Lab member Will Mitchell played a lead role in the experimental trial reintroduction of the endangered mallee emu-wren in Ngarkat Conservation Park, South Australia with our agency partners and this work has now been published in Pacific Conservation Biology. Although these trials did not produce the hoped for outcome of establishing a new population in Ngarkat Conservation Park, they did provide valuable insight into both future mallee emu-wren translocations, as well as broader conservation translocation protocols in settings where there might be limited information.

Despite being a widely applied tool, conservation translocation have a high failure rate. Thus, it is important to implement translocations to both maximize positive outcomes but also to learn from failures. In this case, Will investigated whether timing of release or composition of release groups would influence indices of translocation success.

Will and the team found that Spring should be prioritized for mallee emu-wren translocation in the future, as birds released in autumn dispersed further. Will also demonstrated that while it is best to maintain intact social groups where possible as a precautionary measure, sociality had no detectable influence on dispersal or survival of translocated mallee emu-wrens. As additional effort and resources are required to both capture and maintain intact social groups during translocations, this knowledge provides valuable opportunities to streamline future translocations. Additionally, Will found some impact of harvesting of emu-wrens on the source population. This emphasizes the need to obtain population demographic information from source sites to ensure that conservation translocations are sustainable.

Collectively, these insights directly inform a larger scale “phase two” of this project where the team seek to successfully re-establish a population of mallee emu-wrens in South Australia.


Photo by Will Mitchell.

Mitchell, W.F., Boulton, R.L., Ireland, L., Hunt, T.J., Verdon, S.J., Olds, L.G.M., Hedger, C. and Clarke, R.H. (2020) Using experimental trials to improve translocation protocols for a cryptic, endangered passerine. Pacific Conservation Biology.



Five lab members recently presented at the Victorian Biodiversity Conference at Monash University in Melbourne. PhD students Flossy Sperring (pictured), William Mitchell, and Alexandra Nance presented their latest findings concerning some of Australia’s rarest birds. Flossy walked the audience through her first field season on Norfolk Island, and the first insights into the Endangered Norfolk Island Morepork territory size; Will spoke of the Endangered Mallee Emu-wren, and the outcomes of the first-ever conservation translocations; and Allie shared her insights on the Norfolk Island songbird community and the conservation objectives for a suite of threatened species. Morgan Humphrey presented the combined outcomes from two third-year research projects (Morgan’s and current Honours student Claire MacKay’s) where thermal scanning technology was employed to monitor the Critically Endangered Plains Wanderer - their findings in the thermal sensing space will underpin research directions for Finella Dawlings, who has recently joined our research group. Finally, Nick Bradsworth who has been working as a research officer alongside Flossy on Norfolk Island (and current PhD student at Deakin Uni) presented his latest findings on urban land use by Victorian Powerful Owls.

Will Mitchell and Allie Nance also ‘cut their teeth’ as conference organisers given their active roles on the organising committee for this important event.

“The VicBioCon was a great success. It provides opportunities for emerging and established scientists alike to present their findings to a wide audience. It fosters collaboration, and it’s a really nice atmosphere!” Remarked PhD student, Flossy Sperring.  



Monash Science researchers help relocate the endangered Mallee emu-wren

The charismatic Mallee Emu-wren, once widespread in the Murray-Mallee region of South Australia and Victoria, has in recent decades, been restricted to a small network of Victorian reserves by a series of bushfires.

Mallee Emu-wrens are specialised to live in hummock-grass vegetation, and while this key habitat eventually regenerates following fire, Mallee Emu-wrens have no capacity to recolonise such areas.

Another large-scale bushfire could push the endangered Mallee Emu-wren past the point of no return.

Monash School of Biological Sciences Senior Lecturer, Dr Rohan Clarke, and PhD candidate Will Mitchell are part of a dedicated nationwide team trying to bring the Mallee Emu-wren back from the brink of extinction.

They have just recently been involved with the successful translocation of an additional 38 birds back into Ngarkat Conservation Park in South Australia.

“In 2018, 78 Mallee Emu-wrens were translocated from Murray-Sunset and Hattah-Kulkyne National Parks in Victoria to Ngarkat Conservation Park as part of a trial to determine the suitability and effectiveness of translocation as a conservation strategy for the Mallee Emu-wren,” said Dr Rohan Clarke.

