The following pages contain various projects that are available as honours research projects for 2012




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Potential Honours Projects in the School of Animal Biology

mid-year 2012


The following pages contain various projects that are available as honours research projects for 2012.


This is not an exhaustive list but should be used as a guide for you to:


1) Gain an idea of the scope of appropriate projects

2) Be introduced to potential supervisors and their fields of study

3) Stimulate ideas about other projects that interest you


Please contact any supervisors on this list or about their project, or refer to the School’s Honours pages for lists of potential supervisors and approach them about ideas not listed here.


ANIMAL NUTRITION PROJECTS


Supervisor: Phil Vercoe

philip.vercoe@uwa.edu.au


Possible projects include:


Antimethanogenic bioactivity of pasture species and Australian native plants


The role of grazing behaviour in increasing the biodiversity of grazing systems


Persistency of antimethanogenic properties of pasture species and Australian native plants


Improving estimates of methane production by studying behaviour of animals in respiration chambers


Use of remotely sensed data for monitoring spatial distribution of perennial pastures in Western Australia (to be co-supervised by Dr. Waqar Ahmad, CSIRO)





Reproductive biology in farm animals – research the basics to find new applications


Supervisor: Graeme Martin

Graeme.Martin@uwa.edu.au

Supervisor: Penny Hawken

Penny.Hawken@uwa.edu.au



Possible areas include:

  • Female pheromones in sheep – fact or fiction?

  • Brain pathways used by male pheromones to affect female reproduction

  • Early embryo mortality … how can we detect it?

  • Ram sperm cells following changes in nutrition

  • Ram seminal plasma: testosterone and antioxidant enzymes

  • Testis after nutritional supplement: cFos, urea

  • Plant ‘toxins’ and reproductive endocrinology

  • Stress: Does cortisol in wool reflect the past?

  • ‘Medicinal forages’ and reproduction

  • The search for a nutritional treatment to induce luteolysis

  • Genes, hormones and puberty


ANIMAL PRODUCTION PROJECTS


1. Cryopreservation of duck sperm – the role of semen fractions.


2. Pigeon gene bank – the relationship between cooling and warming rates in freezing of pigeon sperm.



Supervisor: Irek Malecki

Irek.Malecki@uwa.edu.au


EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY PROJECTS


Phylogenetic relationships among planktonic and directly developing species within the genus Bembicium (Gastopoda: Littorinidae)


Supervisors: Jason Kennington (jason.kennington@uwa.edu.au) and Michael Johnson (msj@cyllene.uwa.edu.au)


The mode of reproduction can have major effects on population structure and likelihood of genetic divergence within marine species (Bohonak 1999). Species without larval dispersal tend to be more subdivided genetically than those with planktotrophic larvae. Littorine snails of the genus Bembicium include species that exhibit a planktonic larval stage and species that are direct developers (Johnson and Black 2006). The genus includes five species, two of which have planktonic dispersal, B. auratum and B. nanum, and three that are direct developers, B. vitattum, B. melanostoma and B. flavescens (Reid 1998).

Allozyme analyses of these five species across their geographical distributions have been conducted by Johnson and Black (2006). This study supported the current taxonomic treatment of the genus, but failed to resolve important historical relationships between species, which are fundamental to understanding the origin and evolutionary significance of modes of reproduction. An investigation of mitochondrial DNA within Bembicium will allow finer resolution of genetic subdivision and provide the essential historical perspective needed to understand the effects of modes reproduction on the genetic structure of this genus. Specifically, the study will (1) test the hypothesis that direct development evolved only once in this genus, (2) allow comparison of amounts and patterns of genetic divergence in lineages with different modes of reproduction, and (3) determine the evolutionary history of populations of the direct developer B. vittatum, which has disjunct and genetically highly divergent populations over a range of 4000 km.


Reading

Bohonak, A.J. 1999. Dispersal, gene flow, and population structure. The Quarterly Review of Biology 74, 21-45.

Johnson, M..S. and R. Black. 2006. Effects of mode of reproduction on genetic divergence over large spatial and temporal scales in intertidal snails of the genus Bembicium Philippi (Gastropoda: Littorinidae). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 89, 689-704.

Reid, D.G. 1988. The genera Bembicium and Risellopsis (Gastropoda: Littorinidae) in Australia and New Zealand. Records of the Australian Museum 40, 91-150.

Williams, S.T., D.G. Reid and D.T.J. Littlewood. 2003. A molecular phylogeny of the Littorininae (Gastropoda: Littorinidae): unequal evolutionary rates, morphological parallelism, and biogeography of the Southern Ocean. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 28, 60-86.


Parapatric distributions of Rhagada land snails: origin, genetic distinctness and specific status of R. globosa and R. torulus


Supervisor: Mike Johnson

mike.johnson@uwa.edu.au


The genus Rhagada is the dominant group of land snails in the Pilbara region. A striking feature of this genus and other camaenid snails in northern WA is that sympatry of congeneric species is extremely rare. Instead, species replace each other geographically, which makes it difficult to test directly whether they are good biological species. In addition, the taxonomy has been based largely on shell morphology, with additional comparisons of reproductive anatomy in some cases. Molecular genetic analyses can determine whether such species are distinct phylogenetic groups, but these are most valuable if the groups can be found together.


