Prickly business earns Australian scientist an OAM
Crouching behind trees, climbing into trenches, peering under bushes and playing dead is all part of a day’s work for environmental physiologist and educator, Dr Peggy Rismiller. With echidna research spanning more than two decades, she has also studied the black tiger snake and Rosenberg’s goanna.
On the Queens Birthday here in Australia on June 12, 2006, she received the Order of Australia Medal Award (OAM) for her contribution to scientific research and conservation of Australian biodiversity. In the honours system, appointments to the Order of Australia confer the highest recognition for outstanding achievement and service.
From her earliest memory, nature, especially animals and more specifically reptiles, fascinated her. The second of four siblings, Peggy always brought home bugs, tadpoles and snakes. Born in rural Ohio, she received her Masters in Biology from Goethe University, Frankfurt and PhD in Biology from Philips University, Marburg, in Germany, where she studied native reptiles.
In 1988 she immigrated to Australia and worked at the University of Adelaide as a post- doctoral assistant, studying the black tiger snake and the short-beaked echidna. Her initial work with the echidna lead her to where she is today – at the Pelican Lagoon Research and Wildlife Centre on Kangaroo Island, South Australia where she lives and works with biologist and photographer, Mike McKelvey.
The privately owned research centre operates as a Land Trust and consists of simple but functional work spaces and laboratories. The facility was built upon environmentally sound principles and has been self sufficient with solar power and rainwater since 1980.
The centre was showcased as a model and icon for sustainable research and living at the Hannover World Expo 2000 in Germany. Today, town planners and environmental architects draw on the principles of the centre, using it as a model for sustainable practices. People often quiz Peggy on why she chose Kangaroo Island to set up camp.
“Unlike other parts of mainland Australia, the island is free of rabbits and foxes, so echidnas and birds not only have an intact habitat but they’re also behaving the way they did 200 years ago, before the introduction of other predators and mammals,” she says.
She also claims she didn’t find the echidna or the island, they found her. Hooked by biology and the intricacies of the echidna’s lifestyle, she discovered the ultimate challenge; an environment and a purpose which captivated her imagination and energy.
These unique monotremes are among the world’s strangest; they lay eggs like reptiles but protect their young in marsupial-like pouches and appear to slow their heartbeat and breathing at will.
“For me, this weird, whimsical and timeless creature is a constant reminder of nature’s wonders and living proof that facts can be more fascinating than fiction,” she says.
When Peggy began studying the echidna about 15 years ago as principal investigator with Earthwatch, little was know about this mysterious mammal. Research has taken time and patience because the echidna has a life span equal to humans.
She says while field studies or snap shots provide revealing moments in a life, they do not show the entire scope of a life. Unfortunately most field science today is short term and limited funding often imposes restrictions.
“In the past decade Earthwatch Australia and Earthwatch volunteers have provided thousands of hours to aid my research. Their contributions have bridged gaps between knowledge and the world of the echidna because their research vision goes beyond cash flow and economic outcomes. They provide the vital support of human resources,” she says.
Peggy continues to work closely with Earthwatch and is the principal investigator for Teach Live, The Student Challenge and Discovery Weekends – annual field expeditions engaging teachers, students and the general public. She is also affiliated with Anatomical Sciences, University of Adelaide, South Australia.
As well as extensive research into the echidna, she works on the biology, ecology and life histories of Rosenberg’s goanna and the island tiger snake. She has close links with educational institutions, conservation groups, zoological gardens, tourism authorities and the wider community.
In 2002 Peggy won the International Aviva Insurance/Earthwatch Award for Climate Change Research. She was presented with this award at the Royal Geographical Society in London.
Her field research is having a positive influence on captive husbandry and has forged links between scientists and community institutions which provide environmental education and awareness. Her book, The Echidna, Australia’s Enigma has been published in four languages.
Future plans include more field research on Kangaroo Island and sharing her results with the community because as she says, humans are not custodians of nature but part of it…we are only a minute speck. While humans argue and debate their role on earth, nature continues. In human society, money makes the world go round. In nature, money will never make the sun come up.
Media enquiries: Earthwatch Australia, Communications Officer +61 (0) 3 9682 6828 or email@example.com