Honours Projects: Environmental Science & Conservation

Academics in Environmental Science & Conservation

Dr Kate Brandis

Professor David Eldridge

A/Professor Paul Gribben

Dr Neil Jordan

Professor David Keith

A/Professor Bryce Kelly

Professor Richard Kingsford

Dr Keith Leggett

A/Professor Michael Letnic 

Dr Mariana Mayer Pinto

Dr Mark Ooi

Dr Jodi Rowley

A/Professor Jes Sammut

Below are the current projects on offer in Environmental Science & Conservation. 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: Identifying the environmental conditions associated with avian botulism outbreaks at Lake Cowal, NSW.

Supervisors: Dr Kate Brandis (Centre for Ecosystem Science), Dr Jennifer Spencer (NSW Office of Environment and Heritage), Dr Benjamin Wolfenden (Charles Sturt University)

Synopsis:
Avian botulism is an often fatal disease that is the biggest killer of birds worldwide. Outbreaks in Australia are often associated with waterbirds in wetlands.  Northern Hemisphere research has shown that water quality plays a key role in facilitating outbreaks of botulism. Lake Cowal in central west NSW is a key waterbird site that has had botulism events in the past. This project will require both field and laboratory work.

Aims:

  • To identify and quantify the presence of botulism spores at Lake Cowal
  • To determine the environmental conditions associated with botulism outbreaks at Lake Cowal.
  • To assess management options to limit the risk of botulism at Lake Cowal.

Benefits to student:
This is a multi-disciplinary project that will expose the student to a range of disciplines including wildlife disease, wetland ecology, water management and genetics. This project has strong links to industry and government including NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, Western Australian Department of Agriculture, Taronga Conservation Society and the Lake Cowal Foundation.


Project Title: Vegetation change in a fragmented landscape.

Supervisor: Prof. David Keith

Synopsis: Bushland is being eroded from Australia’s urban and rural landscapes at an accelerating rate, resulting in irreversible loss of biodiversity. Small remnant patches are often regarded as the most expendable in planning decisions because theory predicts that large and connected habitat patches should support more species and experience lower extinction rates than small disconnected patches, other things being equal. But how important are small patches for species persistence in real landscapes? A stronger evidence base is needed to support regulatory and investment decisions for conservation of Threatened Ecological Communities and Species.

Aims: The aim of this project is to improve understanding of vegetation change in fragmented landscapes and the factors likely to promote persistence of local biodiversity. Field work will be conducted in western Sydney bushland, a data-rich region where a concentration of threatened species and ecological communities intersects with intense pressures for urban development. The student will review literature on patch viability and develop and implement a sampling design that builds on historical survey data to examine testable hypotheses about which bushland patches are most likely to retain their local flora.

Benefits to student: The student will develop widely applicable skills in critical thinking and scientific writing. He/she will learn field techniques in vegetation survey that require attention to detail and develop an aptitude for plant identification in the field and the lab using keys and reference collections. The project will provide experience that is relevant to careers in conservation planning and management, ecological research and environmental consulting. The project is supported by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage which will provide a co-supervisor and cover costs of fieldwork. Good passes in GEOS2711 and/or BIOS2051 will be an advantage.


Project Title:  Echidna ecology in the arid zone

Supervisors: Dr Keith Leggett, Dr Jaz Lawes

Synopsis:
The distribution and number of echidnas in the arid zone is not well reported in the literature.  This project will use radio telemetry to look at the movement patterns and number of echidnas in the Fowlers Gap area. Additionally, the project will look at associations, mating strategies and social interactions of echidnas.

Aims:

  • Examine social interactions, potentially around mating season
  • Establish the home ranges of radio tagged echidnas and areas of high activity
  • Develop a detailed habitat model and GIS map of preferred areas within Fowlers Gap
  • Scat analysis to look at diet to ascertain feeding preferences

Benefits to Student:

  • Study a rarely observed animal
  • Work closely with a unique and iconic species
  • Contribute to the knowledge of echidnas in the wild
  • Learn telemetry of other field monitoring and survey techniques

Project Title:  Micro-habitat use by two species of Dasyurids in the arid zone.

Supervisors: Dr Keith Leggett, Mike Letnic

Synopsis:

This study will look at the habitat use by Sminthopsis macroura and Sminthopsis crassicaudata.  From previous studies it appears that each species prefers a different microhabitat within the larger landscapes.  This study will look at the movement of individuals once they are placed in an area where they have no prior knowledge and see how they then use the habitat. The study will also examine the prey species available in the preferred micro-habitats.

Aims:

  • Determine the spatial preferences of each species
  • Examine any potential interaction between species
  • Examine the effect of vegetation on micro-habitat selection
  • Examine the prey availability in preferred micro-habitats

Benefits to Student:

  • Field survey techniques in particular pit-fall and Elliot trapping.
  • Use fluorescent pigment to track the movements of small mammals
  • Chance to work in a unique and challenging environment.
  • Contribute to conservation knowledge of small mammals.

Project Title: How does season and fire influence germination of four threatened Zieria species?