“Using this translocation as a model system, we are looking at which planning, implementation, and long-term monitoring can be improved in translocations of threatened species,” he said.

PhD candidate Will Mitchell said tracking of the released birds was difficult given their tiny size and elusive behaviour.

“We were blown away when we found a significant number of paired birds with young fledglings,”  he said.

Will hopes that a key outcome of his research will be to provide a framework for conservation managers to assess how many individuals can be removed sustainably from a population for the purpose of translocation.

“At a local scale, the successful re-introduction of the Mallee Emu-wren to Ngarkat Conservation Park will increase the global population of the species, provide an insurance population against further catastrophic wildfires in currently occupied Mallee Emu-wren habitat, and pave the way for larger-scale re-introductions into other reserves from which the Mallee Emu-wren has become extinct,” Will said.

Mangrove forests important for terrestrial biodiversity

In a paper lead authored by Stefanie Rog in the journal Diversity and Distributions, the importance of mangroves for global, terrestrial vertebrates is revealed.

Stefanie conducted a review of the scientific literature published on mangroves, combined with open-source databases (WWF, ARKive and IUCN Red List).

The review found that 464 terrestrial species (320 mammals, 118 reptiles and 26 amphibians) use mangroves; five times more than previously reported. Of the 391 species whose conservation status has been assessed by ICUN, 35% were classified as threatened. Species were most often reported using mangroves for foraging habitat, followed by refuge, shelter, dispersal and breeding.

The highest alpha diversity of terrestrial invertebrates in mangroves occurs within Asia, northern Australia, West Africa and the Central American land bridge.

The terrestrial components of mangroves are often overlooked by society, and Stef's review extends our knowledge of mangrove forests and brings attention to these vital and undervalued ecosystems.

Read the full review in Diversity and Distributions here.

ResearchEcology lab member Luke Halpin led a recent paper in The American Naturalist, documenting the importance of a large predacious arthropod's habits in structuring trophic dynamics on isolated Phillip Island in the Norfolk Islands Group.

Though Phillip Island Centipedes are now relatively abundant, they were extremely rare in the 1980s due to habitat degradation by introduced pigs, goats, and rabbits. After recording previously undescribed instances of black-winged petrel nestlings falling prey to Phillip Island centipedes, Luke and Honours student Daniel Terrington investigated their diet and foraging activity, discovering that these predatory arthropods likely play an important role in the Phillip Island food web because of their highly varied diet. Not only do these centipedes prey on and consume between 2,109 and 3,724 black-winged petrel nestlings each year, they also consume crickets, geckos, skinks, and even fish dropped from black noddy nests.

Phillip Island centipedes occupy an important ecological niche that might otherwise have been occupied by mammalian predators, as is the case with many island ecosystems that are depauperate of mammals. By preying on a variety of vertebrates Phillip Island centipedes likely make available and distribute marine derived nutrients that would otherwise be unavailable in this system.

“Because of the centipede’s role in driving nutrient transfer, areas of the island with higher densities of centipedes might recover faster than areas that are degraded,” explains Luke. “This could be important for recovery of a variety of critically endangered species on Phillip Island, many of which are endemic and found nowhere else on Earth.”

Despite the fact the centipedes are the main cause of nesting failure for black-winged petrels, the petrel population continues to grow and appears resilient to centipede predation. This, however, does raise the prospect for conservation concerns elsewhere, as innovative approaches may be necessary in disturbed systems where predatory arthropods may interact with prey of conservation importance.


Photo by Luke Halpin. Please note that there is some perspective distortion in this photo. 



Using drones for seal monitoring returns better results and is less invasive!

A recent collaboration between the Research Ecology lab (School of Biological Sciences, Monash University) and Phillip Island Nature Parks has shown that using drones to monitor Australian fur seals returns more precise counts than traditional methods.

Researchers from Monash University and Phillip Island Nature Parks flew a drone over two of the world’s largest Australian fur seal colonies as part of the routine, five-year census. “Traditionally, this census requires an on-ground presence. For the 2018 census, we were able to have an on-ground presence, and simultaneously test the efficacy of drone technology to achieve the same outcome.” said lead author, and past honours student, Karina Sorrell.

