Beer, biodiversity, and little brown bats: Welcome to Peterborough’s Conservation Café

Once a month, scientists gather at a local pub to talk about their findings and their work — and everyone’s invited. It’s all part of an effort to break down barriers between experts and the public
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on May 16, 2019
Research scientist Christina Davy delivers a presentation on bats during the third instalment of the monthly Conservation Café series. (David Rockne Corrigan)

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PETERBOROUGH — A group of conservation scientists walks into a bar — the Publican House Brewery on Charlotte Street, to be precise. Around a table on the second floor, they sip beer and talk shop.

“Biodiversity, that belongs to everybody,” says Christina Davy, a research scientist and adjunct professor in Trent University’s environmental and life sciences graduate program. “It’s really neat to be able to share that with other people so that they feel ownership of all the cool things that are out there that maybe they don’t get to see themselves. But we can show it to them.”

Although there’s plenty of socializing, this isn’t a casual get-together: it’s the third instalment in the monthly Conservation Café series organized by the newly formed Trent Research Group for Communicating Conservation Science. The aim is to help experts share their research and insights with the public.

Once the audience arrives, Davy will be talking about some of the cool things she’s learned about bats as part of her work for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

“You want to talk about cool things?” interrupts Jeff Bowman, an ecologist and conservation biologist, pulling out his phone and excitedly showing the group a fuzzy picture of a furry pink blob. “That’s a flying squirrel. I bet you didn’t know that they’re fluorescent pink under UV light. That’s pretty cool.”

The group squints at Bowman’s phone. Some laugh and nod approvingly. “He’s right — that is cool,” someone says. Bowman’s enthusiasm for the objects of his study is contagious.

“We’re communicating something we all care about,” says Chris Wilson, a scientist who works alongside Davy and Bowman at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. “And watching someone’s eyes light up when they do it, it’s a gorgeous feeling.”

For the past four months, about 90 researchers have been participating in workshops, organized by the research group, that are geared toward making them more effective communicators. Some of the techniques they’ve covered — repeating questions from an audience, for example, to make sure everyone has heard them — are familiar ones: the scientists are used to being in a classroom setting. But others, such as explaining scientific research using a traditional “beginning, middle, end” storytelling approach, may require that experts adopt entirely new ways of framing their work. The café events give them the opportunity to put their new skills into practice.

“I haven’t met a scientist who doesn’t want their work to be known,” says Jim Schaefer, who leads the research group. “This is an acknowledgement for scientists, especially in conservation biology, that if we’re going to be effective, we need to do more than get published in the quarterly journal.”

It can be difficult for laypeople to decipher dense scientific work. Researchers, says Schaefer, often rely on technical terms: they need to be able to explain their theories and findings in plain language if they want to engage those unfamiliar with the topic.

“We love jargon, as scientists,” says Schaefer. “It’s our way of conveying information to each other. But with the public, it’s a brick wall. You’ll lose your audience if you alienate them.”

The audience starts filing in, and soon it’s standing room only for Davy’s lecture on bats. She starts by showing an image of Earth.

“The first fun fact about bats: Did you know that this is the only planet in the entire universe that is confirmed to have bats on it?” she asks.

That gets a laugh — the presentation is off to a good start. Over the next 45 minutes, Davy provides an overview of her work and explains why and how bat populations have declined as much as 95 per cent in some places, the largest documented decline in a wild mammal population ever.

“Little brown bats used to be the most common mammal in North America,” says Davy. “They are now endangered globally, endangered in Canada, endangered in Ontario. And this all happened in about 10 years.”

Davy, though, remains optimistic: that other 5 per cent of bats, she notes, continue to thrive, which means it’s not too late to save these mammals — or many of the million species of plants and animals highlighted as being at risk of extinction in a recent report from the United Nations.

“If we say that there are a million species at risk of extinction, it means they’re not gone yet. They’re still here,” says Davy. “So the question is, what can we do to turn that around and stop them from becoming extinct?”

For Davy, Schaefer, and the other scientists in the room, this is the ultimate goal: they don’t just want to have conversations about science; they want to encourage people to think about the implications of science on their lives — and take action. (Davy mentions that domestic and feral cats kill billions of animals, including bats, in North America every year. “Keeping cats indoors,” she says, “is possibly the single greatest impact you can have on biodiversity conservation in Ontario.”)

Davy wraps up her presentation and takes some questions from the crowd. One woman tells Davy that there’s a bat colony living in her house and that she wants them to leave peacefully. What should she do? Davy recommends installing a “bat house” outside — although she does note that it may take a few years for the bats to make the move. After the session is over, many stick around to chat and drink. One of the attendees, Tanis Bird, is in town visiting from St. John’s. She says she was pleasantly surprised by how well the event balanced entertainment and education.

“It’s definitely more enticing to come here than, say, the university lecture hall. We might’ve been less inclined to come on a Tuesday night,” she says. “It’s a great way to engage the public in conservation issues. I even noticed the servers and bartenders were listening intently, so something’s working.”

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