A green beetle… in Yeegarup National Park, W.A. © Kate Umbers

A green beetle… in Yeegarup National Park, W.A. © Kate Umbers

Student Projects & Research Positions


As on the People page, if you think you would like to work with us as a volunteer or prospective honours, masters or PhD student please contact Kate with a description of what you're interested in and a 1 page CV. Also please feel free to contact Kate if you're not sure what you're interested in and you'd just like to chat about ideas, we have several potential projects available that would be fun, challenging and rewarding, some of which are listed below. 

For advice on whether to even consider the idea of a research career in the first place checkout Sonkë Johnsen's Advice for Potential Graduate Students. For advice on being a good student, writing your thesis, giving talks, getting jobs, writing grants, writing fellowships and job proposals and all things academia, you can't go past Scott Keogh's Resources and Advice for Students.  As Scott says, it's a tough game.


RESEARCH PROJECTS AVAILABLE


Animal Behaviour / Behavioural Ecology


Defensive posture of an adult female mountain katydid (Acripeza reticulata). Photo: Kate Umbers

Defensive posture of an adult female mountain katydid (Acripeza reticulata). Photo: Kate Umbers

Antipredator defenses in the mountain katydid (Acripeza reticulata)

Mountain katydids are large, clumsy and comical but when disturbed they reveal a colourful, frightening defensive display (deimatic display) . They are also filled with toxin from their Senecio host plants which smells and tastes nasty. There are several open questions on this system including:

  • What is the survival value of the mountain katydid's defence?
  • How does the mountain katydid's defense change throughout development?
  • How do the visual and chemical modes of mountain katydid defence interact to protect them?
  • Are components of mountain katydid defence heritable?

Field Location: Australian Alps (Vic, NSW)


Sexual signalling using air-borne and substrate-borne vibrations in the mountain katydid (Acripeza reticulata)

On sunny evenings in the late alpine summer, male mountain katydids sit exposed, atop everlasting daisies and perform their distinctive call. When in enclosures with females, males call and also tap their abdomens on plant stems females are walking on in a stereotypical manner (see video on this page). This project could address questions like:

  • What information to females receive about males via these two vibratory channels?
  • Are male sounds meant to impress females or deter males?

Field Location: Australian Alps (Vic, NSW)
 


Deroplatys sp. (dead leaf mantis) performing its deimatic display. Photo: James O'Hanlon

Deroplatys sp. (dead leaf mantis) performing its deimatic display. Photo: James O'Hanlon

Deimatic displays in praying mantises

Praying mantis are delicious tasty insects. They are often cryptic at rest, but many species have a remarkable display that they hide until the have been approached by predators. These displays should frighten predators and stop them from attacking, but to know whether they work we need to collect data on the following questions:

  • What stimuli cause praying mantises to perform their deimatic displays?
  • Do praying mantis deimatic displays successfully protect them from predators?
  • Do different kinds of deimatic displays work against different predators?

Field locations: Anywhere!


Blue tongue lizard getting defensive photo: Kate Umbers

Blue tongue lizard getting defensive photo: Kate Umbers

Blue-tongue skink deimatic display

A blue-tongue is a sizeable meal for any predator and, like the mountain katydids and praying mantises, blue-tongue skinks (Tiliqua spp.) are known for their colourful defensive displays. And, just like the bugs, no one knows how the defensive displays work, and against whom they work. To address this question we are building ROBOBLUEY, a robotic blue-tongue which we will be deploying in the field to see if it can defend itself from wild avian predators. 

ROBOBLUEY will allow us to answer some of the following questions:

  • When throughout the predation sequence is ROBOBLUEY's display most effective at deterring predators?
  • Do the speed, angle, tongue extension and other parameters change predator behaviour?
  • Does tongue colour matter to attacking predators?

Field locations: anywhere there are blue-tongues... 

Projects on the blue-tongues would be co-supervised by Martin Whiting, head of the Lizard Lab at Macquarie University. 


Population / Conservation / Landscape Genomics


Female Acripeza reticulata showing off her defensive display.

Female Acripeza reticulata showing off her defensive display.

Mountain katydid conservation genomics: populations structure and refugia across eastern Australian mountains

Mountain katydids inhabit highlands from Cairns through to Hobart and out to Mt Lofty in South Australia. Sometimes they show up in lowland areas as well like Melbourne, Queenbeyan and Brisbane. Despite this broad distribution, mountain katydids are classified as a single species, in a monotypic genus. However, preliminary examinations of mountain katydid specimens in the Australian National Insect Collection in Canberra suggest otherwise. This project aims to determine:

  • The genetic conductivity of Acripeza reticulata across their range,
  • Whether there are any cryptic species within Acripeza reticulata 
  • Genetic signatures of refugia katydids have used in the past and may use in the future.

Field Location: East Australian high-country (Tas, Vic, NSW, Qld)


Thermal Biology & Physiology / Conservation / Climate Change


Male Kosciuscola tristis on an everlasting daisy on Dead Horse Gap Trail near Thredbo. Photo: Kate Umbers

Male Kosciuscola tristis on an everlasting daisy on Dead Horse Gap Trail near Thredbo. Photo: Kate Umbers

Colour change in the chameleon grasshopper (Kosciuscola tristis)

When their body temperature exceeds 25°C, male chameleon grasshoppers turn turquoise, as they cool down they turn black below 10°C. Questions to tackle on this system feed naturally into the conservation and climate change questions, are numerous and include:

  • Their colour change is is driven by temperature, but does it function in thermoregulation? 
  • How does the colour change occur (what is the cellular mechanism)?
  • Why do males change colour but not females?

Field Location: Australian Alps (NSW and Vic)
 


Male and female Kosciuscola tristis. The female (below) is laying eggs and the male (above) is riding on her holding on to her pronotum. Why he is doing this is currently unclear, but is likely related to paternity.

Male and female Kosciuscola tristis. The female (below) is laying eggs and the male (above) is riding on her holding on to her pronotum. Why he is doing this is currently unclear, but is likely related to paternity.

Genomic, behavioural and physiological resilience of Kosciuscola grasshoppers to rapid climate change in the Australian Alps

The Kosciuscola grasshoppers are an iconic Australian alpine endemic grasshopper. Members of the genus are short-lived (univoltine) and brachtyperous and in discrete, yet overlapping generations they inhabit the highest peaks of the Australian high-country. Over the past decade we have gathered data on their life history strategies, mating system, thermal tollerance limits, genetic structure, dispersal patterns and distributions. We are now in an excellent position to study their ability to adapt to rapid climate change in situ. This project therefore aims to:

determine the resilience of Kocsiuscola grasshoppers to climate change taking three broad approaches:

  • genomics,
  • thermal preference behaviour
  • physiological limits.

Field Location: Australian Alps (NSW and Vic)