The value of honours

When I awoke this morning at 3:50 to do an interview with ABC Overnights about drought and wildlife, there was an email in my inbox informing me that we’d had a new paper accepted in Royal Society Open Science.

Getting the ‘accepted’ email is always nice, but this one was particularly welcome because the study arose from an honours thesis.

At some Universities in Australia, including my own, students above a threshold in terms of undergrad marks can elect to do a further ‘honours’ year. In science, this is a 9-12 month period in which the student works closely with a supervisor and co-supervisors to carry out a scientific study. Honours is huge learning curve for students as they are exposed to the rigors of science, including scientific writing, statistical analysis, and interpreting findings in the face of uncertainty. I am a massive fan of the honours scheme because it allows students to dip their toe into science without too much commitment, allowing them to judge if a research career might be for them, while adding to their CV.

An important final step of an honours year is to get the work published in a scientific journal, allowing the research to be assessed for its validity and rigor as it passes through peer-review, and then ensuring the work is accessible to a broader readership. This can take time, often years. Fortunately, this year has been a good year for my past honours students, with six projects published so far and several others in review. A summary of these is provided below.

Webster, C., Massaro, M., Michael, D., Riley, J., Bambrick, D., Nimmo, D.G. (accepted). Native reptiles alter their foraging in the presence of the olfactory cues of invasive mammalian predators. Royal Society Open Science.

Carlin Webster did honours with me in 2017, co-supervised by Mel Massaro (CSU), Damian Michael (ANU), and Julia Riley (Macquarie University). Carlin studied the response of native reptiles (marbled gecko, Christinus marmoratus, and Boulenger’s skink, Morethia boulengeri) to the olfactory cues of a range of predators, both native and introduced. Our aim was to test the hypothesis that native lizards would be naïve to the olfactory cues of non-native predators, due to a lack of shared co-evolutionary history. The two non-native species—red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) and feral cats (Felis catus)—have co-occurred with our study lizards for <200 years. Despite this, we found that the two species of native reptile responded in a similar way to predators, regardless of their origin (native or introduced).

Geyle, H., Guillera-Arroita, G., Davies, H., Firth, R., Murphy, B., Nimmo, D.G., Ritchie, E.G., Woinarski, J., Nicholson, E. (accepted). Towards meaningful monitoring: a case study of a threatened rodent. Austral Ecology.

Hayley Geyle did honours in 2015, supervised by Emily Nicholson, and co-supervised by Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), Brett Murphy (Charles Darwin Uni), Gurutzeta Guillera-Arroita (Melbourne University), and me, with input from PhD student Hugh Davies (Melbourne University), Ron Firth and John Woinarski (Charles Darwin University). She employed power analysis developed by Guru and Jose Lahoz-Monfort to identify the optimal approach to monitoring the threatened brush-tailed rabbit rat (Conilurus penicillatus) on the Tiwi Islands (and yes, she got to do field work there too!).

Geschke, A., Bennett, A.F., James, S., Nimmo, D. G. (2018). Compact cities or sprawling suburbs? Optimising the distribution of people in cities to maximise species diversity. Journal of Applied Ecology.

Andy Geschke did honours with me in 2015, co-supervised by Andrew Bennett (LaTrobe) and Simon James (Deakin). Andy asked how can we best distribute people in urban landscapes in a way that minimises harm to biodiversity? To answer this question, Andy studied birds in residential Melbourne, and worked with myself and Simon to develop a mathematical optimization procedure that could answer the question. Andy found that approaches to urban development that do not include large conservation areas are suboptimal. This research was covered in The Gaurdian .

Davis, H., Ritchie, E.G., Avitabile, S., Doherty, T., Nimmo, D.G. (2018) Testing the assumptions of the pyrodiversity begets biodiversity hypothesis for termites in semi-arid AustraliaRoyal Society Open Science.

Hayley Davis did honours with me in 2014, co-supervised by Euan Ritchie (Deakin) and Sarah Avitabile (LaTrobe). Her interest in invertebrates took her to the Big Desert wilderness of north-western Victoria. Hayley tested the hypothesis that a diversity of fire histories across a landscape would increase the diversity of animal species, using termites as a case study. She found that most termite species occur across a wide range of fire histories, and so the hypothesis was ultimately rejected.

Geary, W., Ritchie, E.G., Lawton, J., Healey, T., Nimmo, D.G. (2018) Incorporating disturbance into trophic ecology: fire history shapes patterns of mesopredator suppression by an apex predator. Journal of Applied Ecology.

Billy Geary did honours in 2014, co-supervised by Euan Ritchie. Billy also worked in the Big Desert region, focusing on the region’s largest predator: dingoes. Billy examined how patterns of dingo occurred related to fire history, and whether patterns of fox occurrence supported the hypothesis that dingoes suppress foxes. The hypothesis was supported, as fewer foxes were recorded in areas that had many signs of dingo activity. By modelling the relationship between fire, dingoes and foxes, we showed how fire management could have flow-on effects on invasive predators. This research was summarised in a very neat infograph by Fuse Consulting covered by ABC News

Richardson, E., Nimmo, D.G., Avitabile, S., Tworkowski, L., Welbourne, D., Watson, S.J., Leonard, S. (2018) Camera traps and pitfalls: evaluating the effectiveness of two methods for surveying reptiles in semi-arid Australia. Wildlife Research.

Emily Richardson did honours in 2014, supervised by Steve Leonard, and co-supervised by Sarah Avitabile, Simon Watson (LaTrobe), and me, with help from Dustin Welbourne (UNSW). Emily tested the capacity for remote camera to survey for reptiles. She compared downward facing cameras with pitfall traps (a more conventional method for surveying reptiles). She found that cameras did quite well for detecting diurnal species, and outperformed pitfall traps for some larger species (e.g., goannas), but did not perform so well for nocturnal species.


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