Associate Professor Erik Wapstra
Dr Geoff While
I have had a life-long interest in zoology culminating in a Bachelor of Science degree with first class honours from the University of Tasmania. I then undertook and completed my PhD (2004–2009), which documented the social and mating system of Liopholis whitii and the behaviours associated with sociality (e.g., birthing asynchrony, parental care, multiple mating). Following completion of my PhD, I was employed on an ARC funded project examining the ecological and evolutionary significance of maternal (thermal) effects. During this project I spent time at the University of Oxford, collaborating on a project examining colonisation dynamics in the introduced wall lizard. I moved to Oxford in 2011 to take up a Marie Curie Fellowship in which I explored the roles of sexual selection and hybridization in mediating diversification in the wall lizard. Following this fellowship, I returned to the UTAS to take up a lectureship in evolutionary ecology, during which time I have continued my wall lizard work (now in collaboration with the University of Lund). In January 2015 I was awarded an ARC DECRA fellowship to work on the evolutionary origins of family living.
I have a very broad range of interests within the fields of behavioural and evolutionary ecology, however, the majority of my research fits within the overriding theme of examining the links between ecologically induced short-term phenotypic change (with a particular focus on behaviour), population dynamics, and long-term evolution. To examine questions relating to this research topics, I try and take a novel and integrated approach which involves detailed long term field studies, large scale experimental manipulations, theoretical modelling and broad comparative and meta-analytical approaches. Ultimately this allows me to connect processes occurring across levels of biological organisation (from individuals to populations to species) to address fundamental questions in evolutionary biology. Current research research projects include the evolutionary origins of family living, the ecological and evolutionary consequences of species invasions, responses of organisms to global climate change, and the consequences of genetic exchange between species (e.g., hybridisation). Most importantly, much of this work requires expertise in the dark art of lizard wrangling.
I am a behavioural and evolutionary ecologist with a particular interest in integrating experimental studies and comparative phylogenetic methods to connect a mechanistic understanding of behavioural variation with patterns of variation observed across taxa.
I recently completed my PhD under the supervision of Dr Geoffrey While and Ass/Prof Erik Wapstra in which I focused on developing the above approach. First, I used captive population experiments to understand how feedbacks between environmental characteristics and behaviour mediate selection on social organisation in a family living lizard, Liopholis whitii. Second, I used comparative analyses to investigate how reproductive characteristics have influenced the emergence of social traits across the squamates (lizards, snakes and amphisbaenia).
My research themes demand a multi-disciplinary approach that have led me to gain expertise in a diverse range of skills including experimental design, animal husbandry, behavioural observation, molecular techniques, data handling, statistics and modelling, science communication and education. These experiences have led me enjoy all aspects of research (field, lab and computational) and I am always excited to learn something new!
I was born in South Africa, and grew up on the beautiful west coast of Scotland; unsurprisingly this background has given me a love of wild places and wild animals, which led me to start a career in science with a BSc in Zoology at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. My PhD, under the supervision of Professor Tim Clutton-Brock at the University of Cambridge, focused on animal social groups. In particular, I investigated the phenomenon of helper investment in offspring through allonursing (when a non-mother provides milk to the offspring of another female) in the Kalahari meerkat. After completing my PhD I remained in the same department with Dr Rose Thorogood for a postdoc looking at how dietary supplementation influences maternal reproductive strategies in the New Zealand hihi. More recently, I moved to Penn State for a second postdoc with Drs Tracy Langkilde and Michael Sheriff investigating the transgenerational consequences of maternal stress in eastern fence lizards.
My current project, which I am undertaking as part of a Marie Curie fellowship in collaboration with Lund University, UTas, and Simon Fraser University in Canada, will finally combine all my previous research interests: sociality, maternal investment, and physiological stress. Using the Egernia lizard system, I will test how post-natal sociality influences the outcome of maternal stress.
My research interests are deeply rooted in the study of natural populations; chiefly, how individual behaviours scale up to influence group-level dynamics. Originally from the U.S.A.’s east coast, I received my B.A. in Biology from Hood College (2013). Here, I carried out an Honours research project characterizing the fine-scale genetic structure of migratory cownose rays to test for sex-specific natal philopatry. Following a gap year (bouncing between Maryland, Oklahoma, and southeastern Brazil), I moved to Mississippi State University to start my PhD.
