Honours Project Opportunities in Molecular Ecology

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Who are we?

Greg Sword, Steve Simpson


  • Keywords: Ecology, Evolution, Behaviour, Phenotypic plasticity, Migration, Locusts

1. Predator-induced defenses in Daphnia

  • Supervisor: Greg Sword

Daphnia. You may know them as water fleas, but did you also know that they are widely used as a model organism for studies in ecology, evolution and environmental sciences? Although water fleas are small and serve as an important food supply for other animals in aquatic ecosystems, they are not defenseless. Daphnia species are well known for their ability to express a range of defensive phenotypic changes in response to the threat of predation. This project will examine predator-induced phenotypic plasticity in morphological, behavioural and life history traits in Australian Daphnia species. It will involve a combination of field and laboratory work to test hypotheses about the effects of the chemical signals (kairomones) emanating from invertebrate and vertebrate predators that can induce defensive phenotypes. Daphnia are easy to work with and can be used to address an essentially endless number of other questions, thus making this an excellent system for innovative Honours research.

2. Phase polyphenism in the Spur-throated locust

  • Supervisors: Greg Sword, Steve Simpson

Swarming locust species are typically defined by the expression of a remarkable form of phenotypic plasticity known as phase polyphenism. Changes in locust population density can mediate phenotypic changes in a variety of traits including behaviour, morphology, physiology and colouration. In particular, changes in behaviour induced by high population densities have been implicated as a central driver of locust swarm formation. The Spur-throated locust (Austracris guttulosa) is one of the three most economically important locust species in Australia. It regularly forms swarms as adults in Queensland and the Northern Territory. However, the expression of phase polyphenism and its relationship to the ecology of the Spur-throated locust are entirely unstudied. This project will be the first to examine the expression of density-dependent phenotypic plasticity in the Spur-throated locust. It will incorporate a number of techniques including behavioural assays, morphometrics and digital image analysis. The study will also provide an important framework for additional studies of the ecology and evolution of locust phase polyphenism.