Honours projects

Honours projects in the Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution

Honours projects are available to students in EEE at both the Melbourne and Albury Wodonga campuses, as well as through research affiliates such as the Arthur Rylah Institute and Murray Darling Freshwater Research Centre (MDFRC). Scholarships are currently available for students undertaking honours in 2017 with MDFRC at either the Albury Wodonga or Mildura campuses. See pdf flyer for details.

Here you will find a list of some of the projects currently available. If you are interested in any of these, or similar projects, please contact supervisors directly. An information session is usually held in September where you can find out more about these and other projects on offer in EEE, and more about what the honours year involves.

Honours in EEE at the Albury-Wodonga campus

Research staff at the Albury Wodonga campus offer projects in various field of environmental research.

Dr Susan Lawler, Ecological geneticist

Evolution and ecology of freshwater crayfish, threatened species conservation, systematics and taxonomy, freshwater ecology and alpine ecology.

Dr Warren Paul, Statistician.

Causal modelling of ecological systems, quantitative models of ecosystems and ecology.

Dr Alexei Rowles, Ecologist

Invertebrate ecology, biological invasions and issues in conservation and management.

Dr Ewen Silvester, Biogeochemist.

Hydrology, vegetation and chemical regulation in rivers and wetlands; the role of aquatic fungi in the formation of natural organic matter; seasonal and hydrologic controls of alkalinity and the role of dissolved organic carbon.

Conservation Biology – Pete Green

Pete GreenFollow this link for more information on research in the Conservation Biology Lab.

Species Density or Species Richness? Improving the science to make better management recommendations for Victorian heathlands.

Supervisors Pete Green & John Morgan.

This project involves lots of field work including floristic quadrats, at multiple sites along a chronosequence

  • Strong theoretical base – delving into an extensive literature around sampling and species richness estimation
  • Making ecologists more ecologically literate – application beyond burning and heaths
  • Potential management outcomes
  • Feb or July start

Contact:
Dr Peter Green


Plant reproduction, ecological and conservation genetics – Susan Hoebee

Various projects are on offer in the Plant reproduction, ecological and conservation genetics lab.

Some projects are co-supervised by researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, and at the Arthur Rylah Institute. Possible projects include:

HoebeeTesting the utility of DNA barcoding among newly described Olearia.

Feb or mid-year start. Co-supervision: Susan Hoebee & Andre Messina (Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria).

The concept of DNA barcoding was proposed around the turn of the century, and was set to revolutionise many facets of biology, from identification services such as quarantine and quality control, to field biology and even taxonomy, through the discovery of new cryptic species. Over a decade later plant geneticists are still attempting to find suitable DNA loci that are common enough to be found across the plant kingdom and variable to distinguish closely related species. The current consensus is use of three loci: matK, rbcL, and ITS. This study will investigate the utility of DNA barcoding to identify species in the genus Olearia. Five species of Olearia have recently been re-circumscribed using morphological characters. These species concepts were supported by differences in leaf chemistry. However, initial DNA analysis investigating ITS and to a limited extent, matK, did not recover any variation in these or other less closely related species of Olearia. This would be a largely lab-based study, increasing the sample size of species replicates and number of loci to determine if these species are detectable using current barcode methods.

Grevillea montis-cole Quantifying genetic diversity and structure of Grevillea montis-cole populations.

Feb or, more ideally, a mid-year start. Co-supervision: Susan Hoebee & Liz James (Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria).

Grevillea montis-cole is divided into two subspecies that are restricted to two adjacent mountain tops in Victoria.  Morphologically, the subspecies differ in terms of their pistil length, while phylogenetic research has suggested that they are more closely related to other species than to each other. This project would apply a molecular markers to assess gene flow between the two subspecies, as well as overall population genetic structure. Depending upon when the project is undertaken this could run as a purely lab-based project (Feb start) or involve some field work (mid-year start).

Is Banksia marginata on the Victorian Volcanic Plain affected by pollinator limitation?

