Director’s Update – March 2020

Welcome to our mid-autumn newsletter in which we have introduced new cheery colours for TERN’s brand and website to coincide with you working from home!  We assure you that apart from not being out in the field or in our workplace offices, we are getting on with business at TERN, while at the same time, using our changed work practices as an opportunity to look at ways to improve our research and data services.

Regular readers all know that I usually weave something into the newsletter introduction to extoll the benefits of long-term research data collection. Thus, for this edition, I went looking for data to provide some insights into managing in the time of a pandemic. Although not an environmental data stream like TERN produces, my favourite result comes from 1665, which is the time of one of the last major outbreaks in the 400 years that the Black Death ravaged Europe.  Why is 1665 so interesting? Well, the history books document that in 1665, a 20-something Isaac Newton was sent home from Cambridge University when the Great Plague of London hit. Finding out that young Isaac had to travel back to the family estate some 60 miles north west of Cambridge and stay there for over a year tells us that physical distancing is not a new pandemic containment strategy!  The second insight is that in his unstructured ‘work from home’ environment where he was without the benefits of a computer, internet, Zoom, Skype, Slack and other means of keeping in touch with his professors and peers, over the next 12 plus months young Isaac came up with or further developed his famous thoughts on calculus, optics, gravity and so on.

While maybe not aiming to be as life-changing as Isaac Newton’s achievements, TERN has nevertheless been brainstorming what it can do to make a difference to the work of Australia’s environmental scientists while we are all kept out of the field and away from our usual places of work.  So far, we have agreed that our focus should be on updating our standard methods and field protocols to make sure everything is in readiness for the delayed field campaigns. We have also decided to get busy with data curation to make sure researchers can access as much data as we have ready (and we hope you will let us know when new papers using TERN data or field sites are published). The TERN e-support team (, even though working from home, continues to be available and will ensure any data enquiries get into the hands of the right person to action them as soon as practicable. TERN does rely on a few other organisations with respect to data delivery and we will let you know via our social media if there are any disruptions beyond our control to services that affect TERN data.

The current-day pandemic has been used by researchers as an opportunity to highlight the probable interaction between environmental change and infectious disease emergence. This opinion is well-argued in a recent edition of PNAS (, which talks about how infectious zoonotic diseases typically emerge as a result of complex interactions between humans and wild and/or domestic animals. The article makes an important link between intact ecosystems and disease regulation where the former’s role is to maintain natural disease dynamics in wildlife communities and so reduce the probability of contact and pathogen transmission among humans, livestock, and wildlife. With this in mind, we encourage our research communities to let us know how TERN can improve presentation of its Australian ecosystem data to allow more research on the risks of emerging infectious diseases.

Evidence of changes in our environment over 2019, based on data collected by groups such as TERN, has just been released by Australian National University’s Water and Landscape Dynamics group, as summarised in our story Australia’s Environment in 2019. Not surprisingly, the data shows increased temperatures, decreased rainfall and the destruction of vegetation and ecosystems by drought, fire and land clearing. One of the valuable aspects of the 2019 report is that it is one of a series, each produced annually. This means researchers and managers can compare yearly Australia’s environmental condition reports when undertaking research and making decisions – perhaps even use the reports and associated data in predictions about the future environmental condition of Australia and the health of its ecosystems.

We hope that you enjoy our new-look newsletter and its diversity of stories – please endeavour to stay healthy, entertained and scientifically creative.

Dr Beryl Morris


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