After the census was completed, images taken from the drone were stitched together in a mosaic, and citizen scientists were asked to count the number of seals seen in each image. “Counts derived from these images provided more precise estimates of pup numbers than either traditional on-ground counts, and more invasive mark-recapture estimates” commented lab head, Dr. Rohan Clarke.

Not only do drones contribute to more robust monitoring programs, the same tools reduce disturbance because researchers don’t have to physically enter the colony” said Dr Rebecca McIntosh of Phillip Island Nature Parks. “Furthermore, the availability of a permanent archive of aerial images also provides important opportunities for engagement with citizen scientists though the Phillip Island Nature Parks portal SealSpotter”.

Australian fur seals are a top order predator and as such, they are important species in the ecosystem. As one of the only marine predators to breed on land, they are sentinels for large scale shifts. The findings of this study help to improve population monitoring for conservation purposes. 


For the full report, see:

Photo by Karina Sorrell - @VSnaturephotography on Instagram



Australian-bred Frigatebirds that migrate to Southeast Asian waters risk unacceptable levels of mercury contamination, according to a study led by Dr Rowan Mott.

The research, published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin, focused on two species of seabird that bred in Australian waters but migrated to Southeast Asia in the non-breeding period. The findings have serious implications for other species – including humans – using marine resources in Southeast Asia.

The researchers found that some of the sampled birds had feather mercury concentrations far exceeding those known to be harmful in other birds.

“Our findings highlight the need for tighter mercury emission regulations in southeast Asia,” said lead study author, Dr Rowan Mott, a researcher in the Monash School of Biological Sciences. “Tighter regulations would minimise the potential threat to frigatebirds and other species dependent on marine resources including humans,” he said.

The research team used seabirds as ‘bio-monitors’, and assessed environmental trace metal concentrations in the eastern Indian Ocean, between North Western Australia and Indonesia.

“We've been able to show that heavy metal burdens – namely mercury – in these birds almost certainly arises from Southeast Asia,” said Dr Rohan Clarke, study co-author and Research Ecology group lab leader at Monash University. “Mercury emission policy and enforcement must improve in southeast Asia,” he said.

Two breeding colonies in the eastern Indian Ocean were sampled: Ashmore Reef and Adele Island. Both locations support large breeding colonies of Lesser Frigatebirds, small numbers of breeding Great Frigatebirds, and are recognised by Bird Life International as Important Bird Areas. 

The researchers looked for mercury contamination in the feather samples of 74 birds. “The results implicate mercury contamination in the marine areas of southeast Asia, and the South China Sea in particular, as a potential threat to seabirds,” Dr Mott said. “The findings highlight the difficulty conserving species that range widely and cross international borders,” he said.


August was a busy month for three of the Phd candidates in our group, with Katherine Selwood, Rowan Mott and Shane Baylis all presenting the final seminars of their PhD candidature. Katherine also submitted her thesis titled "The significance and future prospects of floodplains for birds in a drying climate", and will soon commence a postdoctoral position at University Of Melbourne. We wish Kat the very best in her new research position.

Both Rowan and Shane plan to submit their thesis later in the year. In the meantime Rowan has been awarded a writing scholarship to complete his manuscripts for submission to scientific journals, and Shane is planning a cycling trip around Tasmania during November with his partner Nancy.

Research Ecology Lab group member Allie Nance, along with Mel Wilson from Norfolk Island National Park (NINP) team have been awarded this year’s Ecological Impact Award for rodent management work on Norfolk Island. Allie’s research has shed light on the above-ground activities of invasive rodents, which are a key threat to endemic species of Norfolk Island.

Standard rodent control measures, which have had few changes since their establishment in 1993, have focused on ground-level baiting. “Rodent control has been happening on the island here for such a long time, but it had gotten to a state where it wasn’t working anymore,” says NINP Natural Resource Manager Mel Wilson.

After discovering that rodents were just as active in the mid-storey and canopy of forests as they were on the ground, Allie’s team went on to test several different and innovative rodent management designs. Baited arboreal tunnels showed a 60% increase in bait uptake by rodents, and experimental tree-mounted lethal rodent traps removed 19 rodents from the population over a month, with no signs of harming non-target species.

These new insights will inform the Norfolk Island Threatened Species Recovery Plan, which is currently undergoing review.

“Our work happened at the perfect time when we could push to implement a change. I think it’s going to make a big difference,” says Allie Nance.