This project will combine morphological and molecular analyses to test for reproductive isolation between Rhagada globosa and R. torulus. These are the two southernmost species in the genus, with narrow distributions from south of the Cape Range to the north of Shark Bay. Recent searching has found a narrow zone where both types occur. The contact zone allows direct tests of whether the two forms are reproductively isolated. Molecular phylogenetic analysis of mtDNA will determine the history of the contact zone, and analysis of microsatellite DNA and variation of shells and genitalia can determine whether the forms interbreed or maintain genetic isolation.


Temporal genetic variation in the intertidal snail Bembicium vittatum


Supervisors: Mike Johnson & Jason Kennington

mike.johnson@uwa.edu.au, jason.kennington@uwa.edu.au


Analysis of variation of genetic traits over time provides valuable information about stability of genetic structure, effective population size, and contrasting effects of selection on different traits (e.g., Lessios et al. 1994, Tessier & Bernatchez 1999, Palm et al. 2003). Most studies, however, examine temporal variation over only a short period of time, even though longer term comparisons allow much more powerful analyses.

The intertidal snail Bembicium vittatum offers a chance to examine temporal genetic changes of molecular and morphological traits over a twenty-year period, representing more than a dozen generations. This species lacks planktonic larvae, and is highly genetically subdivided in the Abrolhos Islands, in ways that reflect patterns of connectivity among populations (Johnson & Black 1991, 1996, 1998). In addition, populations differ in their sizes and degree of isolation, and hence in their potential for bottlenecks. Variation of allozyme loci was examined in 1987 and 1992, and samples for the same sites are available from 2007 (and from 1997 for some sites). Thus, analysis of allozymes in the 2007 samples, combined with comparisons with the previous years, will provide tests of stability of patterns of genetic subdivision, and specific comparisons among populations with different characteristics. Alternatively, more powerful microsatellite DNA markers could be used to examine variation at selected sites, using samples collected in 1987, 1992, 1997 and 2002.

These populations also differ in shell shape and colour, which are adapted to local conditions (Johnson & Black 2000, 2008). Quantification of temporal variation in these morphological traits will allow testing of the expectation that they should be less affected by fluctuation in population sizes, and hence are likely to differ from the allozymes in their amounts and patterns of temporal variation (e.g., Binks et al. 2007).

This project will involve analysis of allozymes or microsatellite DNA and shell traits in populations of B. vittatum, to quantify temporal variation, as a test of effects of population characteristics and type of trait on genetic structure. The extent and complexity of the data provide rewarding possibilities for a student willing to take on in-depth analyses.


Background reading

Binks, R.M, Kennington, W.J. & Johnson, M.S. (2007). Rapid evolutionary responses in a translocated population of intertidal snail (Bembicium vittatum) utilise variation from different source populations. Conservation Genetics, in press.

Johnson, M.S., & Black R. (1991). Genetic subdivision of the intertidal snail Bembicium vittatum (Gastropoda: Littorinidae) varies with habitat in the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, Western Australia. Heredity 67: 205-213.

Johnson, M.S., & Black R. (1996). Geographic cohesiveness versus associations with habitat: genetic subdivision of Bembicium vittatum Philippi (Gastropoda: Littorinidae). in the Houtman Abrolhos Islands. Biol J Linnean Soc 58: 57-74.

Johnson, M.S., & Black R. (1998). Increased genetic divergence and reduced genetic variation in populations of the snail Bembicium vittatum in isolated tidal ponds. Heredity 80: 163-172.

Johnson, M.S., & Black R. (2000). Associations with habitat versus geographic cohesiveness: size and shape of Bembicium vittatum Philippi (Gastropoda: Littorinidae). in the Houtman Abrolhos Islands. Biol J Linnean Soc 71: 563-580.

Johnson, M.S., & Black R. (2008). Adaptive responses of independent traits to the same environmental gradient in the intertidal snail Bembicium vittatum. Heredity 101: 83-91.

Lessios, H.A., Weinberg, J.R., & Starczak, V.R. (1994). Temporal variation in populations of the marine isopod Excirolana: how stable are gene frequencies and morphology? Evolution 48: 549-563.

Palm, S., Laikre, L., Jorde, P.E., & Ryman, N. (2003). Effective population size and temporal genetic change in stream resident brown trout. Conservation Genetics 4: 249-264.

Tessier, N., & Bernatchez, L. (1999). Stability of population structure and genetic diversity across generations assessed by microsatellites among sympatric populations of landlocked Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar L.). Molecular Ecology 8: 169-170.


Exploring the relationship between immune function and sexually selected traits

Supervisor: Kathryn McNamara (kathryn.mcnamara@uwa.edu.au)

Throughout the animal kingdom, individuals face attack by pathogens and parasites. These present immune challenges that can significantly impact the host's reproductive success and longevity. Ecological immunity is a rapidly expanding field that examines the causes and consequences of variation in host immune function. Despite the ubiquity of parasites and pathogens and the likelihood of considerable, if not constant, challenges to an individual's immune system, the optimal immune defence is not necessarily maximum immune defence. This is because all organisms are resource limited and, as a result, they face trade-offs as they attempt to maximise their fitness. That is, investment in immune defence comes at a cost, and resource limitation requires trade-offs that reduce the expression of other life-history traits, such as sexually selected traits.

I am interested in developing a project with an Honours student that will tease apart these important trade-offs between immunity and reproduction. I have primarily used moths and butterflies as model systems in the past, as they have several reproductive quirks that make them particularly interesting in relation to sperm competition and sexual conflict. In this project, you will learn how to conduct several invertebrate immune assays, how to assess the quality of moth sperm and more...

References

  • Lawniczak, M. K. N., Barnes, A. I., Linklater, J. R., Boone, J. M., Wigby, S. & Chapman, T. 2007: Mating and immunity in invertebrates. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 22, 48-55.

