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Wild weeds of the subantarctic

By David, 22 August 2017 News

Double Helix talks to weed hunter and botanist, Laura Williams. Read on to find out about her research on Macquarie Island, a remote subantarctic island fondly referred to as ‘Macca’.

A scientists studies the ground as penguins walk past

What do you like most about your work?

I really love solving problems, which is the most important part of being a scientist! I also like that I get to work outside and that my work is very practical, with results that come in handy.

For example, before I started my job we didn’t know how we could ever control wintergrass, the weed I work on. Through my experiments I managed to discover that the best way to control it is to use roundup, a herbicide that most people use at home in their gardens!

What’s your favourite part of working on Macca?

I LOVE the wildlife. When I walk along the beach to my field sites I have to climb around elephant seals which lie together in a big pile, wade through penguins resting on the sand, and dodge skuas (a type of bird a bit like a giant seagull) which fly alongside your head.

What are the most challenging parts of your work?

Definitely the weather! On a bad day I would be out walking across the top of Macquarie Island (the only way to get around is to walk) in 110 km/h winds (that is as fast as you can go in your car), wind chill down to –20 degrees Celsius and with the clouds so low I could literally see them blowing beneath my feet! One day I was even blown over three times! We also ran out of vegemite, which made a lot of people very unhappy.

What would you like our readers to know about your work?

Although plants are often not thought of as being as exciting to study as penguins or seals, it is really important that we understand them, especially weeds. The subantarctic islands are very pristine compared to other places in the world, and it is important we keep them that way.

If left alone, weeds can destroy habitats for wildlife and other plants, change natural systems like soil and water cycles and can make other plant species disappear. By understanding how these weeds behave, we can come up with a plan to stop them before they cause too much damage.

More information

If you’d like to read more about Laura’s research, pick up a copy of Double Helix issue 17. It’s also packed with cool stories about Antarctica and surrounds.

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