Rishab Pillai: Classroom on a tropical island

After a long semester and the dreaded exams, most students were prepping to make visits to their home countries or travel over the summer. In my case and I am sure my classmates were in the same frame of mind, we were excited for a few more weeks of study ahead. Yeah I used excited and study in the same sentence but that’s no mistake! I am talking about students who had enrolled in the upcoming block mode herpetology class. Herpetology (from Greek “herpein” meaning “to creep”) is the branch of zoology concerned with the study of amphibians and reptiles. When it comes to reptiles and amphibians, Australia has one of the highest diversity of these groups globally. People generally think of these groups in negative light, however, they play an incredibly important role in the environment and unlike what most people think, are not out to kill you! So, here we were, an incredibly passionate group of people ready to spend the next few weeks learning more about these interesting animals. This involved classes and oh! Did I forget to mention fieldwork on a tropical island!


A spectacular sunset on the beach at Orpheus Island Research Station (Photo by Harrison Warne)

The course had a very unique structure where we worked in teams to design, implement and communicate a project from scratch! This was a great experience where we gained skills that would be similar to what we would be expected to apply in the workforce. Along the way, we attended classes which were in the form of talks from individuals working on reptiles and amphibians at JCU. This really helped us think towards formulating research questions and at the same time gave us a glimpse of the challenges faced in research. With help from our lecturer and tutors we structured our research projects and planned the next few days of the eagerly awaited fieldwork.

JCU’s Orpheus Island research (OIRS) station is located off the eastern coast of Queensland, among the Palm Island group. OIRS is well known among most marine biology students who look forward to field work at the station which is surrounded by some spectacular in-shore reefs. Being the first group to be on the island for a terrestrial ecology subject was exciting for all of us. All this while we had the opportunity to snorkel in of the most pristine habitats in our down time. The station has an equipped kitchen, and we had some great meals, which is a luxury during fieldwork! We had access to climate controlled rooms to conduct experiments, a lecture room and all the possible lab equipment required to implement our research projects.


The clam gardens that weren’t too far away from the islands (Photo by Wise Hok Wai Lum)


A great shot of the reef around the Orpheus Island Research Station (Photo by Wise Hok Wai Lum)

A typical day on the island commenced early where groups would conduct various field surveys, which be followed by a lecture from staff about their professional journey after which we had lunch. We usually had a bit of downtime in the afternoons when we had the opportunity to go for a snorkel and cool off from the tropical afternoon heat. As most reptiles and amphibians are nocturnal, groups would usually conduct surveys following dinner. We couldn’t ask for more! Being on a tropical island, we were learning not only about herpetology, we also learnt about executing a research project, different career paths of researchers and to face challenges we would come across in conducting research. All this while also experiencing the pristine reefs.

Another perspective of the reef around the island (Photo by Harrison Warne)

Another perspective of the reef around the island (Photo by Harrison Warne)

We came across a range of different species that call the island home. It was fascinating seeing the differences in the same species found on the mainland. We also found a number of species that were not known to inhabit the island. This was a great opportunity to experience this diversity and contribute to the understanding of the biodiversity found on the island. Imagine these experiences all while you are acquiring a wide range of skills, we were really fortunate for such an opportunity at such an early stage in our careers. Over the five days at OIRS, we conducted the field work and experiments required for our research projects and began working towards data analyses and communicating our work under the guidance of some incredibly experienced researchers.

A spotted python we found during nocturnal surveys. The snakes showed some interesting variations from the main land populations

A spotted python we found during nocturnal surveys. The snakes showed some interesting variations from the main land populations

As I mentioned in one of my previous post, hands on experience is a must alongside a degree. With these top class facilities and experienced staff, JCU offers the opportunity to acquire a broad skill set which is bound to give us students an edge. All while we get to experience the tropics and gain a lot of knowledge while we do so.

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