World Water Day, Dr Marian Wong and students

Innovative ways to teach biodiversity

Innovative ways to teach biodiversity

Students go pond-dipping to study aquatic habitats and celebrate World Water Day 2023

For World Water Day, an annual United Nations initiative celebrated worldwide on March 22, University of Wollongong (UOW) marine biology students took part in a unique study – testing the bodies of waters at their Wollongong campus.

Their practical experiment was organised by behavioural ecologist Dr Marian Wong, a senior lecturer in UOW’s School of Earth, Atmospheric and Life Sciences, to raise awareness about the global water crisis and to advocate for the sustainable management of freshwater resources.

“Of all the water on the planet, about 3.5 per cent is freshwater, and the rest is seawater. So only a staggeringly tiny proportion of freshwater is available to humans and other animals, plants and fungi. Unfortunately, this tiny portion of water available to us is being polluted and affected by climate change, which endangers the micro- and macrobiota in these ecosystems,” Dr Wong said.

A Science & Technology Australia (STA) Superstars of STEM program alumna, Dr Wong is passionate about protecting aquatic biodiversity, a passion she now tries to instil in her students.

“At UOW, one of the subjects I teach is called Marine and Freshwater Biodiversity. Each year, my students get to learn about various aquatic and wetland species and their water ecosystems – from campus ponds and streams to local lakes and the ocean. I want them to understand that we need biodiversity to survive and thrive,” Dr Wong said.

This year, coinciding with World Water Day, they were asked to go pond-dipping to quantify the freshwater insects that reside on the Wollongong campus and check the healthiness of its bodies of water – the ponds and streams that meander around.

During the lab part of the experiment, the students tested all the water samples to count and classify the living organisms. They found that taxon richness (the number of different types of organisms) and taxon abundance (total abundance of organisms) was greater in the vegetated margins of ponds than in the open areas. This suggests that it’s important to preserve vegetation around ponds, as it provides a key source of habitat, protection, shelter, food and egg-laying sites for a lot of aquatic insects.

One of the most common insect species found on campus were dragonfly larvae – the juvenile phase of the flying beauty, which look nothing like the adults but resemble the little hunchbacks of Notre Dame. These larvae spend their whole life in water and feed on anything they can catch. Later in life, as grown-up dragonflies, they’re mainly concentrated on mating near water, and that’s how the circle of life goes.

“We can now say that water bodies on Wollongong campus are quite healthy, as they were brimming with insects, showing both a great abundance and diversity of life,” Dr Wong said.

Dr Wong is adamant that the future of aquatic and wetland habitats lies in the hands of the young. They’re curious, passionate and eager to take environmental matters into their own hands.

For Soraya Mustienes, a second-year student of Marine Sciences, the pond-dipping class was an eye-opener.

“When we first collected our samples, we all turned to each other disappointedly and said that we didn't think we had any invertebrates. But when we got back to the lab and began looking at the samples under the microscope, we realised how wrong we had been. It was crawling with hidden life. We weren't even able to count and identify everything in two hours! It was so exciting to witness the microenvironments in action,” Soraya said.

Cody Regan, a Bachelor of Science student majoring in Cell and Molecular Biology is planning to forge a career in education, so that he can spread awareness on the importance of all living things, especially invertebrates.

“When I saw the amount of litter in the stream that my team inspected, which was located close to the highway, it only reinforced my belief that humans have the biggest and most harmful impact on the environment. And I want to live in a world where all animals, big and small, have the appreciation and care they deserve,” Cody said.

UOW ponds and ducks Wollongong campus is famous for its stunning natural surroundings: lawns, streams, ponds and lush greenery.

This practical marine biology class is part of UOW’s commitment to achieving UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 – clean water and sanitation. It will culminate in a social media campaign, in which the students create social media posts with their lab findings and post them to their social media channels to spread the word about the importance of aquatic and wetland habitats.