I am offering quite a range of honours projects for 2018. 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 behavioural thermoregulation affect bird responses to potential predators?

Principal Supervisor: Dr Matthew Symonds

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

Associate Supervisor: A/Prof Mike Weston (Deakin University)

Start: February or July 2018



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.

Ryeland, Weston & Symonds (2017) Bill size mediates behavioural thermoregulation in birds. Functional Ecology 31: 885-893.

Weston, McLeod, Blumstein & Guay (2012) A review of flight initiation distances and their application to managing disturbance to Australian birds. Emu 112: 269-286


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)

Start: July 2018.



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.


Van Wilgenburg, Symonds & Elgar (2011) Wvolution of cuticuluar hydrocarbon diversity in ants. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 24: 1188-1198

Project 3

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; Prof Nina Rønsted, Natural History Museum, Copenhagen

Start: February or July 2018



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.


Project 4

Title: The evolution of imperfect mimicry in Australian hoverflies

Principal Supervisor: Dr Matthew Symonds

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

Associate Supervisor: Prof Francis Gilbert, University of Nottingham, UK; Dr Tom Reader, University of Nottingham, UK.

Start: February or July 2018



Hoverflies are insects found across the planet in all continents except Antarctica. Apart from their characteristic hovering flight behaviour, hoverflies are best known for being mimics of (mostly) bees and wasps. However, there is great variability across species in the extent to how accurately individual species mimic their models. This raises many questions about the evolution of mimicry generally. One recent idea is that even very poor mimicry affords some protection from potential predators, consequently, more perfect mimicry may evolve over time. This suggests that more recently evolved species may be worse mimics than older lineages. We will test this idea, using new information from Australian hoverflies (most previous work has focused on European and North American species). We will use a technique for analyzing the strength of mimicry, developed at the University of Nottingham, and relate the data gathered to phylogenetic information. The project will involve desk and museum based work including image analysis.


Taylor, Reader & Gilbert (2016) Why Batesian mimics are inaccurate: evidence from hoverfly colour patterns. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 283: 20161585



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