Student opportunities with Australian Wildlife Conservancy

8 09 2010

A colleague of mine, Dr. Matt Hayward of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), asked me to circulate some Honours, MSc and PhD student project opportunities. I thought this would be best done by publishing the call as a blog post.

The AWC is a non-government, non-profit organisation dedicated to the conservation of Australia’s wildlife and their habitats. AWC’s south-east region has a team of 7 ecologists who work closely with the land managers to carry out AWC’s Conservation and Science Program. The Science Program includes strategic research designed to help us manage threatened species more effectively. Several of these research projects are suitable for Honours, Masters or PhD projects.

This prospectus provides an outline of the student projects that are currently on offer in the south-east region. The majority of the projects are based on one sanctuary, although some aspects of the research may be done on other AWC sanctuaries and/or government conservation areas.

AWC will partially support these projects with equipment, staff time and expertise, and accommodation. In some cases, AWC may also provide some vehicle use and office facilities onsite at The Scotia Field Research Centre. We anticipate these projects will be collaborative efforts with input from students, academics and AWC staff, with appropriate acknowledgement for all involved. These projects are offered on a first in, first approved basis and have been offered to multiple universities.

More details on the sanctuaries and AWC are available here. If you are keen do one of these projects, please contact Matt Hayward and we will then formulate a research proposal and research agreement. Eight project descriptions follow.

Project 1: Conservation ecology of numbats at Scotia and Yookamurra Sanctuaries

The key question AWC needs to solve is how many numbats our sanctuaries are supporting. Distance sampling has been trialled with limited success due to the low detectability and resultant low precision of the estimates. Estimates derived from non-overlapping female home ranges may be an alternative way of deriving a population estimate. Consequently, estimates of home range size of adult females at Scotia (in particular) are needed. Forty collars are available for use on numbats in Stage I; these will operate for 3 months on 10 individuals for one year. An additional 17 collars will be fitted to numbats in Stage II to monitor their survival during the initial stages of a translocation. Numerous additional components to this project are available including:

  • Home range and activity patterns of adult female numbats. Studies on numbat home range size have been conducted in Western Australia’s Dryandra Forest by Tony Friend and his team from DEC WA. These Western Australian estimates may differ from those of Scotia’s numbats given the impact that climate-driven resource availability is likely to have on home range use.
  • Resource availability, habitat use and preferences of radio-collared female numbats at Scotia. Resource availability is likely to differ between habitats at Scotia. Habitat/resource use will be determined via telemetry, and resource availability will be measured using standard termite density estimates and quadrants to measure the abundance of refuge sites (hollow logs/burrows). Compare hollow log density at Scotia with other sites and with other Mallee areas to show the decline in coarse woody debris and ground based hollows. Using techniques created for estimating hollow density in forest trees, determine the density of hollow logs.
  • Population density estimation using transects and distance sampling techniques 1 at Scotia and Yookamurra, for comparison to estimates generated from the radio-tracking studies.
  • Estimating carrying capacity of numbats. The population density of numbats is likely to be tied to food (termite) availability. Relating food availability to numbat population density may be a way of estimating the carrying capacity of sites.
  • Survival of reintroduced and founder populations of numbats.

Project 2: Spatial interactions between cats and foxes at Scotia Sanctuary

The removal of foxes in Western Australian forests may have led to mesopredator release of cats, and thus an increase in predation pressure on a suite of native fauna. This process may explain the current decline of the woylie. This and other research suggests that large carnivores might be useful in reducing the impact of smaller predators. A critical element of this is that intraguild predation by the dominant predator limits the population density of the smaller or whether the smaller mesopredator simply alters its spatial behaviour to avoid the apex predator.

In this study, we aim to determine spatial behaviour and mortality rates of radio collared cats when freed from persecution by dominant mesopredators – the red fox. We aim to monitor both species for 2-3 months and then eradicate foxes and monitor the response of collared individuals of both species (obviously, the expectation is that foxes will have a rapid turnover). Key components of this research will be:

  • Activity patterns of cats for 3 months before and after 3 months fox control is initiated.
  • Movement patterns of cats for 3 months before and after 3 months fox control is initiated.
  • Macro- and microhabitat preferences of cats before and after fox control.
  • Diet of cats before and after fox control.
  • Home range of foxes during fox control compared to an unbaited site in Danggali Conservation Park, South Australia.
  • Habitat use and preferences of foxes in semi-arid Australia.
  • Activity patterns of foxes.
  • Diet and prey preferences of foxes in an area of fox control and a control site (Danggali).

Project 3: Deriving population density estimates for foxes

Accurate, robust, repeatable and reliable population estimates are fundamental to effective wildlife management. It is impossible to monitor management activities if your monitoring methods are no good. The existing method of monitoring foxes involves deriving an index based on footprints in sand or along tracks; however, this is more an index of activity rather than abundance. Work in Western Australia suggests that the actual density of foxes is largely unrelated to such indices. More robust techniques are desperately required.

Lions and hyenas are censused in Africa using call playback. Foxes do respond to auditory attractants and so similar methods might be feasible for them. Consequently, we would like to use similar techniques to see if a population density estimate can be derived for foxes at Scotia.

The key components of this research will be to monitor the response of radio-collared foxes of both sexes to auditory stimuli (rabbit squeals, vixen breeding call, etc) to derive a detection function to use to estimate population density.

This project could be expanded to include a genetic mark-recapture study using faeces and/or photo captures.

Project 4: Carcass breakdown with and without introduced predators

The extinction of the larger marsupial carnivores and the persecution of dingoes has likely altered the rate of carcass decomposition in Australia and the way carcasses breakdown. Nuria Selva’s work in Europe suggests there is a succession of scavengers that utilise carcasses. This succession must be different at sites where introduced predators have been eradicated and where native species have been reintroduced.

We plan to place harvested goat carcasses in the field to monitor their decomposition at sites with and without introduced predators and native fauna. The carcasses will be weighed a frequent intervals to determine the rate of carcass breakdown. Camera traps will be used to monitor the larger scavengers, while targeted sampling of invertebrates will monitor their succession as the carcass is broken down. Numerous additional components to this project are available including:

  • Describe the breakdown of carcasses at Scotia: (a) What species initiate entry into the carcass and how does that affect breakdown; (b) What parts of the carcass are first to be eaten.
  • Describe the scavenging community of mammals, birds, reptiles and invertebrates at sites with and without introduced predators.
  • What factors affect carcass utilisation at Scotia.

Project 5: Reintroduction ecology of bush stone-curlew

The bush stone-curlew is a ground-dwelling bird that has declined throughout much of southern Australia. Twenty captive-bred bush stone-curlews will be reintroduced to Scotia in two groups – the first in Stage 2 (4000 ha feral-free) and the second in Stage 4 (an unbounded area where pest animal control is occurring). The animals will be held in soft release pens for three months on site, before being released. Thereafter, they will be monitored by radio transmitters for a year to determine their survival and site fidelity. Consequently, key aspects of this project could involve:

  • Ecological niche modelling (Maxent) of the original distribution of bush stone-curlew.
  • A review of bush stone-curlew reintroductions – there have been several bush stone-curlew reintroductions throughout NSW and northern Victoria (Albury-Wodonga and Moulamein). Cath Price may be worth involving to assist in this review and as a co-supervisor of this project.
  • Captive behaviour of bush stone-curlews.
  • Home range establishment and movements of bush stone-curlews at sites with and without introduced predators.
  • Habitat use of bush stone-curlews at sites with and without introduced predators.
  • Diet of bush stone-curlews at sites with and without introduced predators.
  • Survival of bush stone-curlews at sites with and without introduced predators.
  • Breeding success of bush stone-curlews at sites with and without introduced predators – this could incorporate the use of camera traps at nest sites to monitor fledging and the presence of potential nest predators. This could also incorporate an experimental aspect of monitoring the detectability of curlew nests by potential predators using clay eggs.

Project 6: Diet of barn owls at Dakalanta Sanctuary

AWC’s ecology team collected approximately 300 barn owl pellets from their most recent field trip to Dakalanta. We will also collect all pellets deposited at the roost between July 2010 and March 2011 for analysis of modern diet. Pellet contents will be identified based on hair, bone and exoskeleton within them leading to an interpretation of historic and recent diet of barn owls at Dakalanta.

Project 7: Predatory behavioural ecology of dingoes, red foxes and feral cats at Kalamurina Sanctuary

Dingoes, red foxes and feral cats are sympatric at Kalamurina. This study aims to investigate the interactions between the placental predators on Kalamurina. Specifically, it aims to measure dietary overlap and prey preferences to ascertain whether they are competing for the same prey resources or whether they have partitioned the prey according to morphological characteristics that drive the evolution of preferential predation.

This study will use scat analysis to determine the diet of Kalamurina’s larger predators. Scat analysis is a common way of determining the diet of predators by identifying the hairs of prey species within the scat. Scats for all three predators have been collected at Kalamurina since 2009. The results of these analyses will be combined with relative prey availability data derived from annual pitfall trapping at Kalamurina to derive prey preferences using Jacobs’ index as has occurred with large predators elsewhere. Combining this lab work with a detailed literature review along the lines of that conducted for African lions, might provide comparison of red fox and cat prey preferences where they are native and where they are exotic. Ultimately, this kind of information can be used to predict carrying capacity and diet of dingoes, cats and foxes.

Project 8: Crest-tailed mulgara diet at Kalamurina Sanctuary

Mulgaras are widely distributed throughout Kalamurina. AWC currently uses their characteristic scats at the entrances to their burrows to monitor mulgara presence and distribution. By June 2009, we had collected 79 mulgara scats and this is continuing. We also record the number of invertebrates (to Order), reptiles and small mammals captured in pitfall traps, so prey preferences will be derived using the same methods as described for the placental predators at Kalamurina.


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