February Start. Co-supervision: Susan Hoebee, Trevor Edwards, John Morgan.Banksia MarginataA possible explanation for anecdotally poor recruitment of Banksia marginata on the Victorian Volcanic Plains is reduced visitation by effective pollinators and/or a reduction in the number of compatible partners within pollination range. The plan for this project is to identify the suite of floral visitors to B. marginata inflorescences and to contrast various floral traits to those linked with insect, bird and mammal pollination syndromes. The ability to self-fertilise will be tested and a series of cross-pollinations will assess within stand pollination success. There is also scope to assist an MSc student with field experiments that involve exclusion treatments designed to assess and compare the effectiveness of vertebrate and invertebrate pollination.

Understanding the pollination biology of Banksia spinulosa in Victoria.

Banksia spinulosaFebruary Start. Co-supervision: Annette Muir (ARI), Susan Hoebee, Trevor Edwards.

This investigation will underpin ongoing research undertaken at the Arthur Rylah Institute into recruitment of Banksia spinulosa in far-east Gippsland.  The project is very similar in design to the one described above for B. marginata.

I am happy to discuss other project ideas with students that involve plant conservation, genetics and/or reproduction.

Contact:
Dr Susan Hoebee

Landscape Ecology Research Group - Greg Holland

HollandThe Landscape Ecology Group conducts applied ecological research to address real-world conservation problems. Particular areas of interest include:

  • Conservation of biodiversity in modified landscapes (e.g. the ecological consequences of habitat loss and fragmentation)
  • The role of fire in driving the occurrence of plants and animals
  • Conservation ecology of threatened species

We are happy to discuss any relevant project ideas! Possible projects include:

The influence of fire and grazing on vegetation structure

  • assess vegetation structure in post-fire environments inside and outside grazing exclosures
  • use of remote digital cameras to investigate herbivore abundance

Impact of planned burns on large old trees and other key forest resources

  • mapping large old trees, large logs etc. within forest blocks
  • determine survival rates following planned burns

Contacts:
Prof Andrew Bennett
Dr Greg Holland
Dr Angie Haslem

Plant Ecology - John Morgan

Join the Plant Ecology Lab - Honours Projects in 2017

Dr John Morgan J.Morgan@latrobe.edu.au

@jmorganecology

morganvegdynamics.blogspot.com.au

JM1 fire2Re-introducing fire into long unburnt grassy ecosystems– accelerated recovery of the ecosystem, or stasis?

Many grasslands and grassy woodlands are now rarely burnt, although it is likely that patch burning once played an important role in the structure and function of these ecosystems. Fire exclusion has led to tree recruitment and loss of diversity (in some cases because biomass accumulates to outcompete poor competitors). Land managers are increasingly re-introducing fire to long unburned landscapes, but what changes occur when fire is re-introduced when it has been absent?  Are trees resilient to fire (or does it depend on their size)? Do species appear that haven’t been seen for a while, presumably re-appearing from dormant soil stored seed? Do some species disappear, having initially profited from the absence of fire?

In this project, we will test ideas about re-introduction of fire to landscapes where much benefit might be derived from such activities. Grassy ecosystems in western Victoria are much restricted (due to agriculture and, increasingly, timber plantations) and need sympathetic management to maintain their natural values. Re–introducing frequent fire to long unburnt grasslands is seen as a desirable management activity – it should serve to open up opportunities for seed regeneration and species coexistence. However, there are almost no examples where this has been tested, at least in good quality vegetation.

In this study, we will burnt long unburnt grasslands and ask whether often reported reductions in species richness due to the cessation of frequent fire can be spontaneously reversed by the return of fire. Additionally, will the abundance of currently sparse species be improved? How will exotic species respond to a change in disturbance regime? What about trees that have established in the inter-fire period? The student will work closely with the CFA, who will be responsible for conducting the trial burns, to design and implement the burning experiment.

JM2 Grass‘Extinction debt’ in grassy woodlands

In 1975, Cliff Beauglehole (an excellent amateur botanist) surveyed fragmented grassy woodlands on the Brim Brim Plateau in western Victoria, identifying all native species and their abundance. Across a range of sites (many small, linear and isolated), the surveys provides a time stamp on floristic composition of these woodlands from which to assess changes in composition. In particular, they provide a capacity to identify which plant species can persist in highly modified agricultural landscapes, and which can’t.

