2018 Abstracts

2018 Abstracts

Dr Ian Crawford

Title: Widening perspectives: the intellectual and social benefits of astrobiology, big history, and the exploration of space
Abstract: Astrobiology is the science of searching for life in the universe. As such it is inherently interdisciplinary and cannot help but engender worldviews infused by cosmic and evolutionary perspectives. In this respect, astrobiology has strong synergies with 'big history', another new academic discipline which aims to integrate human history with the deeper history of the universe. I will explore the relationships between astrobiology and big history, and argue that both are acting to widen human perspectives in intellectually and socially beneficial directions. These include stimulating the (partial) re-integration of scientific disciplines after a period of extreme specialisation, breaking down some of the barriers that exist between the sciences and the humanities, and enhancing public awareness of cosmic and evolutionary perspectives which, I shall argue, comprise a strong argument for the eventual political unification of humanity. Astrobiology and big history are also concerned with the future of humanity and I will argue that this future will be richer, at least culturally and intellectually if not economically, if it includes an ambitious programme of space exploration. Ultimately, space exploration may be the only way for human (and post-human) societies to avoid the intellectual stagnation once predicted for the 'end of history'.

Past Presentations

Dr Camilla Whittington

Title: The genetic basis of innovation: venom, pregnancy, and the evolution of complex traits
Abstract: Evolutionary innovations such as eyes, venom, and live birth (viviparity) are dramatic, adaptive novelties that have shaped the evolutionary trajectories of animals. However, their origins are poorly understood because they are produced by the collective action and evolution of thousands of genes. By applying new molecular technologies to a targeted range of animals, my work aims to elucidate the genetic underpinnings of evolutionary innovations and to discover fundamental evolutionary mechanisms. I will discuss my research into mammalian venom evolution, as well as our studies of the transition from oviparity (egg laying) to viviparity in reptiles, mammals, and seahorses. Our work suggests that there are common evolutionary mechanisms that underpin the development of novel traits across divergent species.

Professor Simon Griffith

Title: Lessons from finch bands and sparrow badges: why the current approach to research in ecology and evolution needs to change
Abstract: Recent meta-analyses of two of the most widely replicated results in behavioural ecology provide important empirical insight into the extent to which the replication crisis is about to overtake our field. I will introduce these studies, and discuss the history of empirical work on these text book examples. A reflection on the way that four decades of work and nearly one hundred empirical studies, by dozens of research groups, have focused on two phenomena that are unlikely to be biologically real, is deeply concerning. The worrying, but completely likely implication from these well studied examples is that much of what we believe to be true in our research field is also likely to be unsound. I will review a number of recent studies that demonstrate that things are no better in the broader fields of ecology and evolution, so this isn’t just a behavioural ecology problem. Fortunately, there are solutions that can be implemented, and I will review these and make a case that we should all start to adopt these better research practices immediately.

Dr Thomas Newsome

Title: Macroecological insights on the drivers of global biodiversity loss
Abstract: Understanding the key patterns and drivers of biodiversity loss has been a key pursuit of conservation biology. But detailed insights on the factors controlling such risks are lacking for many vertebrate taxa, and few studies have examined how species interactions could influence biodiversity over large spatial scales. In this talk, I will present a systematic analysis of vertebrate extinction risk based on a newly constructed database containing the body masses and geographic range sizes for 27,647 vertebrate species. I will assess whether species with larger body sizes are more extinction prone than smaller species. I will then examine the relationship between vertebrate body mass and geographic range size to assess whether these two traits can be used to predict extinction risk. Finally, I will outline a new hypothesis that can be used to predict where top-order predators are most likely to exert strong effects on other species, and in turn, restore ecosystem processes that should benefit biodiversity. The results have implications for understanding the vulnerability of different sized taxa to extinction risk, but also the spatial scales that land managers and conservationists need to work at to reverse the ongoing declines of vertebrate species around the world.

Professor Ken Cheng

Title: Thinking outside the brain: Embodied, extended, and enactive cognition in animals
Abstract: The notion that cognition comprises more than computations of a central nervous system operating on representations has gained a foothold in human cognitive science for a few decades now. Various brands of embodied, extended, and enactive cognition, some more conservative and some more liberal, have paraded in philosophy and cognitive science. I call the genus including all such species situated cognition, and go on to depict selected cases in non-human comparative cognition. The octopus displays embodied cognition, with some of the computational work offloaded to the periphery. Web-building spiders showcase extended cognition, in which objects external to the animal—the web in the case of spiders—play a crucial causal role in cognition. A criterion of mutual manipulability, in which causal influence flows both ways between organism and extended object, serves to delimit the scope of extended cognition. Play in dogs features intelligence on-the-run, arising out of action, a key characteristic of enactive cognition. I discuss other cases in which action entwines with central representational cognition to achieve goal-directed behavior. Considering situated cognition in diverse animals leads to myriad research questions that can enrich the study of cognition.

