I offer quite a range of honours projects for 2016, contact me if you would like to join the group!

 

Project 1

Title: Changes in bird beaks in response to climate change

Principal Supervisor: Dr Matthew Symonds

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

Associate Supervisor: Dr Janet Gardner, Australian National University

Contact details: janet.gardner@anu.edu.au

Start: February or July 2016

 

Description:

This project builds on previous work where we discovered that bird species that live in colder environments tend to have smaller beaks (relative to their body size). They demonstrate a principle known as Allen’s rule, whereby extremities of endotherms are smaller in cold environments in order to reduce heat loss. This finding raises the interesting possibility that as global temperatures have risen over the past century, bird beaks may have increased in size as a result. A recent study by a previous honours student (see reference below) of five Australian parrot species found evidence for just such a pattern in four of the five species, however to more conclusively link the observed increase in beak size over time to climate change comparison with other very different groups of birds is required. This project will investigate this by examining museum specimens of Australian birds collected over this period. The project will be largely museum-based, and will involve some travel to museums across Australia.

Campbell-Tennant, Gardner, Kearney & Symonds (2015) Climate-related spatial and temporal variation in bill morphology over the past century in Australian parrots. Journal of Biogeography 42: 1163-1175.

 

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), Dr Ajay Narendra (Macquarie University)

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

Start: February or July 2016 (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 the Myrmecia pilosula species 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: Evolution of antennal size and structure in moths. A cross-species comparative study

Principal Supervisor: Dr Matthew Symonds

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

Start: February or July 2016

 

Description:

Insects use chemicals as their predominant means of communicating with each other, and of detecting cues in their environment. The majority of the reception of these cues takes place on their antennae. There is a traditionally an assumption that species with large antennae (such as some moths) must require those large antennae in order to have greater sensory acuity or sensitivity, and yet evidence for links between antennal size and sensory capacity is very scarce in the literature. This project will examine the microstructure (using electron microscopy) of a number of species of moths. It will investigate correlations between number of sensory hairs and overall antennal size, as well as trade-offs that may exist between antennae and other structures such as testes, wings and eyes. The work will involve some field work and laboratory analysis.

 

 

Project 4

Title: Using evolutionary trees to predict medicinal utility in Australasian plants

Principal Supervisor: Dr Matthew Symonds

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

Associate Supervisor: Dr Anne Gaskett, University of Auckland; Dr Nina Rønsted, Natural History Museum, Copenhagen

Contact details: a.gaskett@auckland.ac.nz, nronsted@snm.ku.dk

Start: February or July 2016

 

Description:

Plants form the basis of most traditional medicines, and as much as 50% of modern pharmaceuticals can be traced back to natural resources. However, this is likely to be a fraction of the actual number of plants with the potential to be medicinally useful. The potential of understudied species to be medically, or economically, beneficial to humans in future is often cited as a reason to conserve biodiversity, but we need systematic means of identifying these species. With the increasing availability of evolutionary trees, we have the capacity to identifying groups of species where medicinal activity is abundant. This project will use this approach to map known medicinal activity in the native floras of Australia and New Zealand, and i) identify whether certain branches of the evolutionary tree show great preponderance of medicinal activity, ii) whether ecological and environmental factors predict medicinal activity in these plant species. The project is largely desk-based and will involve compilation of a database of traditional use from the ethnopharmacological literature for the Australasian flora, in combination with information on distribution, habitat, local climate and interactions with known herbivores; and construction of evolutionary trees based on published genetic data.

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