Many species occur at very small population sizes and face threat (such as invasion by exotic species), meaning their local extinction is likely. The timescales over which this process are unknown. In 2006, my Honours student Fiona Sutton revisited these sites and identified substantial change that likely result from habitat fragmentation and small population size (Journal of Ecology 97, 718–727). This project would build on prior work by revisiting the sites to determine just how the extinction debt is playing out a decade later. One important new aspect of the work will involve assessing seed production and dispersal capacity of species in grassy woodlands. In my Lab, we’ve been interested in trying to understand which species can persist in fragmented woodlands and grasslands, and which ones can’t. Maybe the native species that go extinct are those that have low seed production, while those that expand in the landscape are those that have lots of seed production and whose seeds are easily dispersed. After all, regeneration is a key plant trait but rarely has it been directly tested in terms of its importance for predicting persistence. We’d need to do two things. We would need to quantify seed production (per plant) across a large range of species (increasers, decreasers) to see if seed production is a trait that differs dramatically across these groups. We would also need to quantify something about how seed production varies with plant size (what is called ‘reproductive economy’). Are plants that are successful the ones that produce lots of seeds regardless of size, while decliners are the ones that have size-related thresholds for production. You can read more about the genesis of these ideas in a paper by Poschlod et al. (2013) Seed ecology and assembly rules in plant communities. pp 164-202. In: Vegetation Ecology (eds. E. van der Maarel and J. Franklin), John Wiley & Sons). This project would suit a student who wants to learn lots of plants!

JM3 ProstantheraEndemic plant species on restricted soils: 'early victims' or 'hardy survivors' of climate change?

One of the greatest challenges that land managers face today is anticipating how climate change will affect the diversity and composition of ecological communities to develop effective strategies for adaptation and mitigation. The direct effects of climate change on species via changes in temperature and precipitation have been the focus of many studies. Many conclude that altitudinal and latitudinal shifts in distribution will be necessary to survive the impacts of predicted climate change.  Little attention, however, has been given to how plant species on 'restricted' soil (i.e. very infertile) will respond to climate change. Here, suitable habitats for such species are patchily distributed, and the dispersal distances required to move to newly suitable habitat are large, making successful migration unlikely. Are species confined to low-nutrient soils, which may reflect their tolerance of such conditions and intolerance of other biotic factors such as competition, make them particularly vulnerable to climate change?  Some studies suggest that soil specialists may be at less risk than species on 'normal' soils due to their stress-tolerant functional traits, but there is also contrary evidence.

Plant communities on low-nutrient soils have two distinctive attributes that may cause them to respond uniquely to climate change. First, they are often found in discrete areas making them more spatially isolated from one another than species on ‘normal’ soils that tend to be more contiguous. This spatial isolation may make it much more difficult for species to successfully migrate under climate change. Second, because these species are on unproductive substrates, they may differ from communities on ‘normal soils’ in terms of limiting resources, functional traits, and the relative importance of disturbance, competition and other ecological processes. Plants in these special soil habitats often have traits associated with tolerance of drought and nutrient-limitation [e.g. small stature, low-specific leaf area (SLA), high allocation to roots relative to shoots] because nutrient availability is limited, water can be scarce, and soils may have additional unusual chemistries (e.g. particularly acidic pH). Special soil communities are more strongly water-limited than others; therefore, they may be especially responsive to changes in available precipitation. On the other hand, because plants on special soils already have adaptations for stress tolerance, they may be particularly well-suited to withstand climatic changes.

In this study, we ask: what are the potential responses to climate change of endemic plant species when soil factors appear to limit their current distribution? We focus on the Wellington Mint-bush (Prostanthera galbraithiae), a vulnerable species, as a model species. The species is endemic to the Gippsland region of Victoria, restricted to sandy podzol soils typically low in macronutrients (especially N, P and K) and subject to long periods of soil moisture stress. To address the role of non-spatial factors, we will compare the plasticity to water and temperature stress of the endemic Mint-bush to that of two more widespread species (Prostanthera lasianthos, P. rotundifolia) to test the hypothesis that soil specialists are already well-adapted to environmental stress and they may be particularly well-adapted to withstand climatic changes.