Allie Nance and Mel Wilson will co-present a plenary at the forthcoming Ecological Society of Australia Conference in November.




Photo by Nick Wiggins



Available honours projects!

Multiple Honours Projects Available

We are looking for students interested in conservation work in remote locations. Field sites include offshore islands, and arid Australia. Students will work collaboratively with external partners, and test emerging technologies for efficacy in the field. The Clarke Lab is open to working with students to design an ideal project. If you are interested in undertaking research with applied conservation outcomes and the ability to network extensively, please contact Dr Rohan Clarke directly. 
All projects will be supervised by Rohan Clarke and involve collaborations with a number of partner organisations. 

The Australian Bird Guide takes flight

Co-authored by Rohan Clarke

Australia’s avifauna is large, diverse and spectacular, reflecting the continent’s impressive range of habitats and evolutionary history. With specially commissioned paintings of over 900 species, The Australian Bird Guide is the most comprehensive field guide to Australian birds ever seen.

The guide features around 4700 colour illustrations, with particular emphasis on providing the fine detail required to identify difficult groups and distinctive plumages. Comprehensive species accounts have been written by a dedicated team of ornithologists to ensure identification details, distribution and status are current and accurate.

The Australian Bird Guide sets a new standard in field guides, providing an indispensable reference for all birders and naturalists looking to explore Australia’s magnificent and unique birdlife.

To learn more about the book visit CSIRO Publishing.



Monitoring with precision

New Monash University research has paved the way for drones to revolutionise ecological monitoring. Published in the journal Scientific Reports, the research found that drones are much more precise at monitoring the size of seabird colonies in tropical and polar environments than more traditional ground counts. Carried out on Ashmore Reef (tropical) and Macquarie Island (Sub-Antarctic), the research found that the ever-increasing precision provided by drones, along with the ability to survey hard-to-reach populations, may mean that wildlife monitoring projects move from traditional methods to drone technology.

Monash ecologist Dr Rohan Clarke explained that drones have already been used to monitor everything from the breeding success of canopy-nesting birds and to surveying elephants but nobody had yet tested if this method was better than more traditional survey techniques. “Until now, it has been unclear as to how precise drone technology might be when monitoring the size of populations of wildlife. Our latest research has demonstrated that a very high degree of precision can be achieved when using drone technology to monitor wildlife,” Dr Clarke said.

Lead author Jarrod Hodgson, who carried out the research while at Monash (and who is now at the University of Adelaide), explained how the research compared drone derived image counts with those made by humans on the ground. “Our team compared the precision of drone-derived image counts with those made at the same time by human counters on the ground for colonies of three types of seabird: frigatebirds, terns and penguins. Counters also monitored the colonies during the drone flights for signs that the birds may be startled by the presence of the drone,” Mr Hodgson said.

The authors found that counts using images captured by drones did not startle the birds and were consistently more similar than those taken from the ground. The authors suggest that the down-facing perspective of drone imagery reduces the likelihood of missing seabirds. In contrast, when counting from the ground, the terrain and other birds obscure the counters’ line of sight.

Dr Clarke explained the significance of these research findings to ecological monitoring projects. “It’s highly likely that in the future, drones will be used to monitor populations of birds and animals, especially in inaccessible areas where on the ground surveying is difficult or impossible. This opens up exciting new possibilities when it comes to more accurately monitoring Earth’s ecosystems,” Dr Clarke said.

Finding the best methods for recovery of a critically endangered species

“Making transparent and rational decisions to manage threatened species in situations of high uncertainty is difficult. Managers must balance the optimism of successful intervention with the risk that intervention could make matters worse”

 Together with Stefano Canessa (IOZ), Dean Ingwersen (BirdLife Australia) and John Ewen (IOZ), ResearchEcology lab members Gemma Taylor, Rohan Clarke, and James Vandersteen (former 3rd year research student), have published a case study that presents management alternatives for the Endangered Regent Honeyeater in the journal Conservation Science and Practice.

“Risk aversion and uncertainty [in management] create a conundrum for planning recovery of a critically endangered species”, said lead author Dr Stefano Canessa.

