Life and Environmental Sciences news

10/2014 PhD student tracks desert waterbirds from space

09/2014 Parrot colours linked to disease that kills other species

09/2014 Bob Brown helps celebrate environmental science at Deakin

08/2014 Birds of a smelly feather stick together

08/2014 More laurels for 'Dr Seagrass'

08/2014 Marine and environmental careers in the spotlight at expo

08/2014 Evening showcases biomedical career and graduate opportunities

08/2014 Study finds little penguins work together to target prey

08/2014 Fire management research up for Eureka

08/2014 A calling to help Australian birds

07/2014 Environmental sustainability the topic for Bob Brown visit

07/2014 Travelling to Germany to better understand Australian aquatic ecosystems

06/2014 Snapped - miniature mammals discovered

06/2014 Frogs have hunters on the hop

05/2014 Important migratory corridor for endangered marine species off north-west Australia

04/2014 New life for the Colorado

04/2014 Visual tricks may aid male great bowerbird's mating success

04/2014 New research makes migrant species a conservation priority

04/2014 Beyond the impasse

03/2014 Rain triggers breeding event of an enigmatic species

03/2014 Honour for Deakin chemical scientist

03/2014 Zoologist Lord Krebs to visit LES students and researchers

02/2014 Rosella research makes for colourful cover story

02/2014 Different cultures, same outcome

01/2014 Give predators a chance

LES news archive


PhD student tracks desert waterbirds from space

 Deakin University ecologists have gained fascinating new insights into the secret lives of a nomadic Australian waterbird whose ability to somehow know it has rained up to thousands of kilometres away has intrigued researchers for generations.

The research, published in the UK Royal Society’s Biology Letters, where it was the cover article, has been featured in The Sydney Morning Herald, ABC Science Online, and globally including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Smithsonian, and The Earth Times.

The research team at Deakin's Centre for Integrative Ecology in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences tracked the movements of 21 Banded Stilts using tiny solar-powered satellite tracking devices, watching them move to inland desert lakes including Lake Eyre and the Coorong at the mouth of the Murray River.

PhD student Reece Pedler said the results showed the extreme nomadic movement behaviour of the species, which is renowned for breeding in huge nesting colonies at desert salt lakes during rare flooding events.

‘For many years we've known that they must fly long distances to get to these desert lakes after rain, but our satellite tracking work reveals that they can fly much further and faster than previously thought,' Mr Pedler said.

‘Banded Stilts are exquisitely adapted to the boom-bust cycles of the Australian desert. Of greatest fascination is the way that these and other waterbirds can somehow sense recent rainfall or flooding from thousands of kilometres away, then rapidly move there in response.

‘Unlike other waterbird species, the Banded Stilts do not breed near the coast. Instead, they move inland and form massive nesting colonies of thousands of pairs when salt lakes flood, feasting on brine shrimp that hatch from eggs which have lain dormant in the dry salt crust for years.'

The research team tracked the movements of the 21 birds over an average of 196 days, uncovering extreme long-distance nomadic flights of hundreds of kilometres to and from desert salt lakes.

‘These birds moved much further and faster than we had expected, including two that crossed from Lake Eyre in South Australia, to the Canning Stock Route in Western Australia in just a few days. Incredibly, one of these birds flew over 2,200 km in less than 2.5 days,’ Mr Pedler said.

Co-author and PhD supervisor Professor Andy Bennett said: ‘Reece has done a magnificent job unearthing the secret behaviour and ecology of this endemic water bird, which mysteriously breeds in the most challenging and arid environments of Australia. Having his PhD research now featured by the UK academy of science and American Association for the Advancement of Science is a well-earned achievement.’

Photograph courtesy of Roger Standen

Related links:
Full media release on the Deakin Newsroom.
Paper on Biology Letters website.
Media coverage: Science/AAAS,, The New York Times, ABC Science Online, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Earth Times


Parrot colours linked to disease that kills other species

 The iconic colours in one of one of Australia's most loved backyard parrots may be the surprise result of a tiny virus that kills other species, new Deakin University research has found.