JM4 SeedsQuantifying the wind dispersal capacity of seeds at mountain summits

The dispersal of plants and animals is of fundamental importance as it underlies landscape-scale ecological processes such as species invasion, immigration and meta-community

dynamics. Dispersal is particularly critical if plants are to keep pace with climate change, migrating into new locations within the climate niche envelope. This is particularly true in mountain ecosystems where upslope migration will be crucial for cold-adapted species to maintain their advantage over warm-adapted species.

Understanding the aerial movement of seed, however, has proven difficult to measure and I am not aware of community-wide quantification of seed dispersal in alpine areas (although models of seed dispersal have been developed by Morgan & Venn). We will use a quantitative approach to measuring the aerial movement of seed in field situations, using a newly developed seed trap design, to assess the capacity of wind-dispersed seeds for long-distance migration. Using a series of alpine peaks distributed across the Victorian Alps where long-term observations of vegetation change are being conducted, we will quantify the composition of the seed rain and contrast it to local community assemblages. Quantifying dispersal remains a critical part of determining the contribution of these processes to shaping patterns of biodiversity at a landscape-scale. Determining rates of propagule supply to different parts of the landscape will provide guidance on which areas might respond to climate warming by natural regeneration processes, and which (poorly dispersed) species could be priorities for climate mitigation strategies.

The student will work closely with DECRA fellow Dr Susanna Venn (Australian National University)

JM5 rain shelterGrassland litter decomposition across climate gradients

In south-eastern Australia, fire and grazing regimes have long been recognised as influential drivers of species diversity in native grasslands. Over time, in the absence of such disturbances, senescent Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra) tussocks create a thatch of dead leaves over the soil surface. This layer of leaf litter decomposes very slowly in temperate climates, shading out inter-tussock species, smothering seedlings and contributing to the decline of plant diversity. As such, a common assumption is that native grasslands require frequent disturbance to remove accumulated biomass in order to optimise species diversity. However, not all grasslands accumulate litter. In sub-tropical and semi-arid ecosystems, low biomass accumulation might reflect high decomposition rates. Here, litter is unlikely to smother intertussock species, as is the case in temperate climates. Different climates may influence the rate of decomposition and accumulated biomass within tussock grasslands and hence, the disturbance requirements of grasslands to maintain species diversity. However, this contention remains untested.

To quantify how litter decomposition varies across native grasslands, and how this may be related to litter type (C4 vs C3 grasses, native perennials vs exotic annuals), climate and rates of photodegradation, we will conduct a litter decomposition experiment in the field across northern, central and southern Victoria using litterbags. The effect of UV radiation on decomposition rates will be investigated using structures to manipulate UV radiation (see Brandt et al. (2010) Ecosystems 13, 765-781). The field experiment will be complemented with a glasshouse experiment to test germination success of grassland species according to high or low biomass accumulation. A range of species typical of grasslands (e.g. daisies, lilies) will be sown under grass litter (at depths that correspond to field observations) to determine whether litter suppresses germination. This is a critical experiment as it has been assumed that litter smothers herbaceous germination, but quantitative data are lacking.

The student will have the opportunity to work with a range of grassland managers (e.g. Trust for Nature, Brimbank City Council, Parks Victoria) and scientists.

Exotic grasses as drivers of species decline in threatened native grasslands

Weedy grasses pose a significant threat to the diversity of native temperate grasslands. This is particularly true in the Victorian Volcanic Plains where soils are fertile and rainfall is moderate. Although we know weedy grasses can outcompete native species at local scales if appropriate disturbance regimes are not maintained (e.g. frequent burning), we do not know at what point weedy grasses will cause a significant, and often irreversible decline in native grassland diversity at larger spatial scales. It seems intuitive that there would be a negative relationship between the cover of weedy grasses and the number of native species (as weed cover goes up, native species diversity goes down). However, the strength and shape of this relationship remains unclear. This applied project aims to provide grassland managers with clear and unambiguous recommendations that will enable the identification of problem areas that can be treated prior to the deleterious effects of weed invasion.

