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 topic, I try and take novel and integrated approaches which involve 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 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.
“Some of the most informative new observation on vertebrate sex and sex chromosomes have come from animals that are far from being models” Jennifer A. Marshall Graves, 2008.
I’m a French evolutionary biologist interested in the evolution of sex determination and sex chromosomes. I have a strong interest in species/taxa exhibiting out of the ordinary sex determining systems and/or unusual rates of changes in their sex determining mechanisms.
Over the last few years, my work has focused on the study of the causes and consequences of the evolution of the weird sex determination system of the African pygmy mouse Mus minutoides (U. of Montpellier, FR). I’ve also done some theoretical work to shed light on the forces involved in sex chromosome turnover, and especially the high turnover rates observed in taxa like Ranidae frogs (U. of Lausanne, CH).
My work at UTAS (in collaboration with Chris Burridge, Erik Wapstra, Tariq Ezaz from U. of Canberra, and Oleg Simakov from U. of Vienna, AUT) will focus on the evolutionary genomics of sex chromosomes in the spotted snow skink Carinascincus ocellatus, which has a mixed sex determination system (sex chromosomes + temperature override) and exhibits between-population variation in sex determination.
Project Title: Forty spotted pardalote and white gum: joining the spots to save an Australian endangered bird species
I completed a Bachelor of Science at UTAS majoring in Plant Science & Zoology (2018). From here I completed my Honours looking at the hydraulic properties of Endohydric Mosses in Tasmania (2019). Although I knew I would make my way back to UTAS for a PhD at some stage (Dr Bok has a particularly nice ring to it), an opportunity came knocking sooner than expected from Julianne O’Reilly-Wapstra, Geoff While & Peter Harrison. This project presented an excellent opportunity to develop essential skills for a field ecologist role (dream job) and utilise my knowledge in both plant science and zoology. My project will investigate what drives variation, availability and quality of food for the forty-spotted pardalote (Pardalotus quadragintus). The forty-spotted pardalote relies on manna, a sugary exudate produced by white gum (Eucalyptus viminalis), and actively stimulates manna production through its mining behaviours. I will investigate the relationship between the forty-spotted pardalote and E. viminalis and its effects on other species and communities more broadly. The outcomes of this research will provide vital information on the ecological and evolutionary relationships between the forty-spotted pardalote and E. viminalis and directly inform conservation strategies to aid its survival and associated communities under changing environmental conditions.
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: 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: Divergence and dispersal in a social reptile: phylogeography of the White’s skink Liopholis whitii
Species rarely show even patterns of dispersal and distribution across their range. Instead, their distribution is often structured in some way. Identifying such structure is the crucial first step towards identifying the current and historical processes that are responsible for broad scale patterns of diversification. Wills honours project aims to establish the fine scale phylogenetic structure of the Whites skink (Liopholis whitii) and identify the processes responsible for this structure. To achieve this, Will will first collect samples from lizards across Tasmania to establish the structure of Tasmanian populations of Whites skink. He will then include samples from lizards across Victoria to test whether the phylogenetic structure of populations within Tasmania may be linked to the initial movement of species across the Bassian plain. Will then aims to combine this data with data collected on a range of other lizard species within Tasmania to test for broader congruence in the phylogenetic structure across reptile species. This will provide Will with the opportunity to utilise recently developed statistical techniques to test for the role that species taxonomy, ecology and life history plays in mediating any congruence in phylogenetic structure across regions.