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How WEC Works: Peter Frederick

Peter Frederick

Dr. Peter Frederick is a WEC Research Professor.


What led you into wildlife? Do you have an origin story?

I think I was born into it. My grandfather was one of the pioneers in birdsong. One of my earliest memories as a non-infant was running around in the field behind our house with one of the first parabolic reflectors, recording birdsong onto his huge tape recorder.

Ornithologist using an early parabolic reflector to record birdsong. Photo of Albert R Brand, credit Macauley Lab

I think a lot of my early experiences were formed by growing up in a rural area, so when I got to college and people started to inform me about nitrogen cycles and carbon cycles, I was like, “Duh!”

I already knew a lot about ecology before I ever got to the formal learning stage. Having said that, my brother and sisters did not wind up doing the same thing that I did, so there’s probably some genetic predisposition there, too.

Do you have a go-to tool?

If there is one that’s pervasive throughout my career, it’s probably boats. Just being able to get to places that other people have not been to before, or places that are just plain difficult to get to, because I work in wetlands, my go-to tools are outboards, jet drives, air boats, and unmanned aerial vehicles.

The access is really critical to what I do, in a way that I don’t think is true necessarily for people working in tropical rainforests, or pine woodlands, or something like that. I find that understanding how to use those access tools is really important.

You mentioned you are from a rural area. Where are you from?

Most people would not think of this as rural, but I grew up in Delaware. At least when I was young, northern Delaware was actually quite rural. I grew up working on farms. It was big horse country, so I worked a lot in stables.

Most Saturday mornings I was woken up by the sound of hounds and bugles and people running around in funny jackets, riding after foxes. They’d go right through your yard and out the other side. It was a unique experience.

What’s an unexpected experience that you’ve had because of your work?

White ibis with fish
Credit Bill Majoros

One of the greatest things an ecologist can encounter is something you really didn’t predict. One of the biggest things that I never predicted was that wading birds, which I study a lot, turn out to be strongly associated with droughts.

This really doesn’t make sense at first, but as it turns out, that association integrates the need of wading birds to eat small fish and crayfish, which generally follow really short hydroperiods.

If they get into longer hydroperiods, the birds are in direct competition with larger, predatory fish.

This turned out to be an enormous, really big piece of information for trying to manage large wetlands like the Everglades. There are many people who had said, “Dry it out!” as a way of stimulating birds and so forth, but actually that’s too short a cycle.

There are many people who said, “Flood  it, flood it!” because if you have more water you have more fish. That was wrong, because you get all predatory fish. It was the intermediate that really mattered.

That was a surprise that came about as a result of:

  1. A year in which I predicted no nesting, and we got the largest nesting event in 30 years, and
  2. The ability to go through records that were collected by my predecessors over a hundred and thirty years that proved the point that within two years after a drought, you’re going to get a big nesting event.

That was probably one of the biggest surprises of my career.

Are you primarily an ornithologist?

I always tell my students they better go into any room with at least seven hats, and be able to take those hats off and put them on. I guess my hats would be ornithology, toxicology, animal behavior, wetland ecology, and a few more. Those are the hats that I would tend to put on.


How do you manage your time?

Not very well! I think time management is really, really hard if you’re a dedicated ecologist. We’re constantly going over this with the university. They want us to report our time, and time management is really important there, but there’s no way that you can conscionably be a university professor without vastly exceeding the time commitments the university outlines for you.

So to some extent, we all ought to be poor time managers in that regard, but a lot of it just has to do with your passion for the job. If you’re passionate about it, you’ll probably spend more time than you’re really supposed to on it.

I think there are a couple rules. One of them is that you need to have social and family time, and that needs to be disengaged from your job. If everything is about your job, if you talk shop in any situation, something’s wrong. You need to be able to step back. That’s actually something my grandfather taught me. You need to be able to leave your job at work on the weekends, and make time for something else. That’s one rule.

Another rule is: If it’s no longer fun, you’re spending too much time on it. Something’s wrong.

If you’re passionate about the work you do, you should be able to find something you like about most of it. If it’s getting to be a grind, something’s wrong, and you need to change that.

Did you ever spend long periods in the field?

Yes, I’ve spent long periods in the field. Especially during the younger parts of my career, and as a graduate student certainly, I spent months on end in the field, recording the behavior of long-legged wading birds. I also have, in travels to Central and South America, spent long periods in the field.

What did you do to keep up with your friends and family while you were doing that?

Well, either my friends and family came with me, or they just knew that I was gone for three months. It was pre-email; telephones were really the only way to communicate. So in a lot of cases it was just, “Ok, Pete’s gone.”

What do you like about living in Gainesville?

I think it’s a biological Mecca. When you talk to a lot of students who are professionals in South America, they don’t say, “I want to come to the University of Florida,” or even Florida, they say, “I want to come to Gainesville.” When you talk to researchers in Indonesia, they say, “How’s Gainesville?”

They don’t think of Gainesville as the university, and that’s partly because of all of the resources here. Some of them are from the university, some arise from USGS, the Fish and Wildlife Commission, and people who are retired here; they all make up this cadre of biologists who make it exciting to be in Gainesville. Some are working for state or even county agencies. I challenge anybody to find a county in Florida where we have a greater density of biologists and ecologists.