  • Simmons, L. W. & Roberts, B. 2005: Bacterial immunity traded for sperm viability in male crickets. Science 309, 2031-2031.


Daphnia plasticity across time and space

Supervisors: Dr Desiree Allen (with Dr Joe Tomkins)

desiree.allen@uwa.edu.au, Joseph.tomkins@uwa.edu.au


Daphnia are small crustaceans, typically found in freshwater ponds and lakes around the world. In Australia, these ancestrally freshwater species have made the significant adaptive move into highly saline environments. We are interested in understanding how species make the move from their ancestral environments into new stressful and potentially toxic environments. One mechanism thought to enable transitions between environments is phenotypic plasticity - where a single individual may produce different phenotypes in different environments. To investigate this we can take advantage of two novel aspects of the Daphnia life cycle. First, they are cyclical parthenogens which means they can reproduce both sexually and asexually. Thus, we can make replicate copies of single genotypes and place them in different environments to measure plasticity in individual genotypes. Second, they produce sexual eggs encased a desiccation resistant capsule which can lay dormant in the population for decades. We can collect these capsules, hatch the eggs, and then use these hatched individuals to "look back in time" at how plasticity may have changed as the environment changed.

The two broad projects we are interested in are:

1) How does plasticity vary across environments species, and populations? Do the range of environments that a species can tolerate differ between ancestral freshwater species and the derived salt-adapted species?

2) Does within-population plasticity change over time as the aquatic environment becomes more saline?


Genetic diversity, population history and adaptation to novel environmental stress


Supervisors: Joseph Tomkins and Jason Kennington

Joseph.tomkins@uwa.edu.au, jason.kennington@uwa.edu.au


What are the chances that endangered species can adapt to the novel environmental challenge posed by global warming? One way to find out is to conduct controlled laboratory experiments that isolate particular hypotheses that relate to this question. Clearly rare and endangered species tend to have lost genetic diversity, how important such a loss of neutral variation is for the ability of a population to adapt to novel environmental challenge is a question that requires empirical attention.

We have lab populations of the mite Rhizoglyphus echinopus and Drosophila melanogaster which vary in their genetic history. These species have a very short generation time (two weeks) and laboratory adaptation/extinction can be measured relatively easily. By constructing populations with different genetic histories this project would allow the student to investigate the effect of population genetic history on the prospects for adaptation to novel environmental challenges.


Sexual selection, artificial selection and the function of antennae in Callosobruchus maculatus


Supervisors: Joseph Tomkins and Emile van Lieshout

joseph.tomkins@uwa.edu.au, emile.vanlieshout@uwa.edu.au


Callosobruchus maculatus are small seed-eating beetles that are easily cultured in the laboratory. Male beetles appear to have relatively longer and thicker antennae than females. This difference is likely related to male mate-searching behaviour, since females release pheromones to attract mates. We propose a selection experiment to manipulate the relative investment (size) of this trait. This will involve selecting for relatively long antennae or relatively short antennae in lines of Callosobruchus beetles. At the end of the experiment, the heritability, correlated response in females, allometry and degree of sexual dimorphism in antennae will be estimable. The study will also allow us to determine what effect an elongation in antennae has on the males’ ability to find females in a complex environment and therefore the role of intraspecific variation in antennae morphology on mate finding ability.


NEUROECOLOGY PROJECTS


School of Animal Biology and the UWA Oceans Institute


The following are a list of potential Honours Projects for 2012 (Feb or mid year intakes). More information can be provided by Professor Shaun P. Collin (WA Premier’s Research Fellow), (shaun.collin@uwa.edu.au) and other Senior members of staff, Associate Professor Nathan Hart, nathan.hart@uwa.edu.au, W/Professor David Hunt, david.hunt@uwa.edu.au, and Research Associate Kara Yopak, kara.yopak.uwa@gmail.com, can also be contacted by email for more information.

These projects can be done in either Zoology or Marine Science.


  1. Inner ears of deep-sea myctophids: Structural adaptations for hearing. (Collin)

Little is known about whether deep-sea animals are able to communicate acoustically but previous work has indicated that some deep-sea fishes possess very large ears and are able to produce sounds via “drumming” muscles attached to the swim bladder. In this project, you will examine the anatomy of a range of species of lanternfishes (myctophids) that represent a large proportion of the mesopelagic fauna in the deep-sea. This anatomical study will be the first to investigate the potential for sound production and hearing in this group.

Evangelista, C., Mills, M., Siebeck, U. E. and Collin, S. P. (2010) A comparison of the external morphology of the membranous inner ear in elasmobranchs. J. Morphology 271: 483-495.


  1. Circadian control of behaviour: the structure and function of the pineal organ in sharks and rays (Collin, Hart, Hunt)

All animals rely on light to set their circadian rhythms and sleep patterns. This non-visual form of light detection is generally mediated by the pineal organ. This project will investigate the structure and function of the pineal of sharks and rays with the hope of characterising the types of photoreceptors present and how they might be used for light entrainment in a variety of environmental light conditions and habitats. Techniques will include light and electron microscopy, microspectrophotometry, PCR and gene cloning.



  1. Dim light vision in deep-sea fish (Collin and Hunt)

The visual systems of deep-sea fishes are tuned for detecting low levels of sunlight and/or bioluminescence. In many species, the eyes have become specialised to increase sensitivity and avoid predation. However, the eyes of some species have degenerated. In this project, you will investigate both ocular and retinal adaptations in a range of deep-sea fish species in an attempt to reveal the limits of vision and light detection. Techniques will include light and electron microscopy, modelling the optical sensitivity and gene cloning.