“There are very few Regent Honeyeaters left in the wild, but organisations such as Taronga Zoo manage captive breeding populations to support reintroduction programs. Unfortunately, these reintroduction programs have resulted in little breeding success post-release. This is mostly because of high rates of nest failure”, says Rohan.

Whilst further management intervention was clearly required, each potential action had both advantages and disadvantages in a setting where decisions were hampered by uncertainty. There were a few immediate options: Tree collars, or (in a first ever attempt) arboreal nest cages. However, the team was averse to testing these methods on active nests given the potential for disturbance.

“Instead, we opted to use surrogates – artificial eggs in artificial nests”, says Gemma. In a series of paired field experiments the team found that The results of the experiment suggested neither action was likely to significantly reduce predation risks (<3% mean differences in survival between treatment and control). Yet, interestingly, when shown these results, expert stakeholders made only minor revisions to their estimates; in part, this reflected low confidence by managers that artificial nests could reflect real predation risks.

The team faced what might be a common conundrum for conservation of critically endangered species. High uncertainty affects management decisions; however, perilous species status also leads to strong risk aversion, which limits both the willingness to act on limited information and the ability to learn effectively. Structured methods can increase transparency, facilitate evaluation, and assist decision making, but objective limitations and subjective attitudes cannot be circumvented entirely.


Photo by Rohan Clarke



Researchers use thermal cameras to detect roosting birds

Researchers use thermal cameras to detect roosting birds

Where do small birds sleep? Mostly in trees is the short answer, but as so often occurs in ecology, there is more to the story…

If you were a bird, a few critical things might influence where you choose to spend the night. First and foremost, you don’t want to be eaten by a predator! And, if you want to get some rest, you can’t rely on alertness, speed and agility to escape owls or tree-dwelling mammals… So, concealment might be important. Second, you want to minimise your exposure to the elements. Smaller bodies burn kilojoules a lot faster than larger bodies, and cold winter nights can take a heavy toll on energy reserves so a thermally buffered location will also be desirable.

“For an activity that takes up a very substantial portion of a bird’s life, and where choices can mean the difference between life and death, we know surprisingly little about the ecology of sleep in birds” said co-author Rohan Clarke.

What little we do know is intriguing – for example within large communal roosts, complicated hierarchies exist where dominant birds take position at the centre of the roost - the warmest and safest position - while subordinate birds must take their chances at the periphery. While it’s relatively simple to investigate these behaviours in species that roost in large groups, it is far more challenging to even detect individuals that roost alone.

In an attempt to overcome this challenge, researchers from Monash University have been using infrared thermography, i.e. a thermal camera/scanner, to locate roosting birds of a wide range of species.

‘Thermal cameras measure heat emission. The difference in signal strength between an animal and the vegetation around it means that we can detect birds in total darkness. Another benefit is that the birds typically remain asleep, which means that this technique creates very little disturbance’, reports William Mitchell, lead author of the study.

To ensure that the technique worked, researchers carried out bird surveys during the day in an Australian woodland, and then repeated the same surveys at night using a thermal camera. They then compared detection rates of the two methods. 21 of 22 species that were commonly detected during day surveys were also found roosting at night.

“To date, we’ve recorded simple traits such as height and visibility of roost sites but this method really opens the door to dig deeper into the nocturnal behaviour of diurnal birds’ said Rohan Clarke.

 “While there are some limitations, it’s great to get proof of concept for this method. We were able to quickly and efficiently detect roosting individuals for most species in our bird community with minimal disturbance” concludes William Mitchell

This research was recently published in The Journal of Field Ornithology:

Mitchell, W. F., and Clarke., R. H., 2019. Using infrared thermography to detect night-roosting birds. Journal of Field Ornithology.

Foraging differences allow Frigatebird species to co-exist

Lab member Rowan Mott recently had a paper from his PhD research published in The Auk, which highlights his findings on how two similar congeneric seabird species can successfully breed side by side.

Traditional research methods document high levels of resource overlap in Great and Lesser Frigatebirds. Rowan used high-tech GPS tracking combined with chemical analysis of blood and feathers, to identify previously unknown differences in dietary and spatial aspects of the foraging strategies of these two species. The results indicate that body size differences between the two species influence the tropic level of the prey consumed, with the larger-bodied Great Frigatebirds taking prey higher on the food chain compared with the smaller Lesser Frigatebirds. During the breeding period, when adults are spatially constrained by the need to attend to an egg/chick, there exists considerable spatial overlap among species and sexes. However during the non-breeding period, when the demands of rearing a chick are removed, this overlap diminishes, with males of both species foraging further afield in offshore waters.