This study will utilise a series of sites across the VVP to assess the broad scale effects of a high threat perennial weedy grass, Phalaris aquatica, on temperate native grasslands.

In particular, this study aims to: i) establish what the relationship between Phalaris cover and native species diversity looks like (i.e. is it linear or non-linear); ii) establish whether an impact threshold is evident (i.e. is there a point at which Phalaris cover leads to dramatic declines in native species diversity?) And, iii) identify whether species losses were associated with particular life forms or whether impacts were across many life forms.

The student will work in collaboration with ecologists at the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research (the Victorian Government Dept. of Environment, Land, Water and Planning biodiversity research base).

Molecular ecology & evolution - Nick Murphy

Research in the Murphy lab focuses on understanding species distributions.  Why species are found where they are found and how they respond to change

MurphyPotential projects:

  • Is there a relationship between dispersal traits and population genetics of aquatic invertebrates?
  • Population genetics of adult and larvae to examine the relationship between dispersal and establishment of aquatic inverts.
  • Thermal limits and population structure of alpine aquatic inverts
  • Speciation in desert springs.
  • The impact of land use on the distribution and/or population connectivity of terrestrial or aquatic invertebrates.
  • Advancing aquatic biomonitoring (MDFRC)

For further information contact:
Dr Nick Murphy.

Reproductive ecology & physiology - Kylie Robert

Insect & Plant Interactions - Martin Steinbauer

In the Insect-Plant Interactions lab

  • We study how, when & why adult insect herbivores of native species choose host plants
  • We seek to explain adult choices in terms of: adult mating behaviour and/or consequences for offspring
  • We conduct: field studies, glasshouse/lab bioassays and chemical/physical analyses of plants to answer our questions
  • YOU can discuss with me an insect-plant interaction that interests you and tell me what question you want to answer

Defined projects:

1. Host specificity of Glycaspis species (Hemiptera: Psylloidea) for mallee eucalypts

2. Causes and consequences of male wing pattern polyphenism in Ochrogaster lunifer (Lepidoptera: Notodontidae)

3. Effects of Misophrice species (Coleoptera: Curculioniodae) on growth, senescence and architecture of She-oak branchlets

4. Hypersensitive responses of rainforest plants to galling cecid flies (jointly with Drs Peter Green & Denise Fernando)

5. Physical properties of She-oak branchlets and the propagation of substrate-borne vibrational signals of psyllids (jointly with Dr Richard Peters)

6. Suppression of Light brown apple moth in vineyards by endemic natural enemies (joint project with Tahbilk Winery)

For further information contact:
A/Prof Martin Steinbauer.

Sleep Ecophysiology - John Lesku

Sleep physiology in birds - available August 2016

Birds and mammals have two basic types of sleep, called rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM sleep.  In mammals, brain temperature is lower during non-REM sleep and increases to wake-like levels in REM sleep. Whether this relationship applies also to birds is unclear.  Using pigeons and/or chickens, the successful Honours candidate will determine the relationship between brain temperature and brain state in birds.

More generally, Honours projects are offered within the following areas in the Sleep Ecophysiology Group:

  • Function of sleep
  • Ecology and evolution of sleep
  • Trade-offs between sleep and vigilance
  • Co-evolution of sleep and brain function
  • Local aspects of sleep homeostasis
  • Changes in sleep across development
  • Recording sleep in the wild

For further information please contact: Dr John Lesku (j.lesku@latrobe.edu.au)

Environmental and Geosciences - John Webb

Hydrogeology and hydrogeochemistry

Modelling spring output from a limestone range in western Iran

In central western Iran there is a major limestone spring, Ravensaar (~10,000 ML/yr), which is the source of a substantial river that supplies irrigation water to a large area. The spring issues from the base of the southern end of a mountain range composed largely of limestone, and is probably recharged by rainfall and snowfall on the mountains, which flows down sinkholes directly into cave systems that feed the spring. Therefore the rainfall ratio (percentage of rainfall that becomes recharge) may be much higher than would be expected in the semiarid climate of the area. The aim of the project is to use the spring flow and chemistry to determine the rainfall ratio and catchment area for the spring, to determine if the limestone range is capturing more rainfall as groundwater than would be the case for aquifers with granular rather than karstic porosity. There is data available on spring flow and composition, as well as rainfall in the area. The project will be cosupervised by Mohamed Ghorbani of Payme Noor University, Sanandaj.

