Research themes

Marine vertebrates

Overcoming threats in an increasingly challenging marine environment


Marine ecosystems are increasingly threatened by human activity and development, and the waters surrounding Australia are no exception. Here, threats include oil spill events, increasing amounts of plastic pollution, exploitation by fishers and the ubiquitous challenges posed by climate change. Threat mitigation relies on sound knowledge of ecological processes.  The Marine Vertebrates team conduct applied ecological research to inform appropriate conservation planning and management for Australia’s marine environments.

The team use a diversity of methods including animal-borne tracking devices, population genetic techniques and stable isotope analysis, combined with population censuses using ground counts, shipboard counts and the latest drone technology.  In combination these approaches allow a detailed assessment of distribution and abundance and patterns of marine resource use for the target species or community. Members of our team are using their considerable experience with these and many other techniques in study areas as diverse as the Browse Basin between north-west Australia and Timor, and subantarctic Macquarie and Heard Islands.

Our research group has extensive experience working on seabirds. We also hold large datasets and have published on a diversity of other marine vertebrate groups. Cetaceans, sea turtles and populations of key prey-fish have been a focus of recent research voyages. Our research outputs allow us to make recommendations on matters such as extensions to existing marine protected areas and mitigation strategies for marine industries. Recent work with the oil and gas industry includes major contributions to seabird and shorebird Operational and Scientific Monitoring Programs (OSMPs), development and implementation of monitoring programs to meet OSMP baseline requirements and the scientific monitoring program for seabirds and shorebirds following the Montara Well Release.  Beyond our ecological skill-set, the team also maintain industry-standard training ensuring capacity to respond rapidly to new OSMP needs.


Avian pathogens

Flyway networks: connecting pathogens to new hosts in far away lands


The East Asia – Australasian Flyway connects Northern Siberia and Alaska to Southern Australia and New Zealand, a region that encompasses 45% of the world's human population. Through this flyway million of birds pass through each year to full-fill their annual migratory cycle, ignoring major barriers such as mountain ranges, rivers, and oceans.

Tucked away in their feathers, in their blood-stream and lungs, and in their guts, are countless diseases and parasites in search of a happier more naïve host in some distant land. In spite of the incredible potential for migratory birds to disperse diseases, we still know very little about how it happens (e.g., which bird species are most likely to carry diseases?), and if it is possible to predict how diseases would flow through the flyway network. Diseases such as West Nile virus, and H1N1 influenza are devastating, but rare. Understanding the dynamics of a system through rare occurrences is nearly impossible, and all together undesirable.

Bird malaria, while devastating to naïve populations, is relatively common across the East Asia – Australasian Flyway. Our goal is to build bird malaria as a model to understand pathogen movement across bird migratory flyways. To build this model, we will build knowledge on how birds fight parasites through behaviour, physiology, and immunity, how pathogens evade host immunity through clever genomic re-arrangements, and how vectors broker interactions between host and parasites. To address these aspects, our team includes Dr. John Ewen (ZSL), Dr. Jonathan Keith (School of Mathematical Sciences), Dr. Jean-Bernard Duchemin (CSIRO – Ecosystem Sciences), and Dr. Paul Sunnucks (School of Biological Sciences).

Threatened species

Management strategies for threatened species to maintain biodiversity


With climate change the frequency and duration of droughts are predicted to increase in southern Australia (IPCC 2013). In this context the impacts of climate change are likely to prove dire for many arid land species as they reduce or suppress breeding activity in poor/below average rainfall years. Devising management strategies that address this and related conservation issues is a key research interest of our group. We have in particular focused on a suite of birds that occupy arid and semi-arid environments. Recent research outputs include contributions to our understanding of the ecology and conservation biology of the Princess Parrot, Mallee Emu-wren and Black-eared Miner to name a few.

Historical landscape-scale degradation of woodland habitat in southern Australia has resulted in substantial population declines in many woodland bird species. We work closely with recovery teams, threatened species decision analysts and state parks & wildlife staff, to guide management priorities and achieve better population recovery for threatened woodland birds. We are involved in the research and monitoring of iconic threatened species including bird communities of the Box Ironbark woodlands and River Red Gum woodlands of the Murray Darling Basin, along with threatened species programs focussed on the Grey-crowned Babbler, Regent Honeyeater and Regent Parrot.

Island systems are amongst the most threatened globally. We work on several offshore islands with a focus on threat identification and mitigation for avian species and other vertebrate inhabitants. Ongoing work includes a long-term monitoring program for both shorebirds and breeding seabirds at Ashmore Reef and Adele Island. Our work implementing a series of trial control measures for the invasive tropical fire ant at Ashmore Reef led to an ongoing control program and the development of a fully costed eradication plan by the team. We were also involved in a large-scale attempt to eradicate Polynesian Rats from Adele Island. There are clear synergies with our work on marine vertebrate biodiversity, a summary of which can be seen here.