Australian citizens interested in pursuing a PhD with the Global Ecology Lab have several scholarship opportunities, including Flinders University Research Scholarships, College of Science and Engineering Research Awards, AJ & IM Naylon PhD Scholarships, Joyner Scholarships in Arts, Law, Medicine and Science, and Professor Lowitja O’Donoghue Indigenous Student Postgraduate Research Scholarships (for Indigenous students only).
There are also several options for international students (search here for available scholarships). After negotiating with us regarding supervision, prospective international PhD candidates will have to contact the International Office at Flinders.
Some potential projects for PhD candidates are listed below, as well as several possible Honours projects — these are not comprehensive, so we invite prospective students to discuss potential project ideas with us. We generally do not have a MSc programme at Flinders University.
1. Legacy of human migration on the diversity of languages in the Americas: Languages are ‘documents of history’ and historical linguists have developed comparative methods to infer patterns of human prehistory and cultural evolution. The Americas present a more substantive diversity of indigenous language stock than any other continent; however, whether such a diversity arose from initial human migration pathways across the continent is still unknown, because the primary proxy used (i.e., archaeological evidence) to study modern human migration is both too incomplete and biased to inform any regional inference of colonisation trajectories.
This project aims to quantify the impact of initial migration by humans in the Americas on the origin and the evolution of indigenous human language. More specifically, we will first develop models to estimate the regional colonisation patterns of the first Homo sapiens based on time series of archaeological evidence across the Americas. Then, we will cross-validate these inferred patterns with regional maps of genetic information (i.e., human mitochondrial DNA sequences) to calculate initial human routes of migration in the Americas. We will evaluate the regional correlation between these human migration pathways and maps of language diversity to quantify the relative effect of initial human colonisation on the evolution and diversification of human language. This project is unique and novel because never before have quantitative methods of spatial human ecology been combined with linguistic histories to elucidate heretofore only hypothesised patterns.
We have two specific goals: (1) Provide robust and reliable regional inference of initial colonisation trajectories in the Americas by using new, cutting-edge statistical techniques that integrate both archaeological evidence and differences in mitochondrial DNA (using the so-called ‘fixation index’), and (2) Identify regions of initial human colonisation that could have promoted language diversity across the Americas by quantitatively comparing our reconstructed regional colonisation trajectories to a comprehensive dataset describing regional language diversity.
Main outcome: we will provide an unprecedented and previously unavailable picture of how initial human migrations shaped the evolution of modern-day languages over broad scales of space and time.
This project is an international collaboration between Flinders University (Adelaide, Australia), the University of Adelaide (Australia), theMuseu Paraense Emílio Goeldi (Brazil) and University of California Santa Cruz (USA). The successful candidate will be based at the Global Ecology Lab (Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia) and work under the main supervision of Prof Corey Bradshaw and Drs Frédérik Saltré, Bastien Llamas (Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, University of Adelaide), Joshua Birchall (Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, Brazil), and Lars Fehren-Schmitz (UCSC).
The Australian Government opened international funding opportunities for non-Australian students who want to do a full-time doctorate degree in Australia, called Endeavour Leadership Program. The recipient will receive for up to 4 years (i) a stipend of AU$3000/month, (ii) a travel allowance of up to AU$3000, (iii) an establishment allowance of between AU$2000 and AU$4000, (iv) health insurance for the full category duration, and (v) travel insurance.
We are seeking a highly motivated student to pursue a PhD at Flinders University focusing on modelling regional pattern of initial Homo sapiens colonisation and its consequences on the evolution and diversification of modern human language. The candidate should ideally already have a Masters degree in (palaeo)ecology and evolution and some experience and/or demonstrated competency in modelling. Applicants should also have good quantitative skills, and a strong interest in palaeoecology and species distribution modelling. Experience with statistical analyses in R or Matlab are expected and programming skills are desirable, but not necessary. Strong writing skills, the ability to communicate effectively, and the will to work in a team are also essential.
2. Network models to predict ecological change: Species assemblages are being rapidly rearranged due to human endeavour. Such changes can cause species extinctions and trophic cascades, and can also compromise ecosystem functions. However, some changes are not necessarily always negative from an ecosystem perspective —damaged assemblages can often ‘absorb’ changes and continue to function relatively well compared to more intact systems. With mounting ecological damage to the biosphere, we are obligated to improve our ability to predict the long-term consequences of these changes. But to do this, we first need to quantify the interactions between species — how species directly and indirectly affect each other.