Dr Benjamin Kear

Title: Digging deeper into Australasia’s Age of Dinosaurs
Abstract: Australia and New Zealand were situated at high latitudes throughout the Mesozoic — a timeframe that spanned some 185 million years. Their unique fossil biotas were also associated with extreme palaeoenvironments, including freezing Cretaceous polar seas and global ‘greenhouse’ conditions that marked the dawn of the Triassic. This presentation showcases some of the latest research into Australasia’s fascinating Age of Dinosaurs and especially focuses upon multidisciplinary investigations using vertebrate fossils to reconstruct polar origination events and ecological dispersals, as well as aspects of adaptive behaviour and climate.

Dr Jamie Stavert

Title: Pollination in a changing world.
Abstract: Worldwide, there is great concern about the decline of pollinators. However, despite ever-increasing research interest and media attention, we still know very little about how human activities impact pollinators and pollination services. Using a case study from New Zealand, I will show how human-mediated environmental change has produced both “winners” and “losers” in pollinator communities. Further, I will discuss how exotic species can provide important pollination services, particularly in highly modified environments where native species have declined. Finally, I will present recent findings on historic pollinator declines, and show that we still know very little about long-term pollinator population trends in most parts of the world.

Professor Saul Cunningham

Title: Plant reproductive ecology, meet modern agriculture.
Abstract: Animal pollination plays a critical role in seed set and maintenance of genetic diversity for most plant species. When these plants are co-opted into agriculture this becomes just one of many factors that influence productivity, but one that is usually paid scant attention. Many ecologists therefore hope that insights from natural systems can be used to improve production while reducing harm to the environment, and consider better pollination to be one of these strategies. I examined the role of pollen and resource limitation of fruit set in an animal pollinated crop (almonds) with a series of experiments over a six year period and found that in spite of the industry spending millions of dollars on the provision of bees, productivity is still limited by pollination. But the prospects for ecologically inspired solutions are not clear, because modern agricultural practice creates circumstances in which it is very difficult to maximise pollination. With this background, I will reflect on the relationship between pollination and food, concerns of pollination decline, and future farming trends.

Dr Iadine Chades

Title: Advances in Artificial Intelligence to help decision making in conservation.
Abstract: We are experiencing rapid change worldwide. In Australia, the number of federally listed species has increased by approximately 10% (44 species) since 2011, yet the resources required to implement existing recovery plan actions are inadequate (Cresswell and Murphy 2016). My research aims at guiding decisions to best allocate our limited resources. To do this, we develop artificial intelligence algorithms. During this seminar, I will present how these algorithms can help guiding decision-making when we don’t know where we are (imperfect detection) and when we don’t know where we are going (uncertain future, adaptive management). I will share my thoughts regarding ways of accelerating our research outcomes and delivering impactful research using AI technology. I will not be talking about drones.

Prof. Michael Bunce

Title: Environmental DNA (eDNA) in space and time - a lens into the potential of metabarcoding to profile biota both past and present.
Abstract: DNA isolated and characterised from a variety of substrates including sediments and water is collectively referred to as environmental DNA (eDNA). DNA is shed into the environment from a variety of biological secretory processes leaving genetic footprint that acts lens into species composition. When combined with next generation sequencing (NGS) and metabarcoding, eDNA can provide a wealth of information for studies of biodiversity, palaeoclimate, extinction processes, food web dynamics, diet analysis. Metabarcoding eDNA has become feasible only because it is now possible to simultaneously sequence millions of copies of DNA from complex multi-species environmental samples. The research in the trace and environmental DNA (TrEnD) laboratory has been developing a variety of workflows to investigate how best to conduct metabarcoding in a variety of applications from coral reef ecosystems and herbal medicines to megafaunal extinctions. This presentation will explore how eDNA derived from both ancient and modern DNA substrates can influence how we study and interpret biological systems and how it might be used in a regulatory setting.