Supervisor: Dr Mark Ooi

Synopsis: Understanding the drivers of plant population dynamics is essential for effectively managing threatened species to reduce their risk of extinction. Many plant species in fire-prone regions persist by maintaining seeds within a soil seed bank, which germinate in response to fire cues. However, species can have extremely complex dormancy-breaking requirements. Without an understanding of their dormancy mechanisms, effectively managing or utilising species in in situ and ex situ conservation programmes respectively, is difficult.

Aims: To unravel the complex dormancy mechanisms of Zieria, you will undertake a series of experiments using fire and seasonal temperature cues in order to understand (i) how to make these species germinate and (ii) how season and temperature interact to determine the magnitude and timing of post-fire recruitment. This project will be undertaken in collaboration with the Australian National Botanic Gardens and asks the questions, ‘How important are fire and seasonal cues for promoting germination?’ and ‘What implications does this have for managing these species with fire?’.

Benefits to student: You will join a growing lab group focused on plant ecology, fire and conservation biology, and gain a solid grounding in experimental design, lab and field skills, analysis and writing. You will also gain experience communicating your work during weekly discussions with your supervisor and regularly to the broader lab group. Many of our projects are connected to industry partners, including the NSW Office of Environment & Heritage and Botanic Gardens (Mt Annan and ANBG Canberra), so for those thinking of employment down the track, there is opportunity to see how research is connected to these institutions and conservation in general. These links have proven valuable in the past, with all previous Honours students from the lab moving on to rewarding positions, including two current PhD candidates (at UNSW and Curtin), one Senior Scientist at OEH, one Environmental Consultant, one studying to be a science teacher and one Sustainability Coordinator.


Project title: Impact of kangaroos on temperate grasslands – a 10 year study.

Supervisors:Dr David Eldridge (Centre for Ecosystem Science), Dr Samantha Travers (Centre for Ecosystem Science)

Synopsis: Fenced and unfenced populations of kangaroos have been monitored for the last decade in grassy woodlands in Western Sydney. Regular monitoring has also been undertaken in a number of exclosures, and detailed assessments of plant community composition made. There are been few studies of kangaroo impacts on vegetation community composition in temperate grasslands and no effects of how kangaroo densities might impact soil function. This project will be based on field assessment of plants and soil function, laboratory assessment, and statistical analyses of plant community composition over the last decade. Data have been collected continuously since 2005.

Aims:

  • to determine the impacts of kangaroo grazing on temperate grassland richness and composition
  • to examine the effects of kangaroo activity on soil function.
  • to link changes in kangaroo numbers with vegetation changes over the past decade.

Benefits to student:

This is a multi-disciplinary project that will expose the student to a diverse range of skills. You will:

  • work on a high priority conservation project
  • experience the problems associated with managing native animals in a periurban environment
  • have access to a large temporal database
  • experience a mixture of field work and data analyses
  • learn how to assess soil and vegetation health
  • gain skills in laboratory techniques
  • be exposed to the activities of the National Parks and Wildlife Service
  • have fun and work with great people

Project title: Assessing prey items in the scats and pellets of Powerful Owls and their importance as a bioindicator of environmental lead (Pb) levels

Supervisors: Dr David Eldridge (Centre for Ecosystem Science), Dr Samantha Travers (Centre for Ecosystem Science), Chris Lloyd (Powerful Owl Group)

Synopsis: In the Sydney region, the Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua) is a large predator of folivores such as ringtail and brushtail possums (Trichosurus spp.). Together possums and owls have increased markedly over the last 50 years, and now occupy rainforest gullies close to urban areas.

Lead (Pb) is a major environmental pollutant and bioaccumulates in the food chain as it concentrates in animal bones, where it remains for extended periods. Analysing lead concentration in bones can give us an indication of past levels of lead exposure and potentially, environmental lead concentrations. Because lead concentrates in bones, it can be assessed in the scats and pellets of carnivores. The Georges River Group of the Powerful Owl Project has been analysing the composition of prey items collected in bolus from roosting sites on both sides of the Georges River between 2012 and 2017. The bones of more than 250 prey animals have been collected from ten separate owl territories. The Georges River provides a natural boundary between the earlier European settlement, and therefore motor vehicles use, on the northern side of the Georges River and the more recently settled southern side of the river. These two sites may differ in lead (Pb) levels as the more recently settled areas were mainly urbanised in an era of lead-free fuel after 1986.

Aims:

  • examine differences in prey items in Powerful Owl scats and pellets from 10 sites in southern Sydney
  • examine Pb levels in the bones and feathers of vertebrate prey
  • explore potential differences in Pb levels that might account for differences in environmental Pb between areas with long and short histories of usage of fuel-based Pb.

Benefits to student:

This is a multi-disciplinary project that will expose the student to a range of disciplines. You will:

  • work on a high priority conservation project
  • gain skills in laboratory and data analytical techniques
  • work with a community group (Powerful Owl Project)
  • undertake a mixture of microscope, laboratory and community-based work
  • get access to a large existing database