A team from Deakin's Centre for Integrative Ecology (CIE) and the School of Medicine spent eight years studying the Crimson Rosella and its subspecies across NSW, Victoria and South Australia, watching the birds evade the grips of a viral disease that is deadly in other parrot species.

The research team's results, published in the latest edition of prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA (PNAS), have important implications for managing disease in Australia's unique fauna.

First author of the paper, CIE PhD student Justin Eastwood, said the findings provide fundamental insights into how new species formed.

‘Despite its name, the Crimson Rosella is perhaps Australia's most colour variable bird and the cause of its striking and beautiful diversity has long fascinated scientists,’ Mr Eastwood said.

‘I was surprised to find that the variety of extraordinary colours in the Crimson Rosella appears to be linked to something known as Beak and Feather Disease Virus, which can be fatal in other species.

‘As Ebola and the common cold remind us, disease is ever present and animals and humans have exquisite adaptations and solutions to escape them - and what works for one species, or subspecies, will not necessarily work for another.

‘The virus is only found in parrots; it's no danger to humans, but the danger it presents to parrots seems to vary from species to species and it can be pretty nasty.

‘The Australian Government lists the virus as a key threat to biodiversity under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 as in some species it can lead to extensive feather loss and death.'

Another project author, CIE researcher Dr Mathew Berg, said the virus challenged wildlife monitoring and captive breeding programs, particularly with respect to the Orange-bellied Parrot.

‘The virus is also of global conservation concern and while it may be confined to parrots, around 25 per cent of the world's approximately 350 species have been estimated at risk of global extinction,’ Dr Berg said.

‘Our research results are not only good news for Crimson Rosellas, but we now have a good model species with which to study the disease, which is extremely important if we are to minimise its impact on the world's parrot population.

‘In a nutshell, it seems that just as the human flu can be deadly to some people and innocuous to others, it seems that the Beak and Feather Disease Virus has the same effect on the parrots it infects.’

Read the full media release on the Deakin Newsroom.

Read the paper on the PNAS website.

Read more about the research on the Australian Geographic website and The Conversation website.

Photo: CIE PhD student Justin Eastwood


 Bob Brown helps celebrate environmental science at Deakin

This year we celebrate 30 years of environmental science courses at Deakin University and its predecessor Victoria College. Starting in 1984 with the Bachelor of Applied Science (Environmental Assessment and Land Use Policy), our environmental science courses have changed in name and evolved over the years but still emphasise the importance of balancing social and economic objectives with environmental protection and sustainable futures.

 We marked the occasion with a special visit on Monday 25 August by Dr Bob Brown, environmentalist, author and former Senator and Leader of the Australian Greens. It was a pleasure to welcome Dr Brown to Deakin and the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Built Environment. Over 400 university and secondary school students, staff, alumni, friends and family registered for Dr Brown's presentation on ‘Environmental Sustainability: Making a Difference’ where he reflected on why he remains optimistic and why it is important to stand up for what you believe in.

We followed the presentation with some light refreshments, discussions, catch-ups with old friends and lots of photo opportunities.

Dr Brown's presentation can be viewed at:!/0_ffqv6oym


Marine and environmental careers in the spotlight at expo

 Secondary school students had the opportunity to find out about course offerings from Deakin's School of Life and Environmental Sciences (LES) at the Environmental and Marine Careers Expo held at the SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium on Thursday 7 August.

The event was aimed at providing secondary school students with the opportunity to meet with environment and marine based education providers and to attend information sessions focusing on pathways to attaining a job within these industries and the varied career opportunities available.

Deakin marine biology lecturer Dr Alecia Bellgrove gave the engaging 'Life on the rocky shores and beyond: Discovering Victoria's marine estate' presentation twice during the day. There was also an LES booth at the event which was well-attended through the day with Dr Bellgrove, Deakin research fellow Dr Margie Morrice, senior school administrator Georgina Power and Deakin marine biology honours graduate Vanessa Skrzypczyk on hand to provide information to students about the school's courses.


