Here are a range of specific potential honours projects that we currently have available within the BEER group. Most of these projects have close ties to either potential or ongoing PhD projects so please check out what our current students are up to and research themes for more information. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list and if you are interested in alternative topics please contact Erik or Geoff.

Title: Insights into the family home (Egernia)

Project Description: 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. The key aim of this project would be to a) quantify variation within and between individuals in burrow construction and b) examine the consequences of this for variation in social behaviour. This will involve detailed experimental approach in which we track burrow construction across multiple time points and also detailed field work where we can quantify individual burrow characteristics in the wild and relate it to variation in social complexity.

Title: Manna Farming behaviour in Forty-Spotted Pardalotes (Pardalotes)

Project Description: The behaviour of individual animals can have substantial implications for the structure and function of whole communities and ecosystems. A fantastic potential example of this is the Forty-spotted pardalote (Pardalotus quadragintusi), whose foraging behaviour – they “farm” eucalypt sap – provides access to this resource to a wide range of other woodland species. Thus, they may play a fundamental role in structuring the community composition. This project will examine a number of key aspects of this relationship. First, it will quantify manna composition and the extent to which this varies within and between Eucalypt populations. Second, it will use large common garden trials to determine the extent to which variation in manna composition is underpinned by a genetic vs. environmental variation. Third, it will quantify the extent to which variation in manna quality influences pardalote foraging behaviour. This project will involve lots of field work watching birds as well as experience extracting and analysing the nutritional content of the manna. Importantly, the outcomes of this project will have significant implications for the conservation of this unique species by providing crucial information on a key food resource.

Title: Female aggression and the evolution of parental care in reptiles (Egernia)

Project Description: Parental care evolves first and foremost when environmental conditions bring parents and offspring together. If these environmental conditions are stable enough selection can act on parental traits that confer a benefit to offspring, even if those traits do not function in a parental care context initially. In the Egernia maternal aggression should function in this context. Females that are more aggressive should be better able to protect their territories, and the offspring that reside within those territories, than females that are less aggressive. Indeed, females appear to become more aggressive throughout gestation, potentially suggesting that female aggression has been co-opted of function in a parental care context. This honours project will test the role that female aggression plays in parental care. Specifically, it will involve carrying out detailed behavioural assays that will allow us to quantify the extent of variation in female aggression. We will then experimentally test how variation in female aggression influences how susceptible offspring are to aggressive encounters with other adult Egernia. This will provide fundamental insights into the extent to which key adult behaviours can be co-opted to function in a parental care context.

Title: Historical and contemporary phylogeogrpahy of Liopholis whitii in response to the environment (Egernia)

Project Description: A major goal in evolutionary biology is to understand how and why living things diversify. Whilst species-level phylogenies provide an indirect record of past speciation events, studies of more recent divergence events within species can provide important insights into the historical and contemporary processes that may ultimately generate higher levels of taxonomic diversity. The major aim of this project is to understand historical and contemporary distributional shifts of Whites’ skink (Liopholis whitii) in response to environmental conditions. This will involve lots of fun field work, acquiring genetic samples of individuals from populations across the current Tasmanian distribution range as well as several points on the mainland. It will also involve time spent in the molecular laboratory, sequencing these samples for a number of molecular markers (both nuclear and mitochondrial). Combined this will allow us to understand how closely linked populations are to one another and begin to explore the factors that might have driven population divergence.

Title: Cognition, information transfer and social complexity in Egernia (Egernia)

Project Description: You only have to look at recent political events to realise that individuals vary significantly in their cognitive ability. The same can be said for all animals. Indeed, while our understanding of cognition used to be restricted to a small number of higher order vertebrates in the lab recent research has started to move away from these model systems. This has allowed us to take cognition research back into the wild and begin to ask sophisticated questions regarding the ecological and evolutionary consequences of variation in cognitive ability. One of the key traits which has always been linked to cognition is sociality. In this project, you would use the Egernia system as a model system to examine links between individual variation in cognitive ability and social organisation. This could either involve asking questions about how the early social environment mediates the development of cognitive ability or alternatively it could involve asking questions about the consequences of individual variation in cognition for variation in social strategies (pair bond length, parental care, male and female mating behaviour). This would involve substantial laboratory, experimental and field work.