Q&A with Dr Aaron Wirsing: New Editor-in-Chief for Wildlife Research

March 3rd, 2020

In 2020, Dr Aaron Wirsing joins the Wildlife Research team as Editor-in-Chief. We spoke to him to find out what inspires him and his hopes for the future of the journal.
Dr Aaron Wirsing standing in water in front of mountains in Bristol Bay, Alaska.

Dr Aaron Wirsing in Bristol Bay, Alaska as part of the University of Washington Alaska Salmon Program. (Photo: author supplied)


Cover of Wildlife Research journal

Wildlife Research journal

With a new year comes new faces, and we’re giving a big welcome to a new Editor-in-Chief for Wildlife Research, Dr Aaron Wirsing! Aaron is a Professor in the faculty of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington, studying the ways that large carnivores can change the lives of their prey beyond simply killing and eating them. 

Aaron has been a familiar face among the Wildlife Research team for a while and now he’s stepping up to join current Editors-in-Chief, Dr Andrea Taylor and Dr Piran White in managing the journal’s submissions and editorial direction. We spoke to Aaron about his background in wildlife ecology and his hopes for his role with the journal.


Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your research area?

I am originally from South Carolina, where I spent my childhood exploring the outdoors and dreaming of a career studying large predators. Nothing much has changed; I now lead the Predator Ecology Lab at the University of Washington, where my students and I pursue field research on the roles these species play in ecosystems. After wildlife, my second love growing up was of scary movies, so it is also perhaps not surprising that most of my projects address what is known as the ‘Ecology of Fear’, or in other words the idea that large predators can shape their environments merely by frightening their prey into ‘playing it safe’. This idea is important from a conservation perspective because it suggests that ongoing global predator declines are likely to reshape ecosystems by altering patterns of prey mortality and behaviour.


Dr Aaron Wirsing standing in water using a bear wire, with gree foliage behind him.

Dr Aaron Wirsing checking barbed wire deployed to collect brown bear hair in Bristol Bay, Alaska as part of the University of Washington Alaska Salmon Program. (Photo: author supplied)


Why have you decided to take on the role of Editor-in-Chief (EiC) for the journal?

I am excited to take on the role of EiC for Wildlife Research for two reasons. First, I have a deep connection to Australia. Since 2002, I’ve visited eight times, spending a total of 27 months in country as a graduate student, post-doc, and then visiting professor at the University of Sydney. So, it’s sort of my home away from home. Contributing to the success of Wildlife Research is one way that I can give back to a country that has shown me such hospitality and given me so many fond memories.

Second, as a researcher for over 20 years now, I have grown comfortable as a peer-reviewer and thus relish the challenge of being in a different position to evaluate the work of my peers. Moreover, I look forward to leveraging the interests and connections that I have developed over the past couple of decades to solicit special issues on cutting-edge topics and, in so doing, expand the journal’s reach to new audiences.


What do you hope to achieve in your role?

I have three primary goals for my time as EiC for Wildlife Research. First, by stewarding and in some cases encouraging the work that is submitted, I hope to strengthen the journal’s reputation as an outlet for high-quality research on wildlife biology and conservation that is of international interest. Second, given my station at the University of Washington, I hope to be a champion for the journal in North America and, consequently, to deepen its footprint in this part of the world. Third, I hope to use my position to expand opportunities for publication in Wildlife Research to authors and regions that have traditionally been underrepresented in the peer-reviewed literature.


Dr Aaron Wirsing kneeling in the snow with a deer lying on its side wearing a tracking collar and whose eyes are covered with cloth.

Dr Aaron Wirsing on a field trip equipping a white-tailed deer with an animal-borne video camera in eastern Washington, USA. (Photo: Pat Greene)


What inspires you in your work?

I am fuelled by the thrill of discovery. I often ask my students to describe their motivations for pursuing a career in wildlife, and usually get answers invoking the allure of the field. Though I certainly share my students’ love of the outdoors, for me, the best part of the scientific process is unpacking and interpreting data. At this crucial and challenging stage, all of the hard work and creativity that go into a study have the potential to produce a story that captures the imagination, expands our understanding of the natural world, and may even have implications for conservation. This is the step, in other words, that actually allows us to share what we’ve learned, which in my view at least is the ultimate purpose of scientific inquiry.


Dr Aaron Wirsing standing on the top of a hill, wild grass at his feet and a white, overcast sky behind him.

Dr Aaron Wirsing at a spring field course in Yellowstone National park. (Photo: author supplied)


Why do you think wildlife research is important?

Lately, there has been much discussion of the link between direct connection with nature, for example via outdoor education programs, and the development of an environmental ethic in children. Fostered in part by a childhood visiting wild places, my own affection for nature is testament to this idea. Yet, when I was young, watching science-based nature documentaries and reading accounts of field researchers also ignited my passions for animal ecology and conservation. So, aside from the means by which reliable information that informs policy is produced, I view wildlife research as a powerful force for recruiting future scientists and shaping public opinion. Indeed, for many who lack opportunities to visit wildlands, research and its coverage by the media can be the key portal through which young people can vicariously experience, and develop interest in, animals and their environments.


Wildlife Research is published by CSIRO Publishing eight times per year. Submit your paper now.

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