Read The Auk's blog about Rowan's research paper here.

A bird's eye view

UAV used to capture aerial imagery of nesting seabirds in NW AustraliaResearch Ecology, led by Rohan Clarke, is partnering with ConservationDrones to use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or drones) for seabird monitoring. The Research Ecology team recently returned from a successful trip to remote islands in north-western Australia where high resolution images of nesting seabirds were captured using a UAV.

After some preliminary testing, we discovered that we could fly at an altitude of 75 m above ground level (agl) without causing disturbance to the birds in these environments. We also found that flying at lower altitudes would work for some large nesting species, but smaller non-nesting species were easily flushed from perching sites by the UAV at such heights. 

We targeted colonies of Crested Tern and Lesser Frigatebird for aerial survey. The Crested Tern colonies represent a medium-sized species that nests in dense colonies on the ground, whereas Lesser Frigatebirds are a large seabird which nests in smaller groups typically on elevated nest stacks and within vegetation. For every successful survey, experienced seabird counters made 1 or 2 blind counts of the surveyed population. Research Ecology will be comparing these ‘ground counts’ with UAV aerial counts to assess the reliability of UAV data.

Research Ecology is continuing to refine techniques which will allow for lower impact and more reliable aerial surveying of vertebrates. We are excited to continue our collaboration with the ConservationDrones team in several upcoming projects.


Experts flown into remote area to save rare bird species ahead of bushfire

Dr Rohan Clarke, and Dr Rowan Mott from the ResearchEcology lab were recently deployed to Howe Flat (east of Mallacoota) to lead the capture of 15  of the ~160 Endangered Eastern Bristlebirds that remain in Victoria. This unprecedented action was undertaken to ensure an insurance population was safely held away from the fires that have devastated much of eastern Victoria and NSW. Along with their project partners (from Zoos Victoria, DELWP, Parks Victoria, University of Wollongong, Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary), and supported by first class logistics teams (Fisheries Victoria, The Australian Defence Force in Partnership with Singapore Defence Force, and the Orbost Incident Control Centre), Rohan and Rowan were flown in via Chinook Helicopter and got to work.

"There were literally aircraft water-bombing the fire only a couple of kilometres away while we were working," Dr Clarke said. "It [the fire] was incredibly close; it burnt into the northern edge of the heath where the bristlebirds live."

“We were able to catch 15 birds and move them to Melbourne Zoo – an insurance population should the remaining birds at Howe Flat be wiped out by fire”, said Dr Mott.

"The fire is still really active. We can't put them back until the fire is completely out," Dr Clarke said. "Hopefully this insurance population wasn't needed, if we haven't lost the site. If the fire burns and get worse, fortunately we have this insurance population."



For a full report, see:

Photo by Tony Mitchell



Feather fouling or ‘oiling’ is a primary cause of seabird death during marine oil spills. When a seabird interacts with the oil at the sea surface the oil typically aggregates on the feathers to reduce both buoyancy and insulation. Because different oil products and different oil spill volumes result in different oil film thicknesses, the outcomes for seabirds can vary.

A study undertaken by honours student James Matcott investigated the impacts of different oil film thickness on feather structure and integrity using feathers collected from a large number of tropical and temperate seabird species.

Under laboratory settings, feathers of seabirds were exposed to either crude and condensate oil films of varying thickness. Feathers were then measured for changes in mass, and for changes in feather structure (specifically barbule clumping as can be seen in the image of a highly magnified feather).

We found that there was a threshold response to oil film thickness, with oil films equal to or greater than 3µm leading to increases in both feather mass and clumping. “This finding shows that very little oil is required to damage the structure of seabird feathers”, reports James Matcott. Nevertheless, when oil films are especially thin at the sea surface (i.e. < 3µm) they may have relatively little impact on feather structure and integrity.

This finding provides new insight regarding the threat that oil spills pose to seabirds. “It shows that oil film thickness is an important consideration when devising response strategies that aim to minimise further harm to seabirds and other organisms in the event of an oil spill” said Dr Rohan Clarke.

For the full report, see: