Honours Projects: Animal Ecology & Evolution

Academics in Animal Ecology & Evolution

Professor Russell Bonduriansky

Scientia Professor Robert Brooks

Professor Gerry Cassis

A/Professor Michael Kasumovic

Professor Shinichi Nakagawa

Dr Terrance Ord

Professor Tracey Rogers 

Dr Lisa Schwanz

Below are the current projects on offer in Animal Ecology & Evolution. Supervisors don't always advertise specific projects, but will happily discuss options with prospective students. If there is a research area or supervisor you might like to pursue, email the relevant academics and ask! They love to talk science.

Honours Projects


 Project title: Evolution of male genitalia in the Plant Bug family Miridae (Insects: Hemiptera)

Supervisors: Professor Gerry Cassis, cosupervisor TBD

Synopsis: The Miridae is one of the most diverse families of insects, with over 12000 described species. The male genitalia are greatly exaggerated, representing some of the most bizarre structures in the Animal Kingdom. These structures are not only highly diverse they are. also central to the classification of the family. Although the morphology of the male genitalia have been extensively documented, how they have evolved is a matter of great conjecture. In this project the student will analyse the evolution of male genitalia, using molecular methods and observation of fine structures using micro-CT imaging. This will likely result in a new classification of the family, determination of character state transformations, and if character convergence occurs across mirid subfamilies. The combination of molecular and CT methods will likely result in a high impact publication.

Aims:

  • Documentation and determination of male genitalic homologies in the Miridae;
  • Imaging and analysis of fine details of male genitalia using scanning and CT microscopy
  • Phylogenetic analysis of exemplar taxa of the Miridae and optimisation of male genitalic characters
  • Phylogenetic analyses using modern molecular methods.

Benefits to student: (1) training in insect systematics and evolution; (2) training in molecular and micro-CT methods; (3) participation in a team-based research lab at UNSW; (4) likely publication in high impact journal; (5) experience in research active laboratory and exposure to international collaborators.


Project title: Diet, stress, and the elusive fountain of youth

Supervisor: Prof. Russell Bonduriansky

Synopsis: It’s been known for nearly a century that eating less (and, in particular, cutting back on protein) prolongs life in organisms ranging from insects to mammals. However, it’s not clear whether this famous life-extending effect of dietary restriction can work under the stressful conditions experienced by animals in the wild. Dietary protein is important for such functions as wound-healing, immunity and thermoregulation—functions that are vital for animals in the wild but much less important in captivity.  Thus, it’s possible that the dietary restriction effect is just an artefact of benign lab conditions. Answering this question is essential if we are to understand how the dietary restriction effect evolved, and what role it plays in natural environments.  

Aims: In neriid flies, we have found that restricting dietary protein prolongs life by 67%. However, we don’t know whether this life-extending effect would still be observed if the flies were subjected to more stressful conditions, such as those experienced in an natural environment. This project will  determine for the first time whether a restricted diet prolongs life under stressful conditions.

Benefits to student: You will do cutting-edge research on a high-profile question in evolutionary ecology. Through this project, you will learn how to design and carry out experiments, how to carry out sophisticated statistical analysis, and how to write an influential scientific paper. Honours students in the Bonduriansky lab often publish their work in prestigious journals, such as The American Naturalist, Functional Ecology, Animal Behaviour, and Scientific Reports.


Project title: Food, fighting and sex

Supervisor: Prof. Russell Bonduriansky

Synopsis: The Australian neriid flies are amazing members of the local fauna. A notable feature of this species is extreme variation in body size, shape and behaviour, and experiments in our lab have shown that much of this variation is caused by variation in nutrients in the larval diet. When flies are provided with abundant nutrients as larvae, they grow large, and males develop exaggerated secondary sexual traits and an aggressive disposition. This suggests an intriguing possibility: Since nutrients vary extensively in both time and space in natural environments, could it be that many features of the mating system of these flies in the wild are also shaped by larval nutrition?

Aims: In this project, we will experimentally manipulate larval diet and investigate effects on mating system parameters such as fighting, territoriality and mating. This research will reveal, for the first time, the extent to which environmental variation in nutrient abundance can shape mating systems.

Benefits to student: You will do cutting-edge research on a high-profile question in evolutionary ecology. Through this project, you will learn how to design and carry out experiments, how to carry out sophisticated statistical analysis, and how to write an influential scientific paper. Honours students in the Bonduriansky lab often publish their work in prestigious journals, such as The American Naturalist, Functional Ecology, Animal Behaviour, and Scientific Reports.


