The lure of discovery

PhD in Environmental Science

A six-month sabbatical in Australia in the mid-80s and return visits in the following years presented Professor Lenz with a wonderful dilemma, the luxury of choice.

For the German-born biologist, Australia’s rich biodiversity offered him an abundance of species to study and excellent universities to conduct a PhD.

“I always felt you were not a biologist unless you had seen the tropics – I came to Australia and fell in love with the country, people and lifestyle.

“We don’t have rainforests or the Barrier Reef in Europe – on top of that, there were many Australian species not yet studied in detail.”

In the end it came down to two choices, either researching the dragonflies of north east Queensland or the evolutionary ecology of the Regent Bowerbird in the state’s south east.

A Griffith scholarship, along with the University’s innovative approach to environmental sciences and the Nathan campus’s proximity to the bowerbird’s natural habitat, made his decision.

“Griffith was the right place to be if you were an environmental science student, I got to know quite a lot of people looking at rainforest ecosystems, biodiversity and ecology,” he said.

“Other universities had separate botany or zoology departments, but Griffith had environmental sciences, which I found interesting because it brought together different but related topics.”

Establishing a research base in Queensland’s Sarabah Range, Professor Lenz spent the next four years tracking the bird’s mating patterns.

He wanted to understand why different male species of the bird had evolved to attract a mate – some with a beautiful plumage and a complex display dance, and others through the construction of elaborate bowers.

“This is interesting for biologists because one wonders why this evolved, why does one species pursue one strategy and the other, a very different strategy?”

He recalls discovering a few uninvited guests including a giant huntsman spider the size of his hand and a taipan snake. He even had an accidental tussle with a stinging leaf tree.

“When doing field work to find bowers, you are basically crawling through shrubs and thickets, I probably would not have enjoyed my work quite as much, had I discovered the taipan earlier,” he said.

“Still, I think living in the Australian rainforest is less dangerous than the autobahn.”

Completing his PhD in 1994, Professor Lenz returned to Germany landing his first job at a nature reserve at Lake Constance near the German-Swiss border.

His field work experience gave him an edge when applying for the job.

“Australia was very advanced at studying species in a natural environment at the time, doing field work was an experience I took with me to Germany.”

An opportunity to research and write for a nearby natural history museum exhibition changed the direction of his career.

“I was always interested in museums, from my childhood, I remember going to museums with my family during the summer holidays,” he said.

“I found the idea of working for a museum quite fascinating.”

For the past 20 years Prof Lenz has worked in natural history museums and has been the director of the State Museum of Natural History in Karlsruhe since 2008.

He regularly applies his research background to his work organising different programs, lectures and activities for visitors.

“In a natural history museum, you are presented with different topics every day, every week, every month, every year,” he said.

“I still learn things every day, it’s the best place if you like learning new things.”

A recent Karlsruhe exhibition, America after the Ice, explored people of the Americas, their natural environment and reasons for the extinction of megafauna species such as mammoths and sabre-toothed cats.

“It was fascinating, not only for the visitors but for myself,” he said.

“It also gave me the opportunity to do some research for the exhibition and to get out of the office.”

Prof Lenz hopes to feature a large exhibition on the natural and cultural history of Australia at the museum and was recently in the country to visit Kakadu and other Northern Territory reserves.

He said his PhD experience in Australia opened his mind to new possibilities.

“My overseas experience and research at Griffith widened my horizons and opened doors,” he said.

“I highly recommend it.”

Professor Lenz’s Griffith PhD thesis

Behavioural and reproductive biology of the regent bowerbird Sericulus chrysocephalus

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