Position: Professor, School of Biological Sciences, University of Canterbury.
Field: Population ecology
Professor Dave Kelly is a population ecologist who has a particular interest in pollination and the survival of native plants. He sees himself as fortunate, because he gets paid to do what many people have to fit into their weekends and holidays. His job does involve teaching and research on the university campus in Christchurch, but he also gets to spend time doing fieldwork. This often means exploring remote locations and observing some of New Zealand’s wonderful animals and plants, one example is mistletoes and mutualism.
Being a population ecologist has given Dave a real sense of connection with the landscape. To understand how biological communities work, he has to identify the plants and animals and work out how their lives are connected. By getting to understand communities as they are now and how they have developed in the past, he is in a position to predict what might happen to them in the future. Understanding the possible impacts of human activities on the landscape and its wildlife is an important part of being an ecologist.
To discover the habits and distribution of a plant, go and observe them.
Dave often takes undergraduate students on fieldtrips, adding actual observations to what they learn as theory. Bad weather and steep hills can come as a shock to some of them, but if you want to understand how biological communities work, nothing beats going out and having a look. Students soon start to recognise and name plants and animals and begin to see how they interact. Eventually, they will have the experience to foresee what they might find when visiting a new area and to recognise if things are not as expected.
Nature of science
For ecologists to understand communities and to create models, they rely on actual observations of the numbers of organisms and their distribution.
So what does this leave Dave to do at weekends? With his love of natural history and the outdoors, he’s likely to pack his camping gear, get on his mountain bike and explore favourite back-country landscapes. While doing that, he’s careful to never ride past a café without sampling its wares, often extensively.
In November 2013 Professor Kelly was awarded the Hutton Medal for plant science by the Royal Society of New Zealand for developing knowledge of native flora in New Zealand and defining key interactions between plants and animals.
This article is based on information current in 2012 and 2018