Unfortunately for most species, we know little or next to nothing about how they interact with other species. Furthermore, changes to assemblages often involve the arrival of new species that have never before been sympatric with local species; we are even less likely to have information on how historically allopatric species interact. How can we infer the type and intensity of interactions between species for which we have no empirical interaction data? A generalised method to predict how species will interact — who will eat whom, who will compete with whom, etc. — is therefore required.
Body-size matching between predators and prey has been applied successfully before to infer trophic interactions in some taxonomic groups: fish, aquatic invertebrates, and some large mammals. In this project, you will investigate if/how trait-matching relationships vary among taxa. For example, does the predator-prey body size relationship differ between birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and fish? Does the relationship differ between carnivorous versusomnivorous species? Tackling these questions will allow the construction of food webs for which empirical data are currently lacking (almost all food webs), including food webs for modified/future assemblages as well as for palaeo assemblages to investigate ancient extinction events. Food webs will be interrogated through network modelling, to investigate how the arrival or removal of a species, and other environmental changes, can have consequences that reverberate throughout the rest of the network.
3. Modelling the effects of environmental change and human population growth on the health of future children: We are on the threshold of a catastrophic environmental decline that will affect the future health and welfare of children. Despite clear evidence this will occur globally and in Australia, little research has focused on predicting, quantifying, and determining the time scale of these effects on child health. We have assembled a dedicated, collaborative team of experienced researchers with the expertise, modelling ability, leadership and track records to construct the most relevant predictors of future child health (main collaborators: Professor Peter Le Souëf, Professor Sarah Otto, Professor Zulfiqar Bhutta). We aim to model these data to promote the most efficient and effective preventive strategies.
Main aim: To make robust predictions of the future health and welfare of children in Australia and globally using the latest information on environmental changes and population demographics and dynamics.
Main hypothesis: Environmental changes and population increases over the next 10 to 50 years will result in declining health and well-being of young children; the magnitude and rate of this decline can be predicted by coupling modelling with current data, improving our ability to target medical and policy improvements aimed at protecting child health.
- Model the most up-to-date data sources to quantify and predict the time scale of the effects of environmental changes and population increases on child health by country and region, with particular emphasis on Australia.
- Establish a new series of human population projections based on potential changes in global, regional and national Australian fertility rates.
- To use the predictions to assist in guiding regional and broader government planning to produce the best possible health outcomes for children in Australia and globally.
1. Modelling vegetation changes in Australia from the Last Glacial Maximum (~ 19,000 years ago): Vegetation is the infrastructure of terrestrial ecosystems upon which all food webs are based. Vegetation growth depends mainly on climate and atmospheric CO2 fluctuations, so understanding how vegetation communities will respond to future fluctuations is an essential element in predicting shifts in biological communities. The response of vegetation to past climate change provides insights to predict the effect of future changes on ecosystems. In the recent past, a period of global warming and increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration followed the Last Glacial Maximum that ended approximately 19,000 years ago, with large ecosystem effects worldwide (especially on terrestrial vegetation)1. Past vegetation changes can be reconstructed by using fossil proxies such as pollen deposited in sediments. In Australia, most fossil records indicate an increase in woody vegetation after the end of this globally cool and dry period. Because fossil records (e.g., pollen) are sparsely and heterogeneously distributed across space, we cannot reconstruct global patterns in vegetation change directly from them. Instead, new approaches combining palaeo-climate models, dynamic vegetation models, and fossil records can reconstruct the spatiotemporal dynamics in vegetation composition. This project will investigate the effects of palaeo-climate changes since the Last Glacial Maximum on vegetation cover in Australia, including global warming and an increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration. The student will run the dynamic vegetation model LPJ-GUESS2 (already adapted for Australia) to test how the vegetation responds to past climate conditions. The student will compare model outputs (e.g., leaf area index, woody and herbaceous biomass, fire frequency) with fossil records3,4 and modern vegetation data5,6. The student will be in charge of interpreting the ecological changes at various spatial scales. The findings will provide essential insights into the potential effect of future climate change on Australian ecosystems.
