I am offering quite a range of honours projects for 2019. Alternatively, I’m always open to you proposing an idea for a project if it’s evolutionary ecology-related. Contact me if you would like to know more/join the group.

 

Project 1

Title:Does resting with the bill tucked into plumage reduce vigilance in birds?

Principal Supervisor: Dr Matthew Symonds

Contact details: matthew.symonds@deakin.edu.au, Tel: 9251 7437

Associate Supervisor: Dr Mike Weston, Deakin University

Contact details: mike.weston@deakin.edu.au

Start:February or July 2019

Description:In order to keep warm on cold days, many bird species resort to a bill-tucking behaviour called back rest, where they place their heads back and tuck the bill under the plumage. Many species of waterfowl and shorebirds, in particular use this behaviour. The advantages of this behaviour in terms of keeping warm are obvious, but we do not know whether the behaviour imposes a cost in terms of reducing vigilance to approaching threats. We will examine this by comparing FIDs (Flight Initiation Distances – the distance at which a bird reacts to an approaching human observer by escaping) – across different species of shorebird and waterfowl for individuals in back rest compared to other postures. The project will involve considerable, somewhat strenuous, fieldwork around Melbourne (students must have their own car), in a range of challenging environmental conditions.

 

Project 2

Title:The evolution of recognition cues in bull ants

Principal Supervisor: Dr Matthew Symonds

Contact details: matthew.symonds@deakin.edu.au, Tel: 9251 7437

Associate Supervisors: Dr Damien Callahan (Deakin), Prof Chris Austin (Deakin), Dr Ajay Narendra (Macquarie University)

Contact details: chris.austin@deakin.edu.au,damien.callahan@deakin.edu.au,ajay.narendra@mq.edu.au

Start:February or July 2019 (July preferred).

 

Description:

Bull ants (genus Myrmecia) are fearsomely large ants found throughout the Australian bush, and are the occasional terrorizers of unsuspecting campers. Like many ants, they use cuticular hydrocarbons (CHCs), waxy chemicals found in their exoskeleton, as means of recognizing nestmates: they ‘taste’ other ants they encounter with their antennae, recognizing the distinct blend of their own nestmates. When non-nestmates, with a different ‘taste’, are detected it usually causes an aggressive response. Different species typically have different CHC profiles, but the way in which this diversity has evolved and the ecological processes that drive this evolution are poorly understood, particularly at the species level. This project will chemically analyse CHC profiles across a number of closely-related bull ant species including from theMyrmecia pilosulaspecies complex, whose taxonomy is currently under revision, and relate chemical differences to the species phylogeny (evolutionary tree), to test proposed theories about the evolution of these important recognition cues and the value of CHC profiles as taxonomic tools. The project may involve some field and laboratory work, and a certain amount of bravery.

 

 

Project 3

Title:Allen’s rule in dinosaurs: did climate change drive changes in dinosaur body shape?

Principal Supervisor: Dr Matthew Symonds

Contact details: matthew.symonds@deakin.edu.au, Tel: 9251 7437

Associate Supervisors: Prof Guang Shi

Contact details: guang.shi@deakin.edu.au

Start:February or July 2019

 

Dinosaurs exhibited an enormous range of body size and shapes during their 170 million year span of existence on Earth. Variation in body size and shape in modern warm-blooded vertebrates is often explained by ‘ecogeographical rules’ which relate this variation to local climate. Allen’s rule states that animals living in colder climates should have shorter appendages (limbs, tails etc.) in order to minimize their body surface area and hence reduce body heat loss. Conversely, as climates get hotter, there may be selection for animals with longer limbs and tails. This project will examine whether variation in dinosaur body shape, over both time and space, is predicted by Allen’s rule. It will use established data sets on dinosaur morphology, palaeoclimatic data and evolutionary trees to analyse whether dinosaurs that lived in hotter climates show relatively longer limbs and tails. There may also be the opportunity to collect new data from museum specimens of Australian dinosaurs to examine this pattern within our own dinosaur fauna.

 

Project 4

Title:Condition dependence of female attractiveness in moths

Principal Supervisor: Dr Matthew Symonds

Contact details: matthew.symonds@deakin.edu.au, Tel: 9251 7437

Associate Supervisors: Dr Kathryn McNamara (University of Western Australia)

Contact details: kathryn.mcnamara@uwa.edu.au

Start:February or July 2019

 

Moths are well-known for having a mating system where females produce a tiny amount of pheromone which can attract males over long distances. Because the amounts of pheromone produced are so small, it is typically assumed that there is no cost to females of such signaling. If that is so, females body condition should play little role in determining how attractive they are to males. However, there is increasing evidence that the costs of pheromone production are not, in fact, small. This project will examine this issue by manipulating the body condition of female moths and examining how this affects their attractiveness to males. The project will involve insect culturing and laboratory behavioural assays.

 

Project 5

Title:Do species have a sell-by date? Evolutionary age and Australian bird distributions

Principal Supervisor: Dr Matthew Symonds

Contact details: matthew.symonds@deakin.edu.au, Tel: 9251 7437

Start:February or July 2019

 

Description:

Studies have shown that evolutionarily old groups of animals contain higher proportions of threatened species. These findings suggest that as species ‘age’ then their geographic distribution becomes more ‘patchy’ and their local abundance declines (i.e. they become rarer). This project will address whether this is the case using survey and atlas data on the distribution and abundance of endemic Australian bird species, and relating these data to information on the evolutionary history of these species. The project is largely desk-based, and will involve analysis of macroecological and phylogenetic data sets.

 

Project 6

Title: The genomics and evolution of bull ants

Principal Supervisor: Dr Matthew Symonds

Contact details: matthew.symonds@deakin.edu.au, Tel: 9251 7437

Associate Supervisors: Prof Chris Austin (Deakin), Dr Ajay Narendra (Macquarie University), Dr Stella Loke

Contact details: chris.austin@deakin.edu.au, ajay.narendra@mq.edu.au

Start: February or July 2019 (July preferred).

Description:

Bull ants (genus Myrmecia) are large aggressive ants that are as distinctly Australian as better known members of our fauna, like cockatoos and koalas. There are nearly 100 species that make up the distinct bull ant ant lineage that is over 100 million years old and which, as a group, exhibit a number of primitive traits.  Species are placed in a number of species groups and the taxonomy is currently under review. The genetics and evolution of these interesting ants have been little studied and the aim of this project is to use a new approach called genome skimming to develop genomic resource for a number of species from this group so we can test the usefulness of the species groups and better understand their evolution and geographic diversification. The project may involve some field work together with laboratory work to generate genomic data and develop phylogenies (evolutionary trees).

Project 7

Title:Using 3D imaging to better estimate geographic variation in bird bill size.

Principal Supervisor: Dr Matthew Symonds

Contact details: matthew.symonds@deakin.edu.au, Tel: 9251 7437

Associate Supervisor: Dr Gavin Thomas (University of Sheffield)

Start:February or July 2019

Description:In addition to their vital role in foraging, bird bills are important areas of heat loss for birds. As such their size is thought to vary in relation to climate, with birds found in cooler climates having small bills (in order to mitigate heat loss). However, tests of this hypothesis (known as Allen’s rule) are often related to crude measure of bill size, like bill length, which may not accurately reflect the actual surface area of the bill available for heat loss. 3D imaging, as used by the remarkable ‘markmybird’ project (markmybird.org), provides an opportunity to accurately estimate the surface area of the bill across a diverse range of birds with very different bill shapes. In this project, you will analyse these images to estimate whether Allen’s rule holds across a wide range of bird species, potentially indicating that climate is selecting for bill size.

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