That’s one thing that I really love about Gainesville. You can be in the supermarket, and bump into somebody that has many of the same experiences that you do.

The second thing I like about Gainesville is that it’s very diverse. I like living in a multicultural, and multiethnic, and multi- thought process area. I’ve lived in places, particularly some of the more remote places that are very monomorphic in cultural background and thought. Those are fun for a while, but they do get old. That’s something I like about Gainesville. I can walk across campus, and if I haven’t heard six languages, I usually think it’s odd.

Gainesville’s finally growing up. It’s finally getting enough good restaurants, it’s finally getting enough good entertainment. It wasn’t always that way, and it actually is.

Gainesville has biological history. We have great people who worked here before. Archie Carr, would be a good example. We have some in the wildlife department, like Mel Sunquist. All of them have local involvement and local stories.

You can look at Lake Alice and say, “Oh, that’s where Archie Carr used to hunt ducks, back when it was just a swamp,” and, “Oh, I know who developed the plan for that wetland, that’s there,” or, “Oh, that’s the Moon Tree, the tree whose seed was taken on one of the first space missions and brought back to see if anything would change about the way it grew.”

There’s just stuff like that all over campus. There are touchstones for our profession, and they help make this a neat place to live.

If you could call yourself before you went into undergrad, what advice would you give yourself?

One of the things I would say is what my grandfather said to me: Don’t be a specialist!

Get a good, basic undergraduate education. You’re going to have to specialize at some point, but remember that each of those specializations is just a step in your lifelong career.

The average American changes careers seven times. That’s not jobs, that’s careers. So I think he was basically giving me some very good advice: Don’t be scared to focus on things, and gain some expertise, but keep in mind that’s not all you’re going to do. By doing that, you end up focusing on a lot of skills that might cross a lot of careers. Social skills, organizational skills, work habits, skills that really are transferrable to just about anything.

I think that was good advice, particularly for someone going into science, where you’re invited to, basically, be a specialist in something, and that means you could nerd yourself out completely and ignore a lot of parts of your life and career that you probably shouldn’t ignore.

In Closing

Who else would you like to see answer these questions?

I think it’d be worth talking to some of the retired folks: Mel Sunquist, George Tanner. Susan Jacobson is about to retire. Bette Loiselle has certainly had an illustrious career.

Wiley Kitchens—he’s in Jacksonville, but he might be interesting to interview.

Some of our alums, like Margaret Kinnaird and Tim O’Brien, to whom we gave awards about two years ago, would be really interesting.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell people?

About a thousand things!

One of the adages about a successful career is, first off, don’t just follow the numbers. Those are goalposts that are not set by you, they’re set by somebody else. Set your own goals. Don’t expect to have a comfortable career in ecology. I think you have to push pretty hard, and we often are dealing with natural resource issues that are highly contentious, so it may not be comfortable at all.

Keep it fun. If it’s not fun, be sure you know why. There are some things, like contentious natural resource issues, that are going to be not fun for a while at least.

I guess the last thing, certainly it’s been true in my career, is to stick with something long-term. The systems that we study have long-term memory, through evolution of traits. Also, just the process of change in ecological systems can be very slow, or at least episodic, and I think too often we are studying things for just two or three years at a time. That looks good on your CV, but isn’t long enough to really have enough in-depth learning.

I’ve been working in the Everglades for thirty years. We’re only just now starting to see some of the real payoffs of that thirty year-long effort, and much of that is drawing on stuff that occurred fifty and a hundred years ago! We just had a major nesting event in the Everglades that’s bigger than anything that’s happened since the 1940s. As it turns out, everything about that nesting event is explicable based on research that’s taken us, collectively between many agencies, over thirty years to produce. So, if you think you’re going to make a mark, keep thinking that that mark is going to be more and more valuable over time, the longer you study that system.

What’s a contentious issue you’ve worked on? What was that experience like?

Well, Everglades restoration is definitely contentious, in part because it’s about where you put water, and who all the water users are. Any time you’re talking about water use it’s contentious. If there’s a stream, and everybody can see the stream, nobody argues about it. If you put a dam in that stream, everybody argues immediately about the level of the water.

That’s what’s happened to the Everglades. It had tremendous resilience in the past, because it fluctuated naturally, and everything there was adapted to those natural fluctuations. It had incredible numbers of ways of providing resilience to the populations of things that lived there. Because we’ve now added 25 user groups for all the water, that want to be, always, too wet or too dry for the Everglades, we’ve created a situation where we’re attempting to manage in an impossible situation. That’s contentious.

Exposed oyster beds at low tide along the shoreline at Anastasia State Park in Northeast Florida. UF/IFAS Photo: Josh Wickham.

The whole business about oyster reef restoration is contentious, in part because some people want you to restore so they can fish the reef, and other people want you to restore so they get ecological benefits from the reef, and boy!, if you ever want to get into a contentious situation, just say the word “fishery”. It’s highly contentious, as the Supreme Court case over the Apalachicola is showing. It’s an arena that’s very uncomfortable to work in. That doesn’t mean we can’t provide a lot of answers.


This interview is by Rhett Barker, and has been lightly edited for clarity by Claire Williams and Rhett Barker.

Thanks to Dr. Frederick for sitting down with us!

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