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Environmental biology honours projects

Refer to the below for a full list of the Environmental Biology honours projects.

When you find a project that interests you, click on the supervisors name which will automatically generate an email message.

Species in Faeces; DNA metabarcoding

Supervisors: Prof. Michael Bunce Dr Nicole

Historically, DNA-based approaches used to understand the complex interactions between animals and their habitat have promised much but have, in reality, delivered few insights into resource use, and ultimately its management and protection. The principle reason as to why DNA analysis has been ineffective in this area is that complex biological samples, such as stomach and gastrointestinal contents, and faeces have been difficult (and expensive) to genetically dissect due to their multi-species complexity. However, new DNA sequencing technologies (referred to as Next Generation Sequencing, NGS) is, for the first time, opening up a raft of opportunities to study diet, food-webs and an animals interaction with its environment. We have a variety of projects on offer that will use DNA metabarcoding to investigate the diet and ecology of a variety of species including cockatoos, dugongs, raptors and fish. Prospective students are welcome to contact Mike or Nicole to discuss project details after reading the papers listed below.

Paternity tests for yellow-footed antechinus

Supervisor: Dr Christine Cooper and Dr Kylie Munyard (Biomedical Sciences)

This study will investigate if the microsatellite markers identified for determining paternity for brown and agile antechinus (Antechinus stuartii, A. agilis) are suitable to determine paternity for the closely-related yellow-footed antechinus (Antechinus flavipes). Antechinus are small carnivorous marsupials with an unusual reproductive strategy. They mate promiscuously during a brief and highly synchronized reproductive period, after which all males in the population die. Females produce litters of multiple young that may have several different fathers. This unusual and competitive mating strategy means that Antechinus are an excellent model to assess physiological and behavior factors that contribute to fitness. However, to determine fitness, it is necessary to be able to determine the parentage of young in a population, in particular paternity.


Insect pollinator diversity across an urban matrix

Supervisors: Dr Bill Bateman, A/Prof. Grant Wardell-Johnson

This study will investigate the influence of urban development and the diversity of native flowering vegetation vs. exotic vegetation on the assemblages of pollinating insects across Perth. The ecological importance of pollinating insects cannot be understated, and in the Perth metropolitan area such insects face pressures both from urban development (loss of plants) and the replacement of remaining plants with exotics. Pollinator insects will be surveyed by netting and trapping across the urban matrix of Perth at sites that will vary in degree of urbanisation and habitat quality (diversity and abundance of plants, ratio of non-natives to exotics).

Test of the mutation load hypothesis to explain low seed set in resprouters

Supervisor: Dr Tianhua He

Somatic mutations (mutation arising from mitosis) can be a significant source of genetic variation. Somatic mutations are important in the evolution of plant mating system, particularly in long-lived species such as resprouters in fire ecosystem, because they contribute to mutational load and inbreeding depression. Banksia attenuata is a resprouter native to southwest Australia, and it is believed that this species has longevity of more than 300 hundred years, and has significant lower seed production than its co-occurring fire killed congener, such as Banksia hookeriana. Genetic load hypothesis have been proposed to explain low fecundity/seed set in resprouters (Lamont and Wiens, 2003). Mutant alleles (somatic mutations) will build up in resprouters over successive disturbances events and be shared when outcrossing occurs between parents and, since most mutations are harmful, will gradually lead to poor fruit and seed set as the plant ages. We therefore expect a negative effect of plant age on fruit/seed set in resprouters, i.e. the older the plants are, the fewer seeds they produce. Then this project is designed to observe the relationship between the plant age and reproductive output in resprouting species. We also expect greater variation in seed set between cones on the same plant with increase in plant age.

Bold park restoration: responses of flora and fauna

Supervisor: Dr Richard Harris and Veronica Newbury (Bold Park)

In urban areas much of the native vegetation as has been cleared. Remnants that remain are often small and degraded. Bold Park is one of the largest urban remnants but has had a long disturbance history and has ongoing issues with weeds. Bold Park has invested a lot of resources towards restoration but is only able to focus on parts of the park. The park offers a prime opportunity to study the impact of restoration efforts on the flora and fauna. There a number of potential projects that could be undertaken depending on the interests of the student. E.g. Native and novel ecosystems as refugia in urban landscapes – does the fauna care? Is fire a useful management tool in restoration?