Collin, S. P., Hoskins, R. V. and Partridge, J. C. (1998) Seven retinal specialisations in the tubular eye of the deepsea pearleye, Scopelarchus michaelsarsi: A case study in visual optimisation. Brain Behavior and Evolution 51: 291-314.

Hunt, D. M., Dulai, K. S., Cottrill, P. B., Partridge, J. C. and Bowmaker, J. K. (2001) The molecular basis for spectral tuning of rod visual pigments in deep sea fish. J Exp Biol 204, 3333-3344.



  1. Sampling of colour space in the eyes of vertebrates: an in situ hybridization study of retinal photoreceptors (Hunt, Hart, Collin)

Photoreceptors in vertebrates are vital for vision and transform light energy into electrical impulses that can be interpreted by the brain via the process of phototransduction. These receptors form highly regular mosaics that sample the visual world, often in colour. In this project, you will investigate how each type of photoreceptor samples the world of a range of vertebrates including lampreys, stingrays and reef fishes. Techniques will include gene cloning, in situ hybridization, stereology and light and electron microscopy.

Collin, S. P. and Shand, J. (2003) Retinal sampling and the visual field in fishes. In: Sensory Processing in Aquatic Environment. (eds. S. P. Collin and N. J. Marshall). Springer-Verlag, New York. pp. 139-169.

Wilkie, S. E., Vissers, P. M., Das, D., Degrip, W. J., Bowmaker, J. K. and Hunt, D. M. (1998) The molecular basis for UV vision in birds : spectral characteristics, cDNA sequence and retinal localization of the UV-sensitive visual pigment of the budgerigar (Melopsittacus undulatus). Biochem J 330, 541-547.



  1. Quantitative measures of brain evolution in bony fishes (Collin and Yopak)

Brain and body size relationships have traditionally been used to infer cognitive abilities across a range of mammals (including humans), providing vital information about life history traits, behaviour and “intelligence”. This project will develop new methodologies to accurately assess total neuron number (rather than brain size) and processing power in bony fishes. The goal of this project is to understand the fundamental selection pressures underlying the evolution of the brain and its component parts and trace the evolution of cognitive capacity. Techniques will include isotropic fractionation, flow cytometry, and stereology.

Gabi, M., Collins, C. E., Wong, P., Torres, L. B., Kaas, J. H. and Herculano-Houzel, S. (2010). "Cellular scaling rules for the brains of an extended number of primate species." Brain, Behavior, and Evolution 76: 32-44

Herculano-Houzel, S. and Lent, R. (2005). "Isotropic fractionator: A simple, rapid method for the quantification of total cell and neuron numbers in the brain." Journal of Neuroscience 25(10): 2518-2521



  1. Variation in neuron composition the shark cerebellum (Collin and Yopak)

Cerebellum size in cartilaginous fishes has been related to an increase in the processing of sensory input implicated in motor control and recent work has demonstrated emerging ecological patterns between both cerebellar organization and habitat complexity in sharks. This project hopes to reveal a more quantitative measure of neuronal cell number in the cerebellum, to uncover whether variability in the number of main motor output neurons similarly correlates with habitat dimensionality and agile prey capture in these fishes. Techniques will include isotropic fractionation, flow cytometry, and stereology.

Yopak, K. E., Lisney, T. J., Collin, S. P. and Montgomery, J. C. (2007). "Variation in brain organization and cerebellar foliation in chondrichthyans: Sharks and holocephalans." Brain, Behavior, and Evolution 69(4): 280-300.


7. Escape responses in fiddler crabs. (Hemmi, Collin)

Fiddler crabs are highly visual animals that live under constant threat of predation from birds. Field experiments have shown that the design of the crabs’ eye limits their ability to measure a predator’s distance and their direction of movement. Results suggest that the crabs use different criteria to determine their response in the field than they do in the laboratory. In this project, you will bring fiddler crabs into the laboratory to test their escape decisions under controlled conditions. You will also test how these animals respond to the same stimuli in different environmental situations. You will learn to design and analyse carefully controlled behavioural experiments with the aim to understand the mechanisms underlying visually guided behaviour.

Hemmi JM & Pfeil A (2010) A multi-stage anti-predator response increases information on predation risk. Journal of Experimental Biology 213 1484–1489

Hemmi JM (2005) Predator avoidance in fiddler crabs: 2. The visual cues. Animal Behaviour 69 615–625


8. Learning in fiddler crabs. (Hemmi, Collin)

Fiddler crabs are often unable to recognise their predators accurately, but have been shown to learn to ignore moving objects that have proven harmless over time. This process, called habituation, is often thought to be a very simple form of learning. Experiments under natural conditions have shown that habituation is a more sophisticated process than previously thought. In this project, you will conduct learning experiments in the laboratory with the aim to determine the characteristics of the object (dummy predator) and the environment that are important for this learning process. You will learn to design and analyse carefully controlled behavioural experiments and discover how sensory information affects learning in animals.

Hemmi JM, & Merkle T (2009). High stimulus specificity characterizes anti-predator habituation under natural conditions. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B 276 4381–4388


CONSERVATION BIOLOGY PROJECTS


These projects can be done in either Zoology or Conservation Biology.


The effect of oil palm conversion on rainforest insect biodiversity in Borneo


Prof Raphael K. Didham (raphael.didham@uwa.edu.au)

The front-line for emerging conflicts between production and biodiversity is in the tropical regions of the world, where the Earth’s great storehouses of biodiversity are being destroyed at accelerating rates to make way for food production and biofuel plantations. Of greatest international concern is the ‘double jeopardy’ that conversion of tropical forests to oil palm plantations represents for both biodiversity loss and climate change1-7. There is now significant international interest in finding ways to make oil palm plantations more ‘sustainable’, through creative manipulation of landscape structure to minimise biodiversity loss. In Borneo, an international consortium of researchers is undertaking one of the world’s largest experiments to investigate how alteration of the spatial arrangement of rainforest remnants affects biodiversity loss at local- to landscape-scales. The Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems (SAFE) project (www.safeproject.net) is investigating the myriad ways in which logging, deforestation and forest fragmentation modify the functioning of tropical rainforests, impairing their ability to deliver ecosystem services and reducing their capacity to support the diversity of life.


You have the opportunity to be part of this international research effort, investigating how spatial landscape context affects insect biodiversity in rainforest remnants. There are a range of possibilities for the exact question to be addressed, and these can be tailored to suit your interests and skills (see references for the types of research previously conducted by my lab group8-16). In general, the work will involve field sampling for a target insect group (such as beetles or ants) along rainforest edge gradients in landscapes of varying land-use intensity and varying spatial arrangement of habitat. Extensive lab sorting of insect samples will be required, with identification of morphospecies in conjunction with taxonomic experts, followed by statistical analysis of variation in biodiversity and community composition. Ideally, field experiments will be implemented to look at the functional consequences of biodiversity loss for the provision of ecosystem services (such as nutrient cycling, seed dispersal etc).

This project will be physically and mentally challenging, expensive, and will demand a great deal of self-motivation and independence.

1Green et al. 2005 Science 307:550-555; 2Vandemeer & Perfecto 2005 Science 308:1257-1258;3Righelato & Spracklen 2007 Science 317,902; 4Scharlemann & Laurance 2008 Science 319:43-44; 5Koh & Wilcove 2007 Nature 448:993-994; 6Clements & Posa 2007 Nature 449:403; 7Venter et al. 2008 Nature 451:16.

8Didham 2010 Ecological consequences of habitat fragmentation. In: Encyclopedia of Life Sciences. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net/ [DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0021904]; 9Ewers & Didham 2008. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 105: 5426-5429; 10Pawson et al. 2008 Biodiversity and Conservation 17: 1127-1148; 11Tylianakis et al. 2008. Ecology Letters 11: 1351-1363; 12Didham et al. 2007 Trends in Ecology and Evolution 22: 489-496; 13Ewers et al. 2007 Ecology 88: 96-106; 14Ewers & Didham 2006 Biological Reviews 81: 117-142; 15Didham et al. 1998 Ecological Monographs 68:295-323; 16Didham et al. 1996 Trends in Ecology and Evolution 11: 255-260.

Carnivorous plants and commensal flies: Darwin’s missed opportunity in Australia


Prof Raphael Didham (raphael.didham@uwa.edu.au)

Dr David Yeates (CSIRO, Canberra)


Carnivorous plants – plants such as sundews and pitcher plants that lure insects and trap them to obtain important, if not essential, nutrients for survival, growth and reproduction – have always fascinated biologists. Charles Darwin, for example, was a world authority on carnivorous plants, eventually publishing his landmark work ‘Insectivorous Plants’ in 1875. However, on Darwin’s brief stop in WA during the Voyage of the Beagle he sailed unaware past one of the most remarkable natural history stories of Australian pitcher plants. In the southwest of WA lives the Albany pitcher plant, Cephalotus folicularis, and an extraordinary commensal fly, Badisis ambulans, whose larvae are able to survive inside the pitcher plant and feed off dead and decaying insects. Curiously, a disproportionate number of insects falling into the pitcher plants are ants of the genus Iridomyrmex which the fly larvae seem to feed on, and bizarrely the adult flies that eventually emerge from the pitcher plant are entirely wingless and have evolved to bear a striking resemblance to the same Iridomyrmex ants! The ecological and evolutionary associations between the plant, the flies and the ants are almost completely unknown, and a wide range of research questions are open for investigation. How do the fly larvae survive in the pitcher plants when other insects are killed? Do the fly larvae lure the ants into the pitcher plants using chemical signalling? What are the evolutionary selection pressures that have favoured mimicry of the adult fly and the ant? Does the adult fly also mimic ant chemical signalling, perhaps to aid in dispersal between isolated pitcher plants? The fly is completely wingless and it is unknown how it is able to disperse between isolated plants. Does the fly ‘use’ the ants to carry it between plants? Darwin could not have been further from the truth when he wrote of Albany, King George’s Sound, in 1836 that “Since leaving England I do not think we have visited any one place so very dull & uninteresting as K. George’s Sound”! Today, the Albany pitcher plant is at risk from land-use change and climate change, and is considered to be of conservation concern.


Synergistic interactions between habitat disturbance and invasion in urban bushland


Prof Raphael Didham (raphael.didham@uwa.edu.au)

Dr Lori Lach (lori.lach@uwa.edu.au)


It is widely recognised that habitat disturbance promotes species invasion, and that the ecological impacts of invasive species can also scale non-linearly with increasing intensity of landscape change. What is not well studied is the range of potential mechanisms underlying positive feedback effects that have been observed between disturbance and invasion, whereby disturbance leads to a primary invasion, which then promotes further habitat disturbance, which in turn facilitates the invasion of yet more non-native species. This facilitation between invasive species has been termed ‘invasional meltdown’, and has been widely debated in the literature. One possible example of this type of facilitation between invasive species is seen in urban bushland remnants on the Swan Coastal Plain, WA. African big-headed ants, Pheidole megacephala (also called coastal brown ants in Australia), are invading the disturbed margins of bushland, displacing native ant species and potentially increasing weed invasion rates. Big-headed ants are industrious seed harvesters, and appear to take over the ecological niche of some native seed harvesters, however the types of seeds they prefer to harvest are thought to be quite different to those harvested and dispersed by native ants. The concern is that big-headed ants foraging into the urban landscape surrounding bushland remnants will distribute ever-increasing numbers of invasive weed seeds into bushland, and alter native seed dispersal processes. The aim of this work is to determine the spatial distribution of big-headed ants in urban remnants, their negative interactions with native ant species, and the potential facilitation of weed invasion into urban remnants through seed harvesting. There are a range of possibilities for the exact questions to be addressed, and these can be tailored to suit your interests and skills. The work is likely to involve field surveys of the spatial distribution of ant nests, field sampling of the soil seed bank and spatial distribution of weeds, lab germination trials, lab tests of interactions between ant species, lab tests of seed preference and dispersal, and a range of other experimental manipulations in the lab and field. This research has important conservation management implications as the big-headed ant is the least studied of the top-5 major ant invaders in Australia, and current climate-matching models predict that it could eventually have the most widespread distribution of any invasive ant species, covering 70% of mainland Australia.


Didham, R. K., Tylianakis, J. M., Gemmell, N. J., Rand, T. A. and Ewers, R. M. 2007. Interactive effects of habitat modification and species invasion on native species decline. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 22: 489-496.

Didham, R. K., Tylianakis, J. M., Hutchison, M. A., Ewers, R. M. and Gemmell N. J. 2005. Are invasive species the drivers of ecological change? Trends in Ecology and Evolution 20: 470-474.

Didham, R. K., Watts, C. H. and Norton, D.A. 2005. Are systems with strong underlying abiotic regimes more likely to exhibit alternative stable states? Oikos 110: 409-416.

Ewers, R. M., Kapos, V., Coomes, D. A., Lafortezza, R. and Didham, R. K. 2009. Mapping community change in modified landscapes. Biological Conservation 142: 2872-2880.

Holway, David A., Lori Lach, Andrew V. Suarez, Neil D. Tsutsui, and Ted J. Case. 2002. The causes and consequences of ant invasions. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 33:181-233.

Lach, Lori, Catherine L. Parr, and Kirsti L. Abbott (eds.) 2010. Ant Ecology. Oxford University Press.

Lach, Lori and Melissa Thomas. 2008. Invasive ants in Australia: Documented and potential ecological consequences. Australian Journal of Entomology 47:275-288.

Pawson, S. M., McCarthy, J. K., Ledgard, N. J. and Didham, R. K. 2010. Density-dependent impacts of exotic conifer invasion on grassland invertebrate assemblages. Journal of Applied Ecology 47: 1053-1062.

Tylianakis, J. M., Didham, R. K., Bascompte, J. and Wardle, D. A. 2008. Global change and species interactions in terrestrial ecosystems. Ecology Letters 11: 1351-1363.

Restoring insect pollination services in degraded habitats

Prof Raphael Didham (raphael.didham@uwa.edu.au)

Habitat restoration programs can be effective at re-vegetating degraded land, yet most fail to restore natural ecosystem dynamics due to an inability to reinstate insect-mediated pollination services. The dominant mechanisms of pollination failure lie at the interface between spatial constraints on the availability of floral resources in a hostile landscape matrix, and physiological constraints on pollinator thermal tolerance, desiccation resistance and metabolism. The aim of this research is to quantify the roles that spatial and physiological limitations on pollinator energetics play in pollination failure during restoration. This project blends cutting-edge landscape ecology with eco-physiological techniques, providing a wealth of opportunities for potential honours projects in one or both of these areas. Knowledge gained in this project will inform ecological theory surrounding the impacts of global environmental change on species interaction networks, while at the same time providing conservation managers with information to formulate targeted landscape-scale restoration programs that optimise insect-mediated pollination services.


APPLIED ENTOMOLOGY PROJECTS


Behavioural responses by insects to surface treatments

Supervisors: Dr Christian Nansen

christian.nansen@uwa.edu.au

 

Using Ethovision XT (www.noldus.com), we are interested in quantifying behavioural responses of different insects and mites to different agro-chemicals applied to crops. Some of these agro-chemicals are pesticides but only work (kill target pests) based on contact. So it would be a “problem” if these contact pesticides are repellent to the target pest. By offering individual insects a choice and characterize and quantify how much time they spent on different surface treatments, we can obtain valuable insight into the performance of these agrochemicals. This information is very valuable to both industry partners and farmers.

This project has two components:

·  Acquire quantitative behavioural data based on Ethovision XT.

·  Conduct greenhouse experiments with insect pests on growing plants with/without experimental agrochemical treatments.

This project will provide the student with hands-on experience with: 1) Ethovision XT, 2) rearing of insects, 3) plant-insect studies.