Comparison of Ethiopian, Dead Sea and Australian salt

In Ethiopia, all their salt comes from inland salt lakes that are fed by hot springs; in the Dead Sea, the salt comes from evaporation of a water body with a relatively unusual composition; in Australia, our salt comes from evaporation of seawater or inland lakes that are fed, directly or indirectly, by rainwater. Ethiopian salt is less ‘salty’ than Australian salt, and this project will investigate why. Samples of Ethiopian, Dead Sea and Australian salt will be analysed for their mineralogy and chemistry, and any differences will be related to differences between the water they precipitate from (using the Hardie-Eugster model).

Salinisation of Mosquito Creek, western Victoria

Mosquito Creek runs south of Edenhope in the Wimmera region of western Victoria, into Bears Lagoon, which is a RAMSAR-listed site for protection of migratory birds. There are problems of waterlogging and salinisation along the creek, and there is concern that the lagoon will be adversely affected. Primary Industries Research Bendigo is installing a series of 4 nested piezometers in a transect across the site, along with a gauging station on the creek to record EC and flow. The project will use the monitoring data, together with water chemistry and hydrogeology from these and other bores in the area, to develop a hydrogeological model to explain the waterlogging and salinisation, and assess the most appropriate management options. The project will be supported by Department of Primary Industries and Wimmera Catchment Management Authority.

Treatment of Acid Drainage from mines

At many mines the waste rock is stored in large piles called dumps. The rock in the dumps often contains sulphide minerals, that oxidise and release acidity and metals into the local environment; this can be a major pollution problem at the mine site, and a liability to the Australian environment and economy. These projects involve different approaches to minimising or treating the acid drainage.

Treatment using secondary minerals

Precipitation of secondary minerals from acid drainage can remove acidity. To investigate this, Farah Ali, a PhD student in the department, has been using leaching columns containing simple minerals to investigate the impact of adding a salt solution and/or mushroom compost. The low pH and iron- and sulphate-rich column effluent is monitored after every irrigation of the columns, to determine any progressive changes.

Expected outcomes are:

  • To learn water monitoring techniques and quality assurance and enhance your lab skills (particularly analysis using ICP-OES and Flame Photometry)
  • To determine trends in the data and interpret these based on the chemical data and your knowledge of minerals

The project will be cosupervised by Farah Ali.

Determining the influence of cement in reducing acid mine drainage from waste rock dumps at mines

Michael Sephton, a PhD student in the department, has been investigating the addition of cement grout to waste rock piles to minimise the release of acid drainage, by both coating the waste rock and neutralising the existing acidity. He uses leaching column experiments with crushed pyrite-containing waste rock and tailings, and different types of cement. It is intended to run additional experiments to determine how best to optimise the impact of the cement. The project will involve samples from mines in southern Australia, and will be cosupervised by Michael Sephton.

Treatment of acid drainage using the magnetic sludge process

Wendy Stanford, a PhD student in the department, has been experimenting with a novel neutralisation procedure for acid drainage that produces a magnetic sludge. This sludge is lower volume and easier to handle than the sludge produced by traditional neutralisation procedures, and is also believed to be more chemically stable. This project will test the chemical stability by acid leaching of the sludge to determine how easily the heavy metals in the sludge are released, and will be cosupervised by Wendy Stanford.

Landscape change across Victoria

The White Hills Gravels

The White Hills Gravels are a distinctive unit of coarse gravels composed predominantly of well-rounded clasts of vein quartz, that occur extensively across the northern slopes of the Great Dividing Range in central Victoria. They mark the course of former river valleys, and now lie 100 m or more above the present valleys. Dating in western Victoria indicates that the White Hills Gravels could date to the Late Cretaceous – Early Tertiary.

The project will involve mapping the gravels across central Victoria, using remote sensing (particularly radiometrics and magnetics), with ground truthing in particular areas. The map will then be used to reconstruct the landscape at the time the gravels were deposited, to compare with the present landscape, so any changes can be related to Tertiary tectonism.