Evolution of post fire regeneration strategy and its effect on diversification on Acacia

Supervisor: Dr Tianhua He

Fire has been proposed as a factor explaining the exceptional plant species richness found in Australia. Adaptations to fire can be classified into two main post fire regeneration strategies. Post fire regeneration strategy that allows plants to cope with frequent fire by either reseeding or resprouting could differentially affect rates of species diversification. Acacia has radiated into more than 1000 species across Australia over the past 25 Million years. Both resprouters and reseeders are well represented in the genus. In this study, you will collect data on post fire regeneration strategy for each Acacia species (realistically only for those species with DNA sequences available, which is c. 500 species). You will then construct a time-based molecular phylogeny for Australian Acacia (with DNA sequences available from NCBI database), and reconstruct the evolutionary trajectory of each post fire regeneration strategy, evaluate the impact of evolutionary shift of on evolutionary trajectory on diversification of the genus.

Note: This project requires knowledge on or willing to learn handling DNA sequences, and knowledge on GIS is a bonus. A scholarship of $3000 will be provided to student who take on this project.

Habitat preferences of microbats across an urban matrix

Supervisors: Dr Bill Bateman, Dr Christine Cooper, A/Prof. Trish Fleming (Murdoch Uni)

This study will investigate the impact of urban development on the abundance and diversity of West Australian microbats (Microchiroptera). The diversity and abundance of bats has been negatively affected by increasing urbanisation worldwide, although variation in the density and type of urban development influences species richness on a local scale. Effective conservation of bats requires an understanding of the mechanisms by which urban development impacts on bats, so that negative impacts can be mitigated. Bat detectors will be used to remotely record the echolocation calls of foraging bats at various sites throughout the Perth metropolitan area. Bat calls will be identified by comparing the frequency histogram of the recorded calls to a reference library of pre-recorded bat calls. Habitat data, such as vegetation cover and composition, buildings, roads and streetlights will be recorded for each observation site. The abundance and diversity of bats at each site will then be related to habitat variables to examine factors contributing to bat distribution and abundance in an urban matrix.

Geographic variation in standard physiological variables

Supervisor: Dr Christine Cooper

This study will investigate how the standard physiology (body temperature, metabolic rate, thermal conductance and evaporative water loss) of the ash-grey mouse varies across its geographic range, in response to temperature and rainfall gradients. Many physiological variables show environmental influences at the interspecific level, but there few studies that demonstrate intraspecific variation and its plasticity. Understanding intraspecific variation in physiology, and the plasticity of any variation is vital for predicting and managing effects of inevitable climate change. Ash-grey mice will be collected from the Goldfields and Northern Sandplain regions of Western Australia and transported to Curtin University. Standard flow-through respirometry will be used to measure oxygen consumption, carbon dioxide production and evaporative water loss at a range of ambient temperatures every four weeks for four months. These measurements will determine a) if there is any initial difference in physiological variables between the two populations and b) how plastic these physiological variables are to acclamatory change in response to changing environmental conditions.

Effect of repeated measurement of standard physiological variables

Supervisor: Dr Christine Cooper

This study will determine if repeated experimental procedures influence the measurement of standard physiological variables. It will also relate an animal’s response to the experimental environment to individual variation in personality. We have demonstrated that measurement duration and timing can significantly influence the estimation of standard physiological variables for birds and mammals, but it is unclear if repeated measurements, that allow the animal to become accustomed to the experimental procedures, result in better estimates of these standard variables, and impact on the experimental durations required. Standard flow-through respirometry will be used to measure oxygen consumption, carbon dioxide production and evaporative water loss for a period of approximately 12 hours. Animals will be subject to repeated measurement of these variables, to determine if a) the overall estimate of standard physiological variables changes as the animal becomes accustomed to the experimental protocols, and b) if the time taken to obtain a minimum estimate of these variables changes as the animal becomes accustomed to the experimental protocols. Personality traits such as boldness and timidness will be assessed using an open field, and these traits related to measurement effects.

Leaf trait plasticity and jarrah forest restoration

Supervisors: Dr Richard Harris and Dr Matt Daws (Alcoa)

The magnitude of acclimation that a species can realize in response to differences in irradiance can be referred to as plasticity. Plasticity enhances plant performance and is thought to differ predictably among functional groups. Pioneer species that regenerate in open areas and forest gaps were hypothesized to have a higher plasticity than shade tolerant species, because they grow in a more variable environment. Some studies found plasticity to be similar for pioneer and shade tolerant species while others actually found less plasticity in pioneers than in shade tolerant species. Do Mediterranean plants acclimate to early succession environments (a newly restored bauxite mine pit) and how do these responses vary between functional groups?

Retention of habitat trees in logging coups

Supervisor: Dr Christine Cooper

This study will examine the temporal retention of habitat trees in logging coups, and the impact of logging practises on availability of potential nest trees for threatened cockatoo species. Logging coups will be examined for persistence of habitat trees over time, pre and post logging. Habitat trees will be identified, located and characterised, and their persistence post logging operations determined for coups of various stages of management.