 


Quantifying pesticide spray deposition in fields

Supervisors: Dr Christian Nansen

christian.nansen@uwa.edu.au

 

It is well established that commercial pesticide applications in paddocks rarely lead to more than 5-10% spray coverage – and even less in the bottom of dense crop canopies. Thus, target pests are essentially presented with a choice of which about 90-95% of a leaf is without pesticide. Low spray coverage is believed to contribute significantly to the risk of target pest populations developing resistance to pesticides. In this project, we will develop a decision support tool farmers so that they can increase the likelihood of high spray coverage based on weather conditions. An example of such a develop a decision support is available at  http://pilcc.tamu.edu/

This project is field based and will require travelling to farming regions and collect spray coverage data and weather data. We will quantify the spray coverage and use regression models to explain the spray coverage based on weather variables, spray characteristics, and canopy height.

This project will provide the student with hands-on experience with: 1) field research in farmers paddocks, 2) website presentation of research data, 3) dissemination of research data to growers.

 


WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT PROJECTS


These projects can be carried out in either Zoology or Conservation Biology


Ecological studies of western ringtail possums


Supervisor: Roberta Bencini

Roberta.Bencini@uwa.edu.au


Several projects will be available, including:


1) The effects of development (road construction as well as urban development) on the western ringtail possum (Pseudocheirus occidentalis), the common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) and possibly other medium sized mammals.


2) Dietary preferences of western ringtail possums. An investigation of whether preference of particular trees is due to nutrient levels or secondary metabolites in the leaves. This would require a student with interests in chemistry/biochemistry and/or botany.


3) It has been suggested that ringtail possums live by the road, and so are at higher risk of being run over, because Main Roads trims the trees on the road reserve to increase the visibility for motorists.  There is a theory that the resulting fresh growth attracts the animals. This would need to be tested by examining the composition of the leaves form trees near and away from the road and scats from possums leaving near the road or far away from it to investigate digestibility. There are hundreds of ringtail possums in rehabilitation so a study on captive animals to complement the two projects above would also be possible.

Predation on turtles nests by foxes in Yallagonga Regional Park


Supervisor: Roberta Bencini

Roberta.Bencini@uwa.edu.au


The student will be required to study the ecology of oblong tortoises and the impact of fox predation of nests. This will be supported by Friends of Yallagonga.


FRESH WATER ECOLOGY


The effectiveness of habitat restoration on macro invertebrate diversity


Supervisor: Andrew Storey

Andrew.Storey@uwa.edu.au


This project, supported by the City of Subiaco aims to survey the aquatic invertebrate fauna of Lake Jualbup and Lake Mabel Talbot. Aquatic fauna will be sampled with a sweep net in all habitats of the wetlands, including open water, submergent rush habitats, and benthic sediments.


SCIENCE COMMUNICATION PROJECTS



Supervisor: Nancy Longnecker

nancy.longnecker@uwa.edu.au


These are examples of potential science communication research projects that could suit honours students. These dovetail to existing or recent research in our group. Please contact Nancy for more information.


1. Effectiveness of narrative in communicating scientific information.

2. Impact of science engagement on attitudes, intentions and behaviour

3. What do visitors get out of science exhibits?

4. Motivations and barriers to participation in Citizen Science programs

5. Can producing podcasts and/or blog posts result in deeper learning by university students?


MARINE BIOLOGY PROJECTS


These can be done as Zoology, Conservation Biology or Marine Science honours


Two projects on the sea urchin Heliocidaris erythogramma

The purple sea-urchin Heliocidaris erythrogramma is a common temperate species occurring in the intertidal and shallow sub-tidal from Kalbarri to Northern NSW and including Tasmania.  In all states except Western Australia, the species occurs only as a thin-spined morph with variably coloured test and spines.  These individuals belong to the sub-species H.e.erythrogramma.  In Western Australia, H.e.erythrogramma occurs, usually with a white test and green spines, but is much less common than a thicker-spined form, H.e.armigera.  This sub-species almost always has a purple test, and spines are usually purple or purple with green tips.  Recent molecular work suggests the two sub-species have some differences although there is some overlap.  Preliminary investigations also suggest there may be a temporal separation of their spawning seasons, affording some degree of reproductive isolation.  There are at least two lines of investigation to continue this work.


Reproductive cycles in two sub-species of Heliocidaris erythrogramma


Supervisor: Jane Prince (jane.prince@uwa.edu.au)


What is the timing of the reproductive cycles of the two subspecies in Western Australia? To answer this question, it will be necessary to obtain individuals of both subspecies over a six month period and compare the development of the gonads using histological techniques. Individuals can also be artificially spawned and the eggs and sperm used to perform crosses within and between sub-species. Larvae produced can be reared through to settlement to compare fertilization and settlement success in the different crosses.


Distribution and habitat use by the two sub-species of Heliocidaris erythrogramma


Supervisor: Jane Prince (jane.prince@uwa.edu.au)

On the southern coast of eastern Australia, individuals of H.e.erythrogramma with different coloured tests, show strong associations with different habitats.  This association is not seen on the eastern coast where there is little variation in test colour.  Similar investigations in W.A. have been hampered by the patchy occurrence of individuals with white tests.  This project would aim to increase our understanding of how and where H.e.erythrogramma is distributed along the west coast and what are the habitat variables that define where they occur.

Both these projects would require snorkelling.


Three projects on intertidal invertebrates in the Ningaloo Marine Park

The macroinvertebrate fauna of the intertidal rock platforms in the Ningaloo Marine Park is a diverse assemblage spanning many phyla that includes both tropical and temperate species, indirect and direct developers and long and short lived species. The work to date has concentrated on spatial and temporal variation in assemblage structure, incorporating variation in the numbers of individual species such as cowries and giant clams.


