31 August 2007

UQ zoologist, bush adventurer and mentor to generations of students, Professor Gordon Grigg, retires today.

The pioneering zoologist, known for his in-the-field research, has dived with crocodiles, counted kangaroos from the air, tracked camels by satellite, caught alligators in Brazil, trailed echidnas in the snow of Mount Kosciusko and twice explored the Antarctic, all in the name of science.

Professor Grigg was one of the early supporters of sustainable use of kangaroos and crocodiles and using technology to remotely gather data on wild animals.

His long association with UQ began in 1960 as a Bachelor of Science student who continued with Honours before heading to the United States for his PhD.

He taught at the University of Sydney before returning to UQ in 1989 for 10 years as Head of Zoology and has served on the UQ Senate for seven years, until 2005.

He has advised government environmental boards, won major zoological awards, produced 170 peer reviewed publications and taught 88 postgraduate students, most of whom have forged their own successful science careers.

He said he was proudest of work, with colleagues and postgraduate students, which discovered that crocodiles have salt glands and very special hearts and that echidnas hibernate in winter. This last has led to publications proposing new ideas about how endothermy (warm-bloodedness) evolved.

In 1991 Professor Grigg set up a bush ecology field trip for his students to Idalia National Park, a remote station outside Blackall in Central Western Queensland which has become one of the School of Integrative Biology’s most popular field courses.

Professor Grigg has many wild adventures to tell about studying animals in the field.
While in northern Australia he dived to free a 3.5-metre- crocodile caught in a net that was snagged in the Goyder River.

“We tried for a couple of hours, leaning out of the boat, tugging the net and poking with an oar, but we couldn’t get it clear,” Professor Grigg said.

“This was at 2 or 3 in the morning. I couldn’t see any other way of getting it out than diving.

“After 2 or 3 dives down under the croc I found where the net was snagged and managed to pull it off. That’s probably the stupidest thing I’ve done. That was when I was young and silly.”

He gained his pilot’s licence in 1974, initially to support Professor Harry Messel’s crocodile research projects and, later, conducted aerial surveys of kangaroos and camels; he has now clocked up more than 5000 hours.

It was Professor Grigg, with kangaroo counters Lyn Beard and Tony Pople who found the missing UQ HyShot I scramjet engine and rocket remains SW of Coober Pedy in 2002, which was vital to proving its success. But another flight across the Great Victorian Desert was more complicated.

“I switched in error to an empty fuel tank instead of a full one and, soon after, the engine stopped. We were about 80 metres above ground, on kangaroo survey” he said.

“Luckily the engine started almost immediately when I realised the problem and selected the correct tank. It was less than five seconds . . . and was all over before the adrenalin hit in.”

Professor Grigg last flew 12 months ago and said his flying career is probably over now that it is not needed for work.

He urges all zoologists and biologists to get out in the field and to use their greatest asset: curiosity.

He believes hi-tech remote sensors that collected data from wild animals will continue to unlock animal mysteries.

The 65-year-old from Brookfield said it was satisfying that so many of his students had become and stayed good friends.

“It’s also wonderful to have the thrill of making a discovery. There’s probably only 100 people in the world who really care about how a crocodile heart works but it’s still very satisfying to nut it out.”

Although no longer teaching, Professor Grigg will continue his association with UQ as an Emeritus Professor and has one final funded project to finish.

With colleague Andrew Taylor at UNSW, he is developing a new bioacoustic monitoring system that can capture and automatically catalogue biological sounds of any environment, including underwater.

Professor Grigg’s departure from UQ also ends a 27-year-association with his scientific officer, Mrs Lyn Beard, who will continue to work with the School.

He said he was looking forward to spending more time with family, bushwalking, working for the Moggill Creek Catchment Group, recording frogs in northern Australia, taking more photos and finishing his new crocodile book by the end of the year.

He said the book, tentatively titled “How crocodiles work?”, will be an accessible, well illustrated scientific read sprinkled with personal anecdotes.

“It’s not a text book. I hope it will be useful to anyone with an interest in crocodiles and biology in general.”

For information on Professor Grigg’s retirement celebrations: visit http://www.uq.edu.au/eco-lab/index.html?page=64348&pid=39334 .

MEDIA: Professor Grigg (07 3374 1737) or Miguel Holland at UQ Communications (07 3365 2619).