Project title: Sexual selection in the wild

Supervisor: Prof. Russell Bonduriansky

Synopsis: The Australian neriid flies have become a valuable model organism for research on the development and function of exaggerated male secondary sexual traits. These traits are enlarged in males reared on a nutrient-rich larval diet, and their expression varies between neriid populations along the east coast of Australia. However, we still know very little about how sexual selection acts on these traits, and whether variation in patterns of sexual selection can account for differences between populations in male sexual morphology.

Aims: This research project will investigate sexual behaviour and sexual selection in natural populations of neriid flies.

Benefits to student: You will do cutting-edge research on a high-profile question in evolutionary ecology, including field-work. Through this project, you will learn how to design and carry out experiments, how to carry out sophisticated statistical analysis, and how to write an influential scientific paper. Honours students in the Bonduriansky lab often publish their work in prestigious journals, such as The American Naturalist, Functional Ecology, Animal Behaviour, and Scientific Reports.


Project title: Biology of the Australian leaf insects

Supervisor: Prof. Russell Bonduriansky

Synopsis: The Australian leaf insects are among the most amazingly camouflaged of animals. They also have the remarkable ability to switch between sexual and asexual reproduction. However, practically nothing is known about the reproduction or behaviour of this unique animal.  

Aims: This project will investigate the reproductive and foraging behaviour of the Australian leaf insect Phyllium monteithi  for the first time.

Benefits to student: You will investigate an amazing but previously unstudied member of the Australian fauna. Through this project, you will learn how to design and carry out experiments, how to carry out sophisticated statistical analysis, and how to write an influential scientific paper. Honours students in the Bonduriansky lab often publish their work in prestigious journals, such as The American Naturalist, Functional Ecology, Animal Behaviour, and Scientific Reports.


Project title: Insect personality: does larval behaviour predict adult behaviour?

Supervisor: Prof. Russell Bonduriansky

Synopsis: Larvae of some flies have the ability to jump—a behaviour that they use to disperse away from their predator-infested feeding substrates.  Remarkably, individual larvae vary enormously in their propensity to jump, and it’s possible that this variation reflects a “personality” trait that carries over into their adult behaviour. For example, individuals that jump more as larvae might be more active or more aggressive as adults.

Aims: This project will investigate, for the first time, whether individual variation in jumping behaviour of larvae predicts behavioural variation at the adult stage.

Benefits to student: You will do cutting-edge research on a high-profile question in evolutionary ecology. Through this project, you will learn how to design and carry out experiments, how to carry out sophisticated statistical analysis, and how to write an influential scientific paper. Honours students in the Bonduriansky lab often publish their work in prestigious journals, such as The American Naturalist, Functional Ecology, Animal Behaviour, and Scientific Reports.


Project title: Can animals reduce the stress of group-living?

Supervisor: Prof. Russell Bonduriansky

Synopsis: Many studies have shown that living in groups can be stressful, and that the resulting stresses can greatly shorten life. However, it’s not clear whether animals can employ simple strategies to mitigate such stress. One intriguing possibility is that taking a ‘time out’ away from the group could substantially reduce stress and prolong life.

Aims: This project will investigate, for the first time, whether taking a brief daily ‘time out’ away from other individuals can substantially increase longevity of group-housed animals. The experiments will be conducted on neriid flies.  

Benefits to student: You will do cutting-edge research on a high-profile question in evolutionary ecology. Through this project, you will learn how to design and carry out experiments, how to carry out sophisticated statistical analysis, and how to write an influential scientific paper. Honours students in the Bonduriansky lab often publish their work in prestigious journals, such as The American Naturalist, Functional Ecology, Animal Behaviour, and Scientific Reports.


Project title: The costs of exaggerated secondary sexual traits

Supervisor: Prof. Russell Bonduriansky

Synopsis: In many animals, males express exaggerated secondary sexual traits that they use as weapons or ornaments in competition for mates. A basic premise of sexual selection theory is that such traits impose viability costs – that is, they reduce male survival. Yet, the nature of these costs is still very poorly understood.

Aims: This project will involve innovative experiments to test for costs of expressing exaggerated secondary sexual traits in neriid flies. In particular, these experiments will establish whether males that express the most exaggerated secondary sexual traits suffer reduced viability at the juvenile stage, potentially revealing a novel cost of expressing such traits.