- Werner, C. et al. 2018. Effect of changing vegetation on denudation (part 1): predicted vegetation composition and cover over the last 21 thousand years along the Coastal Cordillera of Chile. Earth Surf Dynam 6: 829-858
- Smith, B., Prentice, I., Sykes, M., 2001. Representation of vegetation dynamics in the modelling of terrestrial ecosystems: comparing two contrasting approaches within European climate space. Global Ecol Biogeogr 10: 621-637.
- Pickett, E. J. et al. 2004. Pollen-based reconstructions of biome distributions for Australia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific (SEAPAC region) at 0, 6000 and 18,000 14C yr BP. J Biogeogr 31: 1381-1444
- Forbes, M. et al. 2019. Palaeochannels of Australia’s Riverine Plain-Reconstructing past vegetation environments across the Late Pleistocene and Holocene. Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol 109533
- Mao, J. & Yan, B. 2019. Global Monthly Mean Leaf Area Index Climatology, 1981-2015. ORNL DAAC, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, USA
Additional information: We are seeking a student with a background in (palaeo)ecology and an interest in palaeontology, conservation and geography. We favour candidates with prior experience in modelling, biostatistics and programming, but these are not strictly necessary. Writing skills, the ability to communicate effectively, and the will to work in a team are also essential.
During this Honours, the student will develop:
- knowledge of Australian vegetation spatial distribution and its physiological characteristics
- a strong understanding of the strength and the limitation of both vegetation and fossil records
- a sound experience in dynamic global vegetation modelling
- basics of coding and programming
- introduction to data management and processing
Research output: An article in a peer-reviewed journal such as Journal of Biogeography, Quaternary Science Reviews, Earth Surface Dynamics, Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution
2. No-analogue climate and megafauna extinction: Climate change is one of the main drivers suggested to explain the demise of Late Pleistocene megafauna in Australia. Climate proxies used to test the effect of the palaeoclimate on megafauna extinctions suffer from a lack of representativeness (local-scale, remoteness, etc.). Promising new approaches based on global circulation models (GCM) can overcome these issues and can be used to build climate-change metrics. Climate-change metrics synthesise the complex effects of climate change and can potentially map where species were more likely to (i) adapt in situ to new climatic conditions, (ii) disperse and establish in areas with newly suitable climates, or (iii) decline to extirpation (i.e., become extinct from a particular region, but not vanish entirely). These metrics, including measures of novel and disappearing terrestrial climates, are used extensively to forecast future biological responses to climate change. This project aims to investigate the effects of climate change on megafauna extinction at a continental scale in Australia over the last 130,000 years by applying these metrics to GCM outputs and seek correlations between the proportion of novel and/or disappearing terrestrial climates and the number of extinct species.
3. Koala browse-tree distribution models: Koalas are introduced to South Australia, but they now have a wide distribution in the Mount Lofty Ranges and number in the tens to hundreds of thousands. The poor state of native vegetation in the Ranges combined with browsing pressure from koalas means that certain eucalypt species like manna gum (Eucalyptus viminalis), blue gum (E. leucoxylon), and black gum (E. ovatus) are potentially threatened with range contractions and even local extinction, especially as bushfire incidence and climate change further stress existing populations. This project will develop hybrid species distribution models comprising both climatic envelopes and physiological tolerances of key eucalypt species in the Mount Lofty Ranges to estimate the future resilience to different stressors.
4. Koala species distribution models for South Australia: Koalas have been introduced to South Australia, but they now have a wide distribution in the Mount Lofty Ranges and number at least in the tens to hundreds of thousands. We have the data compiled from the 2012 and 2016 Great Koala Counts — citizen-science projects mapping the distribution of koalas primarily in the Mount Lofty Ranges around Adelaide. This project will develop cutting-edge species distribution models using the latest koala distribution data and geographic layers (e.g., vegetation, soil moisture, climate) to predict the density distributions for koalas, thus providing essential information for updating total population estimates for the species in mainland South Australia.
- 3-year postdoctoral position (Research Associate in Mammalian Morphology-Environment Interactions) in conjunction with Associate Professor Vera Weisbecker and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (applications close 8 March 2021)
We are often approached by researchers who would like to develop their own proposals to join our lab. Salaries for researchers can often be funded via mechanisms like the Australian Research Council Discovery Early-Career Research Awards (DECRA), the Commonwealth of Australia’s Endeavour fellowships, or even overseas sources.
If you are interested in joining our lab and would like to investigate possible funding routes in this manner, please contact us.
Please read this post before you send an enquiry.