Under the supervision of Drs. Mark Welch and Glenn Gerber, I carried out a 3-year field study of the critically endangered iguana, Cyclura nubila caymanensis, on the remote island of Little Cayman. My focus was on unravelling fitness consequences of inbreeding in this small population and relating these to potential active (mate choice) and passive (dispersal) avoidance mechanisms. The result was a highly integrative project, the approaches for which ranged from molecular pedigree reconstruction to drone-assisted radio-tracking.
I recently moved to UTas on an Endeavour Leadership Award to start my first postdoc with Geoff. Enlisting the family-living Liopholis whitii, my project will investigate the unexpected consequences of rapid climate change for social cohesion via effects of warming on extra-pair encounter rates. Data for this study will come from a combination of experimental and natural populations.
Project Title: Sibling cooperation and the evolutionary origins of complex sociality
There is huge diversity in forms of social life across the animal kingdom, ranging from solitary animals that only ever come together to breed, to highly cohesive and complex societies with reproductive division of labour (such as in termite or ant colonies). Understanding how different factors affect transitions between forms of social living is a key and unresolved challenge for evolutionary biologists. The aim of my PhD is to gain insights into the evolutionary transition towards family life, by testing how the dynamics of primitive family living species vary under different environmental conditions. My focus is on two organisms that would not necessarily be the first animals that come to mind when thinking of families, White’s slinks, a social lizard, and Burying Beetles, a parental care providing invertebrate. Both these species live in simple social groups that can be examined both in the wild and in the laboratory to understand how family dynamics and family cohesion respond to changes in different environmental factors. Specifically, I am interested in how resource availability and promiscuity affect sibling and parent-offspring conflicts and the consequences of this for the maintenance or dissolution of family life.
Project Title: Linking sex allocation to social behaviour in Egernia lizards
I came to Tasmania after having completed my Master’s Degree in Evolutionary Ecology at the University of Pierre and Marie Curie (Paris, France). I had previously studied the common adder Vipera berus and the viviparous lizard Zootoca vivipara during internships and decided to go on with reptiles. I am now a PhD student within the BEER group working under the supervision of Geoff While and Erik Wapstra. The overall aim of my research is to improve our understanding on the mechanisms underlying the evolution of social behaviour in family-living lizards of the Egernia group. I will combine molecular approaches with laboratory experiments and field data on the White skink (Liophilis whitii).
Specifically, I will (i) use newly developed genetic markers to identify sex of offspring at birth and test whether these markers cross amplify across Egernia species, (ii) utilise genetic samples already collected as part of the long-term monitoring in field populations to examine links between sex allocation and key components of family dynamics, (iii) and to examine how males and females may mediate the above processes via sex-specific parental effects, and (iv) conduct manipulative laboratory experiments to address the causal links between family life and sex allocation. The development of these sex-specific genetic markers allow us to address a new and large array of questions regarding the influence of sex on offspring dispersal, offspring survival, conspecific competition, mating strategies, promiscuity, birthing asynchrony, habitat heterogeneity, resource availability and… so many other questions waiting to be answered!
Project Title: Disentangling the predictive powers of paternal and maternal telomere effects on offspring life and death.
I am from northern Sweden, growing up enjoying a seasonal temperature variation between negative 30 and 30 degrees Celsius. I moved to southern Sweden in 2012 to begin my biology studies, resulting in a BSc in biology from Linnaeus University (2012-2015) and a MSc in evolutionary biology from the University of Gothenburg (2015-2017). During the latter I met Mats Olsson and did my thesis project in his lab group where I got introduced to an Australian lizard while working on an imported lab population of painted dragons. After my Master’s, and during the search for a PhD, I worked as a high-school music teacher.
I am now a PhD student at UTas and will work on a double system, studying spotted snow skinks in Tasmania and sand lizards in Sweden. I will examine the intricate relationships between life history and telomere dynamics, and I have a particular interest in what determines telomere length at birth.