Evening showcases biomedical career and graduate opportunities

 The Deakin University Biomedical Society (DUBS) hosted the Annual Careers and Cocktail Evening at the Deakin Melbourne City Centre on 8 August. The event was sold out, with 100 people attending, including students, professional guests and Deakin lecturers. DUBS President Sinem Gultekin, a third-year biomedical science student, says the evening achieved its aim.
'Our aim was to create an event which provided insight into the numerous career and graduate opportunities to students,' Sinem says.

'Having seen the students engaging with the professional guests, I believe we succeeded.'

One of the guest speakers was Dr Bernhard Dichtl from Deakin's School of Life and Environmental Sciences and course director for the Bachelor of Biomedical Science. He says the event was 'fantastic'.

'The attending students, speakers and lecturers were simply having a fantastic evening,' Dr Dichtl says.

'Most impressive was the professionalism with which DUBS organised the event. They also showed great skill in identifying a range of highly interesting individuals from many different biomedical backgrounds, all of whom had inspiring and entertaining stories to tell.'

Sinem says DUBS aims to provide an atmosphere for 'all students who are interested in all or any aspects of the biomedicine area', including health and science and 'any other areas which fit within'. With events through the year, Sinem says it can also be a 'great way to meet and socialise with many people who have a similar interest and passion as we meet on an events basis throughout the year'.

Photo: DUBS committee members


Study finds little penguins work together to target prey

 Little penguins are more likely to forage for food in groups, working together to target prey, new Deakin University research has found.

The study by Deakin PhD candidate Maud Berlincourt and her PhD supervisor Associate Professor John Arnould, both from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences and members of the Centre for Integrative Ecology, has been published in the international online journal PLOS ONE.

More than 60 little penguins (Eudyptula minor) were fitted with miniature GPS tracking devices at London Bridge in south-west Victoria's Port Campbell National Park so the researchers could monitor their breeding patterns while searching for food.

Ms Berlincourt said she found that little penguins foraged in groups and could synchronise their underwater movements, working together to concentrate their small schooling prey.
'We did not expect this behaviour, but it makes sense when you consider that foraging on schools of small mobile prey would be more efficient if done in a coordinated fashion, even loosely cooperative,' Ms Berlincourt said.

'This study was the first to look at a whole foraging trip and to examine spatial overlap in time and coordinated diving behaviour in little penguins, indicative of group foraging,' she said.

Read the paper on the PLOS ONE website: At-Sea Associations in Foraging Little Penguins.

Read the full media release on the Deakin Newsroom: Far from being Happy Feet, little penguins team up in deadly attacks on prey.


Environmental sustainability the topic for Bob Brown visit

 Dr Bob Brown, former Leader of the Australian Greens and prominent environmentalist and author, is giving a guest presentation at Deakin University's Melbourne Burwood Campus on Monday 25 August 2014, starting at 6pm.

Titled 'Environmental Sustainability: Making a Difference!', this event celebrates 30 years of environmental science courses at Deakin University and its predecessor Victoria College.
Since his retirement from Australian politics in 2012, Dr Brown has established The Bob Brown Foundation which aims to raise awareness and organise campaigns in relation to environmental issues affecting ecosystems and species around Australia and in Antarctica.

The presentation is free, but places are limited. For more information and to register by Monday 4 August 2014 visit:

(Image supplied with permission from the Bob Brown Foundation)


Travelling to Germany to better understand Australian aquatic ecosystems

 Deakin University palaeoecologist and beetle researcher Dr Nicholas Porch will be travelling to Germany after receiving an Australian Academy of Science grant in support of a project to bring together data on Australian diving beetles with the aim of predicting how they may be affected by global change.

