Group Leaders

Associate Professor Erik Wapstra

Under construction…






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 mehondurasundertook 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.



Post Docs

Ben Halliwell


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!



PhD Students

Tom Botterill-James

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.



Alix Bouffet-Halle

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!



George Cunningham

Project Title: Degrees of change: effects of climate on the evolutionary ecology of phenology and sex determination in a viviparous lizard

I spent his undergraduate and honours years at Monash University where I did a double degree in Arts and Science, majoring in philosophy and george-cunninghambiology. For my honours I, investigated the Lack clutch size in Helobdella papillornata, a leech with a high level of parental care. I then went on to get a Diploma of education at the University of Melbourne and then worked at Melbourne Aquarium for five years, teaching students from pre-school to university about marine life and, occasionally, jumping into the shark tank to swim with the fishes. Following this, I worked as a high school teacher at Kyneton Secondary College, teaching science, humanities, biology, geography and a bit of maths. In 2014, I moved to sunny Tasmania and began his PhD. My PhD focuses on the live-bearing skink Niveoscincus ocellatus, and specifically the evolution of sex ratio response to local climate using data collected on two climatically distinct populations and individual-based evolutionary simulation models.



Peta Hill

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 Univpeta1ersity 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.



Luisa Fitzpatrick

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.



Maravillas Ruiz Miñano

Project title: Causes and Consequences of Hybridization: From behaviour to evolutionmara

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.



Kirke Munch

Project title: Learning from lizards: The causes and consequences of developmental and behavioural plasticity

I am a PhD student within the BEER group working under the supervision of Geoff While kirkeand Daniel Nobel (University of New South Wales). The overall aim of my research is to examine how individual variation in behavioural and cognitive traits influence social organization, using the social Australian lizard, Liopholis whitii. Specifically, I am examining (i) how behavioural traits influence social interactions, (ii) the link between behavioural and cognitive traits, (iii) how mate familiarity influences learning strategies, and (iv) how developmental environment influence cognitive ability.  Prior to my PhD, I did my Honours project in collaboration with Australian Customs and Boarder Protection predicting what behavioural traits contributes to training a successful working dogs.



Tiana Pirtle

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.



Shruti Sengupta

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.



Honours Students

Heather Bryan

Project title: Tasmanian snow skink distributions and persistence under climate change

Heather’s study will use several different approaches to predict Tasmanian snow skink distributions under future climate projections. Species distributions and abundances are expected to be impacted by anthropogenic climate change. Alpine species are especially vulnerable due to reduction of suitable habitat under warming temperatures. Snow skinks are an ideal study group for researching impacts of, and responses to, climate change because some species have restricted alpine distributions and all are dependent on temperature for physiological processes such as growth and reproduction. Specifically, Heather’s project will explore how alternative modelling methods compare, how they may be integrated and which are most valuable for capturing snow skink dynamics under climate change.


Barnaby Freeman

Project title: Insights into the family home: Burrow construction and its consequences in a social lizard

Extended phenotypes are any trait of an individual that extends beyond that individuals physical being. Sounds complicated, but there are many examples of relatively simple extended phenotypes in nature – think about a beavers dam, a wombats burrow or a birds nest. Importantly, these phenotypic extensions can have fundamental impacts on the environment and also influence key evolutionary processes (this is known as niche construction). Importantly, extended phenotypes are often easier to measure and quantify than actual phenotypic traits (especially behaviour) thus they offer us the potential to ask questions about the causes and consequences of such traits. A key ecological component of Egernia lizards is that they rely on deep and complex burrow systems which they construct. These burrows act as extended phenotypes which provide shelter for the Egernia’s family group. Barnaby’s project will examine several aspects of these extended phenotypes in Liopholis whitii. First, he will quantify variation within and between individuals in burrow construction. Second, he will examine the consequences of this for morphological variation associated with burrowing style.



Deirdre Merry

Project title: Unearthing the mechanisms of asynchronous birth

The transition from egg-laying to live birth presents a major shift in life-history strategy that has occurred multiple times independently across a vast array of different organisms. A fundamental question is what are the mechanisms that have allowed this transition ? Egernia provide a particularly intriguing case study for understanding the physiological and molecular control of live birth. Unlike almost all reptiles studied to date, birth in many members of the Egernia group is completed over several days, with females of some species giving birth to one offspring and then retaining the remaining, fully developed, offspring within the reproductive tract for several days (up to 10 days) before completing parturition. Furthermore, females appear to be able to give birth to offspring within the same oviduct separately (with several days separating birth). This suggests considerable fine-scale control over parturition in this species. Despite this, we know absolutely nothing about the physiological, mechanical and molecular mechanisms underpinning this behaviour. Deirdre’s honours project will address this. Her project will combine detailed experimental and molecular approaches to first examine the responsiveness of different parts of the uterine tissue to nonapeptide hormones and second to complement this with data on the expression of a nonapeptide receptor genes in those same regions.