Benefits to student: You will do cutting-edge research on a high-profile question in evolutionary ecology. Through this project, you will learn how to design and carry out experiments, how to carry out sophisticated statistical analysis, and how to write an influential scientific paper. Honours students in the Bonduriansky lab often publish their work in prestigious journals, such as The American Naturalist, Functional Ecology, Animal Behaviour, and Scientific Reports.


Project title: How important is natural sunlight?

Supervisor: Prof. Russell Bonduriansky

Synopsis: Laboratory animals are kept under artificial lights, including broad-spectrum lights designed to mimic natural sunlight. But basking under natural sunlight could be important in development, and animals deprived of natural sunlight might develop abnormally.  

Aims: This project will involve innovative experiments to test for effects of basking in natural vs. artificial light on the development of laboratory insects.

Benefits to student: You will do cutting-edge research on a high-profile question in evolutionary ecology. Through this project, you will learn how to design and carry out experiments, how to carry out sophisticated statistical analysis, and how to write an influential scientific paper. Honours students in the Bonduriansky lab often publish their work in prestigious journals, such as The American Naturalist, Functional Ecology, Animal Behaviour, and Scientific Reports.


Project title: Are aggressive males harmful for females?

Supervisor: Prof. Russell Bonduriansky

Synopsis: In neriid flies, males vary enormously in body size, secondary sexual trait expression, and aggressiveness, and these traits function in male-male competition for mates. But how do such male traits affect females?  

Aims: This project will investigate how interaction with males of varying sexual phenotypes affects female longevity and fecundity.

Benefits to student: You will do cutting-edge research on a high-profile question in evolutionary ecology. Through this project, you will learn how to design and carry out experiments, how to carry out sophisticated statistical analysis, and how to write an influential scientific paper. Honours students in the Bonduriansky lab often publish their work in prestigious journals, such as The American Naturalist, Functional Ecology, Animal Behaviour, and Scientific Reports.



Project Title: Does a shy fish have a slow life strategy? Behavioural and metabolic consequences of SERT knockouts

Supervisors: Prof Shinichi Nakagawa (UNSW) & Dr Dan Hesselson (Garvan & UNSW)

Synopsis: Why do animals behave differently in the same situation? In other words, why do animals have different personalities? Many studies have revealed the ubiquity of animal personality in different taxa imaginable. We use a unique approach to tackle this question in an evolutionary framework by employing cutting-edge technologies. We have created serotonin transporter knockout fish and we like to investigate their behaviour, metabolism and life-history traits and their interactions, using automatized behavioural tests and a high-resolution respirometer. 

Aims: You will answer the question in the title

Benefits to student: A student, who works with us for this project, will learn a suite of skills essential to conducting a successful PhD. These skills include statistical modelling, computer coding, experimental design, database management, molecular/laboratory techniques, bioinformatics and more. Also, we are happy to discuss other potential projects with an interested student.

Contact: Prof Shinichi Nakagawa (s.nakagawa@unsw.edu.au)
More info: www.i-deel.org



Project Title: Finding optimistic fish: Does personality affect optimism 

Supervisors: Prof Shinichi Nakagawa (UNSW) & Dr Dan Hesselson (Garvan & UNSW)

Synopsis: Why do animals behave differently in the same situation? In other words, why do animals have different personalities? Are some animals more optimistic than others? We use cognitive bias tests to quantify animal optimism and investigate the interaction between animal personality and optimism. We also use fish with some key genes knocked-out to investigate functions of these genes in personality and optimism.

Aims: You will answer the question in the title

Benefits to student: A student, who works with us for this project, will learn a suite of skills essential to conducting a successful PhD. These skills include statistical modelling, computer coding, experimental design, database management, molecular/laboratory techniques, bioinformatics and more. Also, we are happy to discuss other potential projects with an interested student.

Contact: Prof Shinichi Nakagawa (s.nakagawa@unsw.edu.au)
More info: www.i-deel.org

Professor-Russell-Bonduriansky

Scientia Professor-Robert-Brooks

Professor-Gerry-Cassis

Associate Professor-Michael-Kasumovic

Professor-Shinichi-Nakagawa

Dr-Terrance-Ord

Professor-Tracey-Rogers 

Associate Professor-Lisa-Schwanz