UNE ecologists Hal Heatwole and Ralph D.B. ('Wal') Whalley have 120 years of experience between them. They will speak about their careers and contributions to science at the Wicklow Hotel on Wednesday evening.
Professor Heatwole, ecologist and herpetologist, is Adjunct Professor of Zoology at UNE and Professor Emeritus of Biology at North Carolina University.
He has scuba-dived with sea snakes; explored jungles and deserts; camped in Antarctic mountains; recommended a conservation strategy for the Great Barrier Reef; and tried to persuade NASA to send him up in a shuttle with a cargo of nigh-indestructible tardigrades.
Professor Whalley, a grassland ecologist, pioneered the study of native grasses at UNE in the 1960s, and received the Order of Australia in 2007 for his services to conservation and environment. The same year, he was named in the Bulletin Bayer Smart 100 List for agriculture. He also wrote the standard texts for identifying grass used by generations of rural science students and farmers.
"Scientific Legacies" is the second last Science in the Club event of this year, run by New England North West Regional Science Hub.
A scuba-diving herpetologist
Professor Heatwole believes there are two types of biologists: "specialists, who spend an entire life digging into something deeply; and generalists". He is one of the generalists.
He knew he wanted to be a zoologist in grade school. Growing up in a conservative Mennonite religious community in Virginia, he and his siblings were the first to go to university. He gained his Ph.D. (in Zoology) - the first of three - from the University of Michigan, on reptiles and snakes.
"That was an interest I was born with," Professor Heatwole said. "It was not genetic, because neither of my parents had much interest in snakes!"
Deciding he'd had enough of snow, he applied for any job in the tropics.
"95 per cent of the biology is in the tropics, only 5 per cent of the biologists, so a lot of opportunities there!"
His supervisor warned him that he would go troppo in academic Siberia - but the University of Puerto Rico allowed him to work in the field all-year round, rather than, like his northerly colleagues, only in summertime.
Walking down the hallway one day, he intersected with UNE zoologist John Brereton, out on sabbatical, and looking for the biology department.
The two men started talking about Brereton's investigations into the languages of parrots, and Heatwole's into the water balance of frogs.
Professor Heatwole invited his new friend home for drinks and dinner with his wife; and a few years later, was invited to apply for a vacancy at UNE's Department of Zoology.
"That incident determined a lot of the trajectory of my future career," Professor Heatwole mused. "If I had been 15 seconds earlier, I would have gone beyond when he came through. If I had been 15 seconds later, he would have asked someone else for directions."
Travelling to Australia gave Professor Heatwole the chance to pursue his interest in desert reptiles and sea snakes.
A true generalist, his curiosity about the dynamics of island vegetation and palaeogeography led to doctorates from James Cook University (Earth and Environmental Science) and the University of Queensland (Botany), as well as a D.Sc. from UNE on ecological herpetology.
New England's native grass guru
Professor Whalley will talk about regenerative grazing management, and how native grasses could solve farmers' drought worries.
Native grasses have been Professor Whalley's field since the 1960s, flying in the face of the then-dominant philosophy of replacing 'useless' Australian species with high-producing introduced ones.
"Many graziers around here still think that," Professor Whalley said. "They're the ones who are going broke in the drought."
Native grasses, he explained, are survivors; they can withstand extreme climate change, and human abuse of the countryside.
"Our grass flora has evolved to cope with what we're doing to it now," Professor Whalley said. "What we have to learn, and what we're learning is how to use them as fodder for livestock, so we can keep our protein up."
He advises farmers to look after the native grasses; get rid of their livestock early; wait until the grass grows; and then put their livestock back in.
Native grasses will grow back after drought - but must rest once the rain returns. The first few weeks are critical. If farmers let their stock graze off the grasses to nearly bare ground, they will kill them. Smart farmers don't let their livestock graze until the grass regrows after drought.
As the world grows drier and warmer with climate change, Professor Whalley believes European countries would do well to import Australian native grasses; they require less water than thirsty northern hemisphere species.
Adopting a more migratory approach to farming will, he thinks, also be necessary for Australia. Just as Indigenous people moved from site to site, following water, farmers should transport their livestock to where the grass is (Western Australia, for instance), rather than sending hay to where the livestock are.
"Let's not talk about the finances; I'm talking about biology!" he said.
Professor Whalley considers himself an optimist - and has a wooden sign on his desk to prove it. Professor Heatwole is less sanguine about the future.
"We still see climate deniers when all the evidence is there," he said. "Our education system has let us down. All high school students should understand what's happening, and in many ways they don't.
"The rate of extinction in almost all taxa is extreme; the weather system is going to be very challenging, and the population is still burgeoning. We're beyond the carrying capacity of the Earth; we're living on fossil fuel, fossil water, fossil air, fossil everything - and that can't go on much longer.
"Even if we changed our habits tomorrow to the best possible thing we could do, there's going to be a disaster. It's unavoidable.
"What we can do now is take steps to improve the situation, or to ameliorate it, so that we don't have as severe a disaster as it will befall us - but it will befall us, and it will in the next two decades."
Science in the Club: Scientific Legacies, Wednesday, August 14, 6.30 for a 7pm start, upstairs at the Wicklow Hotel, corners of Marsh and Dumaresq Streets.