Dr  Michael Renton/Elizabeth Trevenden

Title: Adventures in eco-evolutionary modelling: from optimal rooting to fighting the alien resistance to community diversity.
Abstract: Michael: In this presentation, I will give some examples of mechanistic eco-evolutionary simulation modelling can help us understand, predict and even manage ecological systems. The first example is the evolution of optimal rooting strategies and the advantages (and possible disadvantages) of phenotypic plasticity in plants in different water-limited environments. The second example is the evolution of resistance to herbicides and pesticides in weeds and insect pests, with a focus on the question of whether stronger doses slows or speeds up resistance evolution. The third example is designing optimal surveillance for invasive biosecurity threats such as fruit flies. And the final example is about whether plant-soil interactions can help explain how diversity is maintained in hyper-diverse Mediterranean shrublandsLibby: Plant Soil Feedbacks (PSFs) are plant-induced changes to the abiotic/biotic conditions of the soil that positively or negatively impact plant growth.  The magnitude and direction (positive or negative) of this impact on plant growth is likely to depend on the species involved. In plant communities, such feedbacks create complex interaction networks that have been shown to play a key role in promoting and maintaining high levels of diversity within plant communities. There is mounting evidence that diversity loss leads to reduced resilience, which can be defined as an ecosystem’s ability to recover following disturbance, or its ability to resist its effects completely.  As they can promote diversity, PSFs may also positively influence the resilience of a community, but to our knowledge, this relationship has never directly been empirically or theoretically explored.  Therefore, we explored the effects of different PSF interaction networks on community resilience across several disturbance regimes, using a spatially-explicit stochastic cellular automata simulation model.  The PSF interaction networks were hypothetical model systems, each consisting of 100 species, but designed to highlight different feedback types – including different combinations of positive and negative conspecific and heterospecific interactions, as well as equivalent systems with no interactions.  We found that plant-soil feedback scenarios could influence the diversity and resilience of a community undergoing disturbance, and that particular interaction networks prove more resilient than others.

Dr Bruno Buzzato

Title: Genetic constraints for the evolution of dimorphisms
Abstract: Alternative male phenotypes are usually linked to different tactics for securing matings,  and are very common in insects and arachnids. In this talk I'll go over a few different experiments I used in the last few years to explore the evolution of phenotypically plastic dimorphisms, using dung beetles, earwigs and bulb mites. My most recent and exciting results are with the bulb mite Rhizoglyphus echinopus, where large males (‘fighters’) have a thick and sharply terminated third pair of legs that is used to kill rival males, whereas small males (‘scramblers’) have unmodified legs, and search for unguarded females to mate with. Fighter legs in this species represent a conditionally expressed threshold trait, and a conventional interpretation of threshold traits suggests that only fighters express certain genes for thicker legs, allowing morphs to respond to selection on leg width independently. Using only fighters of R. echinopus as sires, I imposed morph-specific artificial selection on relative leg width and observed a correlated response in the width of the legs of scrambler males. These results represent strong evidence for the correlated evolution of leg thickness between fighters and scramblers, questioning the idea that male morphs are genetically uncoupled and free to respond to selection independently of one another. I'll elaborate on these findings, as well as other experiments, to discuss the evolution of within-species phenotypic diversity despite genetic constraints.

Dr Lisa Schwanz

Title: Thermal parental effects: how parents shape the thermal world and phenotype of their offspring
Abstract: Temperature is one of the most important environmental factors shaping the life of an ectotherm. This effect is particularly strong during the embryonic stage when the developmental machinery of an individual can produce huge variation in phenotype depending on temperature. However, parents and the environment they experience can influence the developmental temperature of their offspring, largely through alterations to parental behaviour during reproduction. Moreover, parents influence how offspring respond to a given developmental temperature. These nongenetic parental effects due to temperature are intriguing aspects of evolutionary ecology that will shape response to environmental change

Associate Professor Kira Westaway

Title: ‘Reigniting student curiousity’ – the art of dynamic engagement, intrinsic motivation, visual stimulation…..and the hard sell!!
Abstract: When I started lecturing I was dismayed and discouraged to find that many students were disengaged, uninterested and only learning for exams. Their child-like curiosity and fire for learning had been extinguished by the pressures of secondary education. As a result they lacked the innovative skills required for the competitive job market. What could be done to stoke the furnace of passionate learning; reignite their curiosity and prepare them for a workforce that demands creative and innovative problem solvers?In response I developed a multi-pronged approach ‘reigniting student curiosity’ that creates effective learning environments using dynamic engagement, intrinsic motivation, visual stimulation and challenging activities that nurture students curiosity and bring everyone along for the ride, whatever their learner background. But to get them to this point you need to be a master of sales – once they believe in what you are selling their curiosity skyrockets. I believe that a curious nature is the key to developing innovative problem solvers, which will help them succeed in any profession.In this interactive talk I will suggest a few techniques to stoke the fires of curiosity in our students suggest ways in which to develop your sales techniques to make learning and teaching a more rewarding experience for everyone.Warning – be prepared to think outside the box, play with balls, a giant Earth and oversized board games!!

Dr April Reside

Title: Land clearing across Australia, the regulated and un(der)-regulated
Abstract: Land clearing is accelerating across eastern Australia, taking it to globally significant levels and therefore intensifying the impacts on both terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and local, regional and global climate. Increases in land clearing have largely been the result of the winding back of policies in place to manage vegetation across many Australian states. The recent policy changes made in Queensland and New South Wales include the introduction of self-assessable codes that allow landholders to clear native vegetation without a permit. While self-regulation makes sense for some small-scale activities, the current self-assessable codes allow large areas of vegetation to be removed from high-risk areas without government oversight.Vegetation policy continues to be the subject of intense and polarised political debate. It needs to strike a balance between protecting the environment and enabling landholders to manage their businesses efficiently and sustainably. In this talk I will cover the latest policy settings and ecological implications of land clearing across Australia.

