass wing butterfly with wings like stained-glass windows.

A glasswing butterfly.

The highs and lows of island living

Somewhat akin to a real-life Pokémon trainer searching for rare creatures, Adam still indulges his passion for butterflies. Discovering native species on the, island which have not been recorded for 50 years, provides him immense satisfaction.

Despite being less appealing to many, Adam’s favourite aspect of his role is the fly-in, fly-out or “FIFO” schedule. This involves living on the island, working long hours for two weeks straight, followed by two weeks off on the mainland. It can be very well-paid and is a common arrangement in Australia, essential for the continued operations of many industrial sites.

Adam utilises his free time to conduct entomological surveys, butterfly walks, community group volunteering, and undertake his own insect research as an honorary research fellow at a local university.

However, the demanding schedule cannot be underestimated, as it varies greatly depending on the activity of the different target species Adam is surveying for. Adjusting to this ever-changing schedule presents the greatest challenge, requiring strong organization, collaboration, and delegation among the team.

These qualities enable everyone to approach the work with positivity, appreciating the diverse wildlife encountered during surveys, with conservation of the island’s unique biodiversity as their top priority.

Picturesque image of a beach board walk in Australia

What makes biodiversity valuable to you?

Biodiversity is precious, providing the framework for ecological balance and services, promoting resilience, adaptation and stability. It is also critical for industrial services such as medicinal resources and food production. Beyond this, it holds great cultural value and humans possess an ethical and moral obligation to preserve it because, as Adam describes, it is irreplaceable.

From Adam’s perspective, the loss of biodiversity is the most urgent issue. He advocates for accessible ways to raise awareness and value wildlife more. He has experienced projects where collaborators had, well-intentioned, but miss-informed views of what biodiversity actually means.

Agreeing on a clear definition of biodiversity, and our aims when promoting it, can really help a project’s impact. Fostering a deep connection to nature and biodiversity loss across diverse audiences, from government officials to land managers and beyond is essential for mobilizing collective action and driving meaningful change.

A dappled butterfly from the United Kingdom

Describe what you can do, beyond what you have done

Anyone navigating a professional journey in ecology is presented with a formidable challenge: the elusive cycle of experience. One requires experience to obtain more, yet acquiring it proves difficult without an initial foundation.

Adam urges anyone in this position to be open-minded, “there are more ways to obtain experience than you might realise”. Beyond volunteering and grasping experiences through educational courses, there is the opportunity to take matters into your own hands, go outside and look for the wildlife you are interested in! This is a great way to practice the skills you are interested in improving and allows you to demonstrate this to a future employer.

Imposter syndrome can haunt people at any professional level, and Adam has been no exception, but he emphasised that accepting competence is as important as acknowledging fortunate circumstances.

Good advice is always worth sharing, Adam remembers his first boss telling him the importance of going above and beyond during interviews:

“Describe what you have done, then following that, what you can do now.”

Creating your own opportunities and experience means you have the time to break things down, and work out what you enjoy and where you need to improve. Showing this initiative and self-awareness can go a long way when speaking to people in the ecological network. Connecting through shared passions and learning, particularly as university level, you can open new doors to potential collaboration and support in the future.

You never know where your own steam can take you and Adam is the perfect example of this. Between studies, Adam travelled to Australia and loved it; who could have imagined the path he would take to end up back there conducting such incredible work?

Curious to learn more? Read some of Adam’s papers, or follow Adam’s adventures on Instagram.

If you’d like to learn more about Ecologist roles, check out our role profile Ecologist | Ensuring ecologically sensitive development, or our ultimate guide How to become an ecologist.


Author Profile | Jayna Connelly 

Jayna Connelly is an ecologist, deeply committed to communicating crucial knowledge to a wider audience. As a Research Ecologist specializing in Entomology, Jayna’s passion is fueled by a profound understanding of the intricate connections within ecosystems. Her studies made her aware of the huge breadth of wildlife that is often misunderstood or completely overlooked.

Jayna firmly believes that by fostering an appreciation for the significance of even the smallest creatures in our surroundings, society can collectively reverse the decline of ecosystems. Jayna’s work extends beyond academia; she strives to inspire a broad audience to recognize the inherent value of the biodiversity that surrounds us. Through her efforts, she envisions a world where the collective empowerment of individuals translates into meaningful actions, leading to positive changes for our planet.

Interviews, Ecologist