Project Title: The mechanisms behind evolutionary transistions between genetic- and temperature-depedent sex-determination
I am a PhD student in the BEER group. My supervisors at the University of Tasmania are Associate Professor Erik Wapstra and Dr Chris Burridge. I also have a supervisor at the University of Canberra’s Institute for Applied Ecology, Dr Tariq Ezaz. I came to a PhD via a rather circuitous route, starting with an associate diploma in analytical chemistry in the 1990’s. This lead to numerous roles in various quality control laboratories mainly in the brewing, dairy, ore refining and paper manufacturing industries. Whilst completing my BSc Hons (Zoology) part-time here at the University of Tasmania, I worked part time in CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere division in the genetics laboratory. My honours project examined the genetics of divergent sex determining systems in the live-bearing skink Niveoscincus ocellatus, one of few species in the world to exhibit intraspecific divergence in sex determination. My PhD project investigates this divergence further, and will focus on the genetic mechanisms underpinning evolutionary transitions between genetic sex determination (GSD) and temperature dependent sex determination (TSD). My project will utilise long-established cytological techniques in combination with the latest next generation sequencing to achieve this.
Project Title: Live long and prosper: senescence in a viviparous skink
I completed a BSc Hons (Zoology and Marine Biology) at the University of Western Australia in 2013, after which I spent some time travelling and working as an environmental scientist for a consulting company (RPS Environment). I also worked at the Western Australian Museum from 2011-2015 engaging children and adults in scientific programs. I moved to Tasmania in 2015 to start a PhD project with Erik Wapstra and Geoff While, attracted by the long-term dataset on the model species Niveoscincus ocellatus and the opportunity to engage in field work, experimentation and lab work. My current project examines female allocation decisions in populations of N. ocellatus across altitudinal and climatic gradients. I will also use a long-term dataset to a) assess age-specific reproductive success in this species and explore lifetime reproductive output within and between populations, b) examine telomere length and telomerase activity in N. ocellatus and c) determine whether these characteristics are related to reproductive senescence in the species.
Project title: Unraveling the co-evolutionary dynamics between kin recognition and social complexity
I completed my MSc in Behavioural and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Antwerp (Belgium) in 2017. I have always been especially interested in animal behaviour, which led me to mainly participate in projects on personality related behavioural traits in birds and lizards. While I liked working with birds, I have come to prefer lizards because they cannot fly away.
For my PhD I will investigate the early evolution of social groups with a particular interest in the role of kin recognition. As a model system I will use reproductively bimodal species (females of the same species are either egg-laying or live-bearing depending on the population) such as Saiphos equalis and Lerista bougainvillii in addition to family-living lizards of the Egernia group. Specifically, I will look at the evolution of kin recognition itself, its importance in the early evolution of sociality and how it becomes refined as social systems become increasingly complex. My PhD will be undertaken in collaboration with Martin Whiting (Macquarie University) and Camilla Whittington (University of Sydney).
Project title: Unearthing the mechanisms of asynchronous birth
I am a PhD candidate within the BEER group working under the supervision of Geoff, Erik and Dr Camilla Whittington, from the University of Sydney. I, like many others, started my BSc in Zoology at UTAS with aspirations of becoming a zookeeper. I decided early on, however, that research was more my style and somehow found my way into the world of reptiles. I have always been fascinated by the stranger aspects of reproductive physiology and found an opportunity here to combine this with my growing interest in reptiles (lizards to be more precise)! Specifically, my research focuses on a group of live bearing skinks, Egernia skinks. Interestingly, some members of this group complete the act of birth over several days, giving birth to one offspring while retaining the remaining fully developed offspring within the reproductive tract over an extended period. As these species are litter-bearing, this suggests some form of fine-scale control over both the timing and processes of birth. My honours project used experimental and molecular techniques to examine uterine responsiveness to nonapeptide hormones and evaluate relative expression of a nonapeptide receptor gene in the same regions. My PhD project will continue this line of investigation, looking at the underlying physiological mechanisms of birth and how they have been co-opted by members of the Egernia group to facilitate such fine-scale control of birth. Results from my study will provide insight into not only a unique form of viviparous reproduction, but also the evolution of live-birth itself.
Maravillas Ruiz Miñano
Project title: Causes and Consequences of Hybridization: From behaviour to evolution
I am a PhD student within the BEER group working under the supervision of Tobias Uller
and Geoff While. I am interested in the mechanisms that generate adaptation, in particular how differences in environment influence evolutionary convergence and divergence. During my PhD I will study the processes that drive geographic patterns of introgression in wall lizards, and the consequences this introgression has for the evolution of sexual dimorphism. To this end I will combine field studies, laboratory experiments and genomic analyses across multiple regions of secondary contact.