The history of the Yarra River

The course of the Yarra River has changed substantially over the last 40 million years. It formerly ran well to the north of its present course. The river valley at this time was partially filled by basalt lava flows around 40 million years ago, burying the river gravels. Remnants of these lavas and the underlying gravels are preserved across northern Melbourne, where they can be mapped using both remote sensing (particularly aeromagnetic images) and outcrops (the gravels have been quarried in some places). This project will involve assembling the available data and checking some outcrops in the field, in order to reconstruct the Yarra valley before it was filled with basalt, including where it most likely flowed into the ocean, and how much it has changed since then.

Agriculture

Relationship between crop productivity and soil properties

At Yaloak in central Victoria a farmer has been experimenting, in conjunction with La Trobe University Agriculture, on the impact of subsoil manuring (adding organic matter deep in the soil profile) on crop productivity. The initial results were very promising, but consistent improvement in crop yield has been difficult to achieve. In particular, variability across the paddock seems to be related to the soil properties (composition, thickness, permeability), which affect the soil water salinity and root penetration. The project will involve using the paddock yield map to target different parts with different productivity, relating this to remote sensing data for the paddock (particularly radiometrics) and then sampling the soil in these areas in detail and analysing it for mineralogy and chemical composition, water content and salinity. The object is to develop methods for predicting the crop yield. The project will be cosupervised by Peter Sale (Animal, Plant and Soil Sciences).

Avian Ecology - Alan Lill

Assoc Prof Alan Lill

Room 469, Building BS2: email A.Lill@latrobe.edu.au

Honours projects available for 2017

Anti-predator vigilance in urban Little Ravens

Understanding the factors and processes that facilitate urban colonization and persistence by native animals is a crucial element in effectively managing the conservation of urban native biodiversity. Surveillance for predators (vigilance) is time-consuming and costly, but it is a vital for many birds. There has been much polarized debate about whether or not the urban environment is relatively predator-free for native bird species that successfully colonize cities. At one extreme it is argued that cities are low-risk, safe refuges from predators in which predator surveillance can be advantageously relaxed; this trend can potentially be enhanced by necessary habituation to a high volume of harmless human traffic. An antithetical view is that because of the high density of humans and their pets (dogs, cats), cities are actually more predator-rich than rural environments. These conflicting perspectives can be teased apart by examining how vigilance and other related anti-predator behaviours vary across urban- rural gradients.

This project will address this question in a successful ‘urban adapter’ species, the native Little Raven, by comparing vigilance and other anti-predator behaviours of free-living individuals in Melbourne and other Victorian cities with that of conspecifics in rural Victoria during the non-breeding season.

References:
Vines, A. and Lill, A. (2015). Boldness and urban dwelling in little ravens. Wildlife Research 42, 590-597.
McCleery, R.A. (2009). Changes in fox squirrel anti-predator behaviors across the urban–rural gradient. Landscape Ecology 24, 483-493.

Factors facilitating urban living in native Wood Ducks

Birds that can adjust to the novel urban environment, while not becoming completely dependent on the resources provided there by humans, are termed ‘urban adapters’. In order to conserve and manage such species in our cities we need to understand the factors that facilitate their colonization of, and persistence in, the urban environment. To some extent the successful colonizers may be “pre-adapted” or inherently suited to the urban environment, but having the phenotypic flexibility to innovatively adjust to city life may also be very important.

The Australian Wood Duck, a sexually dichromatic species that feeds in both fresh water and on land, has colonized cities and towns in eastern and western Australia, but the basis of its ability to thrive in the urban environment has not been well explored. This project will examine the extent to which: (a) the species appears to be “pre-adapted” to the urban environment, (b) its urban life depends on innovative adjustment, and (c) interspecific competition is likely to influence its urban persistence.

References:
Lowry, H. and Lill, A. (2007). Ecological factors facilitating city-dwelling in Red-rumped parrots. Wildlife Research 34, 624-631. [a different species, but demonstrates the approach that can be taken]
Lowry, H., Lill, A. and Wong, B. (2013). Behavioural responses of wildlife to urban environments. Biological Reviews 88, 537-549.