Ecologist Spotlight: David Hamilton

Welcome to the Ecologist Spotlight column!

We seek out ecologists with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to highlight their work and share their stories and experiences. Thank you to David Hamilton for participating in our column this week! If you would like to be featured, or would like to nominate someone, please contact us today.

David and a devil. Credit: Rémi Bigonneau.

Please state your current affiliation

David: I’m a PhD student at the University of Tasmania.

Tell us about yourself and your current area of research.

David: I’m originally from Scotland, but have been in Australia since 2011. I’ve been involved in research across taxa since moving Down Under, but my current research is focused on Tasmanian devils. Devils have been afflicted with a novel contagious cancer, devil facial tumor disease (DFTD), for more than 20 years. It’s spread from east to west across almost the entire island, causing local declines of up to 80 or 90% in devil populations. My research is focused on how devils interact with one another within their social networks and how that influences the spread of DFTD. Our understanding of the pathways the disease takes through devil populations is currently poor, so hopefully this research can help inform future management decisions with regard to devil conservation.

If a Tasmanian devil is infected with DFTD, is it more likely to bite another individual? Or is biting behavior a common social interaction?

David: That is one of the big questions! At the moment we’re not sure whether the dominant direction of DFTD transmission is from an animal with tumors biting a healthy animal, or a healthy animal biting the tumors of one with DFTD. It’s likely to be a combination of the two, but that’s still something we’re trying to untangle. Biting is a relatively common social interaction, but it peaks during the mating season – devils have quite aggressive mating interactions.

Are there efforts underway to develop a treatment for the disease?

David: There are – the Menzies Institute at the University of Tasmania is doing great work in developing a vaccine that could potentially help devils combat DFTD. In the meantime, some good news is that some devils in the wild are starting to develop a natural form of resistance to DFTD. It’s still early days, but we’ve had a few cases of tumor regressions, and are starting to see the up-regulation of genes associated with fighting cancer in populations where the disease has been for a few generations.

What first interested you in ecology?

David: I’m sure most ecologists say this, but I’ve had a fascination with the natural word since I was a kid. My mum has loads of pictures of holidays when I was young, with my sister standing around looking bored and me looking for things under rocks – she loves them because she says it sums us both up! Ecology just ties everything together, so it’s always been a key interest of mine.

What has inspired you in your career?

David: Lots of things! I’ve had the privilege of working with a diversity of inspiring scientists throughout my career, who I’ve learned a lot from. I always find doing fieldwork inspiring as well, being out in the environment your study organism lives in is always a good source of inspiration and motivation.

Tell us about one of your favorite research moments.

David: I used to be a field researcher at the Kalahari Meerkat Project – a long term study site run by Cambridge & Zurich Universities in South Africa. It involves investigating cooperative breeding by studying the behavior of habituated meerkat groups; they’re used to having people around, so they just ignore human observers recording their behavior. Part of meerkat behavior involves a member of the group taking up a high point in the environment & watching out for predators – since they pretty much regard human observers as part of the environment, they sometimes decide that a researcher will make a perfect lookout point. The first time a meerkat felt comfortable enough with me being there to use me as a guard post was a wonderful, if surreal moment. You pretty much just have to sit there until they decide that they’ve done their shift!

What is a challenge that you faced as a student, young professional, or early faculty member and how did you work through it?

David: I feel like, no matter how much careful planning you do, fieldwork almost never goes to plan. There’s always an inherent randomness involved in working with animals in the wild. The important thing is to keep your chin up and roll with the punches – there’s always a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th etc. way of doing things!

When you become discouraged by a challenging research problem or unexpected issue, how do you stay motivated?

David: When I’m struggling with a research problem, I often find one of the best things you can do is just put it to the side for a bit. Move on and work on something else, then come back to it. It often freshens you up a bit, and you think of different angles when looking at it with refreshed eyes. I also often find that my best ideas come to me when I’m out for a walk, or sometimes on a long drive – almost never in front of a computer screen! The key point being it’s always good to get out & reboot when you’re struggling.

Fieldwork in the Arthur River Forest. Credit: Milly Raven.

You have conducted research on a wide variety of organisms ranging from seabirds to meerkats, and toads to finches. What led you to your current research on Tasmanian devils?

David: I ended up in Australia after meeting my, now wife, in South Africa nearly 9 years ago. After we had finished our positions there, she convinced me to move to Australia (it wasn’t a hard sell…). I was pretty taken with devils from when I first arrived here. I hadn’t heard much about the battle they’d been having with DFTD while overseas, and it’s pretty devastating. I was drawn to the project because it involved an interesting area of research (social networks) combined with the potential to contribute to devil conservation.

What do you do in your “off” time?

David: My wife’s also an ecologist, so we often still spend our free time looking for wildlife… I also enjoy tennis and football (actual football, not one of the versions that seldom involve the contact of foot and ball!)

If you met a 10 year old who was interested in ecology, what would you say to encourage them?

David: Just that it’s a great field to be involved in – I genuinely feel like I learn something new almost every day!

Scene: *You walk into a local coffee shop* What do you order?

David: I seem to be a rarity in that I’m not a big coffee drinker, so anything but a coffee!

Bonus: Are there any other interesting stories you would like to share?

David: Not so much a story, but I like to blow apart the misconception that Tasmanian devils are these maniacal, insane, hyperactive creatures. They’re actual wonderful, shy animals. They’re also, by far, the easiest animals to handle that I’ve ever worked with. Their response to the novel situation of being caught almost always seems to be to freeze. That means they just sit there in a bag while we measure them, and even when we check inside their mouths for signs of DFTD. It’s amazing – I’ve been bitten many times by tiny finches and lizards, but not once by a devil!