Project Title: Sex-biased studies of sex bias: re-introducing fathers into sex allocation models
I am a PhD student working under Elissa Cameron and Erik Wapstra. I completed my undergraduate degree in wildlife ecology in the USA and then spent several years working as a field tech on several projects around the world, including Mongolia, Kenya, and Costa Rica. Most of my background work is in behavioural and reproductive ecology of ungulates, namely feral horses.
I moved to Tasmania to study sex allocation in mammals, primarily horses. Sex allocation theory states that a parent can benefit from adjusting their offspring sex ratios according to their investment abilities and the differing fitness returns from sons versus daughters. This has mostly been applied to mothers. I am looking at paternal contributions to offspring sex ratios to yield a more complete picture of sex allocation theory. This involves looking at sperm sex ratios, and long term breeding datasets of both domestic and feral stallions. I am also investigating the role of testosterone in mediating sperm sex ratio skews.
Project title: The Evolutionary Origins of Family Living
I am a PhD student within the BEER group, working under the supervision of Geoff, Erik and Associate Professor Martin Whiting from Macquarie. I completed my undergraduate degree and BSc Hons year at the University of Tasmania looking at how genetic and environmental factors influence developmental stability in the wall lizard.
I am interested broadly in understanding the factors that mediated the early origins and maintenance of social structures. For my PhD I am working on the Egernia group, in particular focusing on the three types of social structures found within the group: solitary species, facultative social species and obligate social species. My focal topic will ask how key social traits, such as maternal aggression, social learning and kin recognition have been refined in social species relative to closely related solitary species.
Project title: Adapt and Evolve: Snow skinks’ shocking response to changing climate
After completing my master’s degree in Zoology from University of Calcutta (India), I worked as research fellow in Wildlife Institute of India and Indian Institute of Science, studying various taxa including Birds, reptiles and amphibians. My primary interest being reptiles, when I got the opportunity to work with Erik and Geoff, I hopped in!
For my PhD I am interested in looking at the physiological adaptation that snow skink (Niveoscincus spp.) invests in to cope with climate change. More specifically I will be looking at the Heat Shock Proteins, the group of molecular chaperones that protect an organism from heat stress. I am also interested in looking at the freeze tolerance mechanism that this group implement to protect themselves in extreme condition.
Project title: How will climate change mediate social stability
Climate change will dramatically alter environmental conditions experienced by natural systems over the coming decades. It is therefore imperative that we understand how these changes will impact evolutionary processes. This is particularly true in the context of social evolution, as environmental stressors can dramatically alter how individuals interact, inducing abrupt transitions between cohesive and dissolute states. Despite this, we know almost nothing about how climate change will mediate fundamental social processes. My project will help address this. I will use a species of family living lizard which exhibits substantial variation in social organisation and stability. Importantly, this family life is underpinned by long-term monogamy. Monogamy favors harmonious family life because it increases relatedness between family members, where as female multiple mating intrafamilial aggression by decreasing relatedness. In ectotherms, levels of polyandry may increase as temperatures rise because extended activity periods promote higher encounter rates between males and females. I will test the how this will influence the stability of family life by examining how temperature influences male-female interactions and levels of multiple mating and the consequences of this for the nature of interactions between all family members .
Project title: Genetic and environmental mediators of manna quality.
Plants provide a variety of resources to the organisms that feed on them. This includes flowers, fruit, leaves, nectar and even bark. Unsurprisingly, there is considerable variation between individuals trees in the quality of these resources. Such variation is often underpinned by genetics, and such genetic variation in plant traits can have substantial and wide reaching effects not only for the foraging organisms themselves but also for community structure and function. Manna, the sugary sap exuded by some Eucalypt trees, is one such resource, providing a valuable resource to a wide range of organisms from insects, to birds, to mammals. In Tasmania, it is provides a crucial resource for one of our endemic species, the forty spotted pardalote, making up to 80% of the food provisioned to offspring. Indeed, the pardalote has special adaptation designed to extract manna from the stems of white gum trees. Previous research has shown that there is substantial variation between individual trees in the composition of manna and that pardalotes have a preference for manna with a high concentration of ‘good’ sugars. Despite this, we do not yet know what mediates the Manna quality. For my honours, I will utilise a sophisticated breeding design that mixes white gums from multiple provenances planted across a range of environmental conditions (wet and dry sites) to unpick the relative role of genes and the environment in mediating manna quality. I will then compare this to variation in manna quality across the forty spotted pardalotes range . This information has the potential to provide crucial information that may be useful in the ongoing management of this endangered bird.