A Six-Year-Old Who Loves Owls May Be The Youngest Author Of A Scientific Paper

Grace Fulton published a scientific paper. Graham Fulton

Many young children love exploring nature and have the inquisitorial minds that make the best scientists. Few, however, get to have their name on a peer-reviewed paper, and it seems likely Grace Fulton has set a record by doing so at the age of six. Although her father is her co-author, he is keen to stress Grace's authorship is not simply for show, she's played an important part at several stages of the research.

Graham Fulton is an ornithologist at the University of Queensland. His research includes how well owls adapt to urban environments. “Grace absolutely adores owls,” Graham said in a statement. “She was only four when she started spending nights with me in the rainforest searching for them, and now she knows all of their calls."

For his most recent research, Graham compared the presence of owls at a Brisbane park with the nearby Mount Glorious rainforest. He told IFLScience that “[Grace] attended fieldwork on all occasions and always [attended] school the next day. She was in Prep at that stage. She could read the data and tell which owl was most common both on the data (excel sheet) and from being at the fieldwork. She could recall the moments I forgot.”

“She asks questions that inspire research, looks at the data, never stops learning, corrects me when I mark down the wrong bird,” Graham added, so when the work was published in Pacific Conservation Biology, both Fultons were listed as authors.

Grace  and Graham Fulton with a masked Owl (left) Graham Fulton

The authors found a near absence of owls in the suburbs, aside from one southern boobook outside the study itself. Meanwhile, five species of owls demonstrate the health of the rainforest site.

“We think that city parks must be linked to larger forests where the owls breed. They then enter the parks looking for food sporadically,” Graham said.

There is no Guinness World Record for the youngest published scientist. However, when Sophia Spencer co-authored a study on social media and the love of science, she was widely reported as being the youngest author of a published scientific paper. As far as we can determine, no one challenged this claim so it seems likely Grace has now broken the record by more than a year.

Grace is also the lead author of a paper currently undergoing review, in which she recorded a bird nesting in a previously unrecorded type of environment. Grace has expressed an intention to eventually become a butterfly researcher, despite her father telling her, “They're just bird food.”

The Fultons are crowdfunding to go to North Queensland once the lockdown ends to extend into new territory a study on aggression in honeyeaters Graham has been conducting for 29 years.

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