Distribution patterns of the giant clam, Tridacna sp across intertidal rock platforms in the Ningaloo Marina Park.

Supervisors: Jane Prince with Bob Black, Mike Johnson and Anne Brearley


Individuals of the giant clam (Tridacna sp) occur patchily across the intertidal rock platforms in the Ningaloo Marine Park. This project will aim to determine whether or not there are predictive patterns to this distribution, including across-platform patterns and differences in distribution between newly settled recruits and established adults


Linking spatial and temporal variation in density to life history characteristics

Supervisors: Jane Prince, with Bob Black, Mike Johnson and Anne Brearley

Individual species within the intertidal assemblage show large fluctuations in densities within sites between years and between sites within years. To what extent can this be linked to the life history strategies and the geographic affinities of the species involved? For example, does a temperate broadcast spawner at the northern limit of its range show more variation in distribution and abundance than a tropical direct developer? This project will involve taking part in the third census of platforms in the marine park and then working with the data collected in 2007, 2009 and 2012 to test ideas and predictions.


Resource partitioning within selected guilds of gastropod molluscs on intertidal rock platforms in the Ningaloo Marine Park.

Supervisors: Jane Prince with Bob Black, Mike Johnson and Anne Brearley


There are over 200 species of invertebrates recorded from the intertidal rock platforms in the Ningaloo Marine Park, including many con-geners, fulfilling the same functional role, for example, the cowries (Cypraea spp), the cones (Conus spp) and the ceriths (Cerithium spp). The suite of cowry species in the northern section of the park was studied in 2009, revealing differences in micro-distribution and habitat preference. The same type of investigation could be applied to one or more of the groups


All three projects will involve a field trip in August- September with the possibility of a second field trip in February-March if required. Contact Jane (jane.prince@uwa.edu.au for more information on all three projects)


Ghost crabs as indicators of beach use at Rottnest Island


Supervisor: Jane Prince


Shore crabs of the family Ocypodidae have been extensively used as indicators of beach damage. This has mainly involved the impact of off-road vehicles on sandy beaches, however heavy pedestrian traffic also has the potential to change beach profiles and so damage burrows and disrupt feeding patterns of shore dwelling species.


Preliminary studies on just a few beaches at Rottnest Island has not demonstrated a close link between the abundance of ghost crabs and human usage, but as yet the most heavily used beaches have not been assessed. This projects aims to further those preliminary studies and in doing so discover more of the basic biology of ghost crabs on Rottnest Island.


Barros F (2001) Ghost crabs as a tool for rapid assessment of human impacts on exposed sany beaches. Biol Conserv 97: 399-404

Foster-Smith J, Birchenough AC, Evans SM, and Prince J (2007) Human Impacts on Cable Beach, Broome (Western Australia). Coastal Management 35: 181-194.

Moss D, McPhee DP (2006) The impacts of recreational four-wheel driving on the abundance of the ghost crab (Ocypode cardimanus) on a sub-tropical sandy beach in SE Queensland. Coastal Management, 35:567-583.


Budgeting life on coral reefs - senescence in tropical fishes


Supervisors: Martial Depczynski, Monica Gagliano


Senescence is the complex process of ageing by which organisms become less able to and less efficient in adapting to changes in their environment, hence experiencing increased vulnerability and ultimately death. Understanding the biological processes that lead to senescence, and why different organisms senesce at dramatically different rates is a long-standing problem in evolutionary biology.


By measuring the aggregation of "waste material" or lipofuscin that naturally accumulates in animals as a consequence of physiological stress (i.e. senescence) or damage, the project aims to quantify the cumulative costs of living in coral reef fishes. Specifically, this project aims to examine sex-specific variations in physiological ageing and whether the rate of accumulation of lipofuscin at a given chronological age differs between male and female of the tropical damselfish Pomacentrus amboinensis.


Centre for Marine Futures

School of Animal Biology and the UWA Oceans Institute


The following are a list of potential Honours Projects or areas of research for 2012 (Feb or mid year intakes). More information can be provided by Professor Jessica Meeuwig, (Jessica.meeuwig@uwa.edu.au). Broadly speaking, the Centre conducts research around marine conservation and fisheries ecology.



  1. Fish conservation


Our research group has commenced a program in the Chagos Archipelago, the world’s largest, contiguous no-take marine sanctuary. We have large data sets of video imagery that allow a range of ecological questions to be tested based on sampling a region that has not been fished for >40 years. Key questions relate to structure of reef fish assemblages compared to other exploited and nonexploted regions of the Indian Ocean, behaviour of animals.



  1. Ear stones of Lutjanus bohar: tropical climate recorders? (Meeuwig, Rountrey Meekan (AIMS)


Lutjanus bohar is a tropical snapper found throughout the Indo Pacific. It is a relatively long lived species and as otolith (ear stone) collections exist, it is a prime candidate for testing whether growth increments laid down in the ear stones can be mapped to variation in climate. Such biochronologies have been established for trees, corals and several temperate fish species but to date have not been established for tropical widlely distributed individuals. As otoliths have been collected across a wide range of sites, opportunity exists to consider how growth increments vary both in space and in time. Note, this project is part of a large collaborative international grant that is exploring the role of fish ear stones as climate recorders.


Gillanders,BM,. Black BA, Meekan MG< and Morrison MA. 2012. Climatic effects on the growth of a temperate reef fish from the Southern Hemisphere: a biochronological approach Marine Biology 159:1327-1333.


  1. Shark ecology


We have a range of projects considering shark ecology and behaviour based on the use of tags and stereo video imagery.



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