An ARC DECRA Fellow in Deakin's School of Life and Environmental Sciences and a member of the Centre for Integrative Ecology, Dr Porch was one of thirteen researchers awarded grants under the German-Australian Mobility Call for Collaboration in Science and Technology in Biodiversity and Preventative Health in 2013-2014. Dr Porch's project, 'Predicting Global Change impacts on Australian aquatic biodiversity', will bring together data on the diversity, biogeography and phylogeny of Australian diving beetles (Dytiscidae) with the aim of predicting the impact of global change on this 'diverse, largely endemic, and ecologically significant part of the Australian fauna'.

Diving beetles are key predators in aquatic ecosystems across the planet and are extensively used in monitoring water quality, human impact, and climate change.

In Germany Dr Porch will be working with researchers led by Dr Michael Balke from the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology in Munich.

'Dr Balke works extensively on Australian, Asian and Pacific water beetles, and their relationships,' Dr Porch explains.

'I've met him in several places over the years, particularly in relation to the Pacific region, which is where much of my research happens, and I have co-authored a paper with Dr Balke and his collaborators.

'Basically we have parallel interests: the crew in Germany in terms of the taxonomy and phylogeny, which means the names and evolutionary relationships of the species, and me in terms of the distribution and the long term impacts of climate change on the fauna.

'This project will enable us to integrate data that we have in Australia and in Germany - they have >10,000 specimens of Australian beetles in their collections - so what we want to do in this first stage is consolidate this, which will allow a much better understanding of these organisms, and then move on for further detailed analyses.'

Dr Porch is planning to travel to Germany in November this year.


Important migratory corridor for endangered marine species off north-west Australia

 Flatback turtle. Photograph courtesy Patrick Becker.

The value of Australia's newly established network of marine parks has been highlighted by an international project that used satellites to track the vulnerable flatback sea turtle.

Researchers from Deakin University, Swansea University (United Kingdom) and Pendoley Environmental consultancy used advanced satellite tracking systems to record the passage of more than 70 flatbacks off the north-west Australian coastline.

A high value migratory corridor, more than 1,000 kilometres in length, was pinpointed, with about half the corridor contained within the network of marine reserves.

'Our findings show that much of the flatback turtle's transit passage - between its breeding colonies and foraging grounds - falls within the newly established Commonwealth Marine Reserve network,' Deakin University animal movement expert Professor Graeme Hays says.

'These findings will help refine ongoing conservation planning to protect this wide-ranging turtle species using the Australian coast, including the identification of high use areas outside the existing reserve network.'

Read more about the research in the full media release.

Watch an interview with Professor Hayes on the ABC news website.


Rain triggers breeding event of an enigmatic species

 A record rainfall event in Western Australia's Goldfields region in early 2014 gave Deakin University PhD student Reece Pedler a rare opportunity to witness a breeding event of the small wading bird that is the focus of his research - the Banded Stilt.

Thousands of the birds headed to Lake Ballard in WA to breed when this lake and dozens of others filled after receiving an entire year's rainfall in just a few days.

Mr Pedler, from the Centre for Integrative Ecology in Deakin's School of Life and Environmental Sciences, travelled to the area following the exceptional rainfall to search for breeding events.

'Banded Stilts spend a lot of time in saline wetlands near the coast; however, they save up their breeding opportunities for times when exceptional rainfall events fill up inland salt lakes,' Mr Pedler explains.

'Stilts are known for their uncanny ability to detect these events from hundreds of kilometres away, disappearing from their coastal haunts to breed in colonies on islands in these lakes, with breeding pairs sometimes numbering tens of thousands.

'Only a handful of breeding events have been recorded for this species given that they nest in some of the most remote parts of Australia's arid inland. After rainfall, these areas are even more difficult to access and we think the stilts' rapidly completed breeding colonies often go undetected.'

After learning of this rainfall event, Mr Pedler contacted the large network of bird watchers and shorebird conservation volunteers involved with his project.

'All reported back that the thousands of Banded Stilts which had been at their local lakes had suddenly disappeared,' Mr Pedler says.

