Animal behaviour Environment

Animal behaviour Environment

Understanding animal behaviour, or ethology, helps us understand evolutionary history, genetics and even human psychology.

Macquarie’s animal behaviour program includes the scientific and objective study of how animals behave with an emphasis on evolutionary favourable adaptations, and allows you to gain unique professional experience working with animals in the field.

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Professional experience

At Macquarie we understand the importance of hands on experience in the industry of your dreams. Through Macquarie University's PACE program you can gain real-world experience well before you graduate.

Interested in the behaviour and health of animals? PACE provides opportunities for students interested in animal behaviour to gain unique professional experience working with animals in the field.

Previous students have worked as volunteer zookeepers at Taronga Zoo providing animal husbandry assistance in areas such as food preparation, cleaning and exhibit maintenance. Others have worked at Wildlife Sydney looking after the wellbeing of birds, mammals and reptiles, assisting with preparing birds for shows, monitoring animal health and possibly assisting keepers with capture and restraint of animals.

“It was an amazing experience to be able to transition what I had learned in the classroom to a real life context … I have been accepted into post-graduate Honours in Zoology next year in South Africa and hope to conduct a research study on captive lion behaviour.” – PACE alumna, Claire Burgess

The sky is the limit at Macquarie University. No matter what you decide to study, PACE has an opportunity available for you. Learn more about the opportunities available through PACE.

Student experience

Recognition for Prior Learning (RPL)

You can get Recognition for Prior Learning (RPL) for study that did not culminate in an award and some previously completed qualifications. Macquarie University will automatically count your previous study as general credit points (at 100 and 200 level, and sometimes at 300 level). If your prior study includes material that is essentially the same as a Macquarie unit, then you can apply to have this unit exempted. To do so, see Recognition for Prior Learning.

Can my prior study be counted towards specific credits for units at all levels (100, 200 and 300), or are there restrictions?

In previous years, Macquarie only granted credit at 100 and 200 level. This has now changed so that it's possible to apply for up to six credit points (two units) of credit at 300 level. If in doubt, please speak with an adviser.

Can I get RPL for units I studied for a TAFE diploma?

In some cases, you can. See more information on RPL. It's important that if/when you do apply that you provide as much information as possible on the courses/units that you've completed at TAFE.

Kick start your technical lab skills workshops - February 2016

Open to students studying at Macquarie University in 2016

The Kick start your technical lab skills workshop is for students who are studying science at Macquarie University but did not study science at HSC level; for those needing to gain confidence in their technical lab skills; and for those students who want a refresher course in technical lab skills.

The laboratory skills workshop will develop a range of practical skills for the science laboratory, delivered ahead of the formal learning period. A suite of techniques will be demonstrated and practiced across two intensive days. Students during the two-day period will be asked to follow set procedures and methods, and apply well-developed technical skills, basic scientific knowledge and become familiar with Work Health and Safety requirements.

Find out more about our Kick start workshops »

Scholarships and prizes 

Barbara Rice

Rice Memorial Fund

The Rice Memorial Fund was established by donations following the death of Barbara Rice in 2009. It honours her memory by encouraging field research. Distributions from the fund support two prizes, named “Rice Memorial Field Research Award” and “Rice Memorial Field Research Proposal Award”.

The Rice Memorial Field Research Award is determined by a Selection Committee at the annual postgraduate conference of the Department of Biological Sciences. All postgraduate research students enrolled in Biological Sciences and giving presentations at the conference and describing research with a substantial fieldwork component are considered as candidates. Field research is interpreted as meaning research undertaken in outdoor environments where wild populations of the study organisms occur. Criteria are the quality of the research, plus the effort and challenge of the fieldwork, plus liveliness and clarity in the conference presentation.

The Rice Memorial Field Research Proposal Award is given for an annual report that incorporates the best proposal towards field research during the forthcoming year.

If the Selection Committee remains undecided between candidates on the basis of other criteria, then preference may be given to candidates whose research or proposal is about plants on land. This preference recognizes Barbara Rice’s personal research in terrestrial botany, but is not to override the major criteria of research excellence and field activity.

Each Award is to be given to a single candidate and not divided. A student may win either Award on more than one occasion, but not for the same fieldwork or proposed fieldwork. The Selection Committee may decide not to make one of the Awards in any given