Dr Michael Stat

Title: Organisms to ecosystems with DNA: The evolutionary ecology of corals and the biodiversity of marine ecosystems
Abstract: In this talk I will highlight the broad utility of using DNA to answer questions about the evolution and ecology of a species through to capturing the entire breadth of biodiversity present in an ecosystem. The first part will focus on research conducted on corals that has provided insight into the adaptive potential of coral reefs. The second part will focus on the development of metabarcoding workflows and the analysis of environmental DNA (eDNA) for studying spatio-temporal patterns of biodiversity and for the detection of invasive species.

Prof Geoff Hill

Title: Speciation and sexual selection as processes to maintain mitonuclear coadapation
Abstract: Eukaryotic performance hinges on the coordinated function of the products of the nuclear and mitochondrial genomes in achieving oxidative phosphorylation.  Because two genomes are involved, function is maintained only through perpetual selection for mitonuclear coadaptation.  I’ll discuss how these fundamental features of the genomic architecture of eukaryotes results in both pre- and post-zygotic sorting for coadapted mitonuclear genotypes leading to both speciation and sexual selection, highlighting recent work with songbird coloration.

Prof Andrew Skidmore

Title: Remote sensing enabled Essential Biodiversity Variables for environmental monitoring
Abstract: Many of the key challenges that face humanity are due to the impacts of global change on the stability of ecosystems and natural services that they provide. In this presentation, I will discuss the process and progress in using remote sensing for monitoring of Essential Biodiversity Variables (EBVs) to predict the consequences of changes in the global drivers of biodiversity. Essential Biodiversity Variable (EBVs) are defined as the key variables required to observe, understand, and report on change in the state of biodiversity. They sit as a layer between raw biodiversity observations and the biodiversity indicators used in policy, such as the indicators measuring progress towards the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) Aichi Targets and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). EBVs provide key guidance to the observation system in terms of what it should measure, and their intermediate position between observations and indicators isolates those indicators from changes in observation technology. Satellite remote sensing can play a crucial role in the measurement of EBVs, particularly for a subset of EBVs which we denote by remote sensing enabled EBVs. Largely, this is because the global and periodic nature of satellite remote sensing greatly simplifies the acquisition of the needed observations, making remote sensing an ideal method for understanding change at national as well as other scales. Using the EBV framework as a baseline (Pereira et al. 2013) the Group on Earth Observation Biodiversity Observation Network (GEO BON) held three workshops to discuss current and future satellite missions and their ability to provide observations useful for generating EBVs. The goal was to create a list of candidate RS enabled EBVs by carefully considering, amongst others, factors such as an ability to meet policy needs, priority, feasibility, implementation status, spatial resolution and temporal frequency. The list published in Skidmore et al. (2015) contains RS enabled EBVs that are continuous and biophysical such as leaf area index and species traits, as well as others that use somewhat arbitrary class boundaries, such as land cover and disturbed areas. Also, like some Essential Climate Variables (ECVs), a number of RS enabled EBVs are actually groups of related variables that describe a phenomenon of interest (e.g, plant traits, phenology, disturbance). I will explore progress and challenges in using state-of-the-art remote sensing to retrieve EBVs from remote sensing. With this list as a starting point, the next steps in the process can begin, with the ultimate goal of putting a plan in place to acquire the needed RS observations to generate the related EBVs. The current approach for this process is described. The key organizations for this are the CBD, IPBES, CEOS, and GEO BON, with GEO playing a facilitative role, however, the broader biodiversity community is also very important. A key goal is to meet as many as possible of the reporting needs that CBD signatory countries have for the Aichi targets, as well as for the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Prof Angela Moles

Title: Rapid evolution in introduced species: will introduced plant species eventually be accepted as unique native taxa?
Abstract: Introducing species to a new environment creates excellent conditions for evolution, as the species are released from their old enemies and subjected to a new suite of biotic and abiotic pressures. Our work with herbarium specimens has shown that 70% of the plant species introduced to Australia have undergone significant morphological change since their introduction. Differences between source and introduced populations are retained when they are grown in common conditions (check out the picture of S. African vs Australian beach daisies). If we can’t eradicate introduced species (and we seldom can), then it seems inevitable that they will eventually evolve to become unique new taxa (whether we like it or not). At this point, we will have to decide whether to accept them as new native species, or try to exterminate them. While most ecologists don’t like the idea yet, I think acceptance of introduced species is just a matter of time. I have been called a witch for these ideas before - bring on the arguments!

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