'Knowing that the stilts had all moved and that there was water at some of the Goldfields salt lakes, we put two and two together and also headed inland. With some fantastic collaboration and support from local Department of Parks and Wildlife staff and air charter operator Goldfields Air Services, we hit the jackpot, finding a breeding colony of about 5,000 pairs on a tiny island in Lake Ballard during a flyover.

'Despite freshly filled swamps and boggy ground, we managed to get on the ground to collect data from the colony and also to attach satellite transmitters to 12 of the adult stilts. These have since dispersed to other salt lakes all over inland Western Australia and we are getting some fantastic insights into the movement behaviour of this enigmatic species.'

The title of Mr Pedler's thesis is 'Movements and ecology of the Banded Stilt (Cladorhynchus leucocephalus)' and his supervisors are Professor ATD Bennett, Dr RFH Ribot, Dr M Weston, Professor B Buttemer and Associate Professor DC Paton.

Read news articles about the breeding event on and Herald Sun websites.

Photo credit: Lynn Pedler


Honour for Deakin chemical scientist

 Deakin University chemical scientist Associate Professor Paul S. Francis has been admitted as a Fellow to the Royal Society of Chemistry (FRSC). This follows his election to Fellow of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (FRACI) in late 2013, in recognition of his authoritative international standing in the field of chemistry.

The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) is described as the world's leading chemistry community, with over 48,000 members.

'I feel really honoured to be recognised in this way,' Associate Professor Francis says.

'I have been a member of the RSC for over a decade and I believe that they play an important role, not only in the field of chemistry, but also in the communication of scientific research to the wider community.'

Associate Professor Francis' path to becoming a chemical scientist began in 1995 as an undergraduate in Deakin's Bachelor of Science course, followed by a PhD, which he completed in 2003. He continued his research at Deakin, first as postdoctoral research fellow, and then as a Lecturer in Chemistry in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences in 2010.

He currently holds a prestigious Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, administered by Deakin, with La Trobe University and the University of Manchester involved as host institutions. His current program of research is focused on the development of highly sensitive luminescence-based detection systems for applications in areas such as clinical diagnostics and illicit drug screening.

Associate Professor Francis has over 100 research publications and has been recognised with honours such as a Victorian Young Tall Poppy Science Award (from the Australian Institute of Policy and Science), and the RACI Robert Cattrall Medal for early career excellence in analytical chemistry.


Zoologist Lord Krebs to visit LES students and researchers

 World renowned zoologist and ecologist Professor Lord Krebs Kt FRS FMedSci will talk to Deakin University undergraduates, PhD students and young researchers, including via a Question and Answer session.

Lord Krebs began his research career in zoology. His early research was on the function of bird song, and decision rules that animals use for finding food. During this time, he largely created the field of behavioural ecology, for which he has written four editions of the key textbooks in the area. He has also conducted pathbreaking work in other areas of ecology and neuroscience, and has authored over 300 papers.

Currently, he chairs the UK's House of Lords Select Committee for Science and Technology. He also sits on the UK Climate Change Committee, chairs its Adaptation Sub-Committee, and is also Principal of Jesus College, Oxford. Before this period, he was Chief Executive of the UK Natural Environment Research Council, and inaugural head of the UK's Food Standard Agency. He has also been President of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour, President of the British Science Association, is a foreign Fellow of the US National Academy of Science, and a Fellow of the Royal Society in London.

Three main events are planned involving Deakin University:

At the Geelong Waurn Ponds Campus on the morning of Tuesday 18 March, from 11.00 to 11.45, Lord Krebs will speak to Deakin Zoology and Animal Science undergraduates - and other interested undergraduates, postgraduates and postdocs - on 'My Zoological Life'. This will be a wonderful opportunity for students to hear Lord Krebs talk about his life experiences as a zoologist and ecologist and to ask him questions. The location for this talk is room na1.417 in the Geelong Technology Precinct (GTP) building.

In the afternoon from 2.00 to 2.50, Lord Krebs will have a Question and Answer session with young researchers (i.e. PhD students, postdocs, honours students). This session will be in room ka4.207 (the Green Room), also on the Geelong Waurn Ponds Campus.

On Wednesday 19 March, he will give a public lecture, 'International and national perspectives on adapting to climate change: a conversation between ABC's Robyn Williams and Professor Lord Krebs'. This will take place at Deakin Edge, Federation Square, Melbourne. The lecture is sponsored by Deakin University and the Victorian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation Research. More information can be found on the LES event webpage.


Rosella research makes for colourful cover story

 A paper co-authored by Deakin University researchers and published in the The Journal of Experimental Biology (JEB) about how parrots see their colours was also selected as that issue's cover story and featured in the journal's 'Inside JEB' section.

Dr Ben Knott, Dr Mathew Berg, Associate Professor Kate Buchanan and Professor Andy T. D. Bennett from the Centre of Integrative Ecology in Deakin's School of Life and Environmental Sciences collaborated with colleagues from Western Australia and the United Kingdom on the paper, which was published in JEB's 1 December 2013 issue.

'We were studying the colour vision of the Adelaide rosella to lead in to a bigger study assessing whether the considerable colour differences in plumage observed in the crimson rosella - a single species group in south-eastern Australia that comprises crimson, yellow and Adelaide rosellas - corresponded to differences in how the birds perceived colour,' Dr Knott explains.

'First, using custom-built microspectrophotometers in London and at the Waurn Ponds campus, we measured the colour sensitivity of individual cells in the rosella retina. Following this, we sequenced the light-sensitive proteins in the eye, and found sequences that could potentially affect the function of these proteins, and that were unique not only to birds, but unique to all vertebrates. These sequences are now the basis for an ongoing comparative study.'

On the basis of the paper, a photograph of an Adelaide morph of the crimson rosella by Deakin Research Fellow Dr Raoul Ribot was chosen to appear on the front cover of the issue.

Follow this link to the issue on the JEB website.

Knott, B., Davies, W. I. L., Carvalho, L. S., Berg, M. L., Buchanan, K. L., Bowmaker, J. K., Bennett, A. T. D. and Hunt, D. M. (2013). How parrots see their colours: novelty in the visual pigments of Platycercus elegans. Journal of Experimental Biology 216, 4454-4461.


Different cultures, same outcome

 Professor John Endler, Deakin's School of Life and Environmental Sciences and Centre for Integrative Ecology, is co-author of a paper which could have implications for the way archaeologists analyse ancient ceramics.

'How Can Ten Fingers Shape a Pot? Evidence for Equivalent Function in Culturally Distinct Motor Skills' was published in the online journal PLOS ONE in November 2013. Co-authors with Professor Endler were Enora Gandon, Reinoud J. Bootsma and Leore Grosman.

A media release about the paper was also featured on the ScienceDaily research website.

'We examined the use of hand positions by potters in French and Indian cultural settings, making pots of a common simple shape they do not normally make, in order to investigate whether or not culture influences motor patterns and the outcome of motor patterns - the final shape of the pots,' Professor Endler explains.

'We used a mathematical description of shape called the elliptical Fourier transform to describe the shapes of each pot made by each potter in each culture. We found that although the potters did use different, largely culture-specific, hand positions, the end result was the same shape.

'So different cultures are using different methods to arrive at the same solution. This means that a lack of difference in archaeological pottery samples does not necessarily mean the samples came from the same culture.'

Professor Endler says the study used a method he originally devised to describe the shapes of biological samples.

'My part was to do the shape analysis and relate it to the rest of the study. I devised the method many years ago to describe the shapes of leaves and other biological samples, so it is pleasing to see it applied to human artefacts too. It fits into my research in that I am generally interested in the interaction between form and function.

'Most of my work has dealt with visual signals, although my recent work with bowerbirds also deals with (bowerbird) artefacts,' Professor Endler says.

Gandon E, Bootsma RJ, Endler JA, Grosman L (2013) How Can Ten Fingers Shape a Pot? Evidence for Equivalent Function in Culturally Distinct Motor Skills. PLoS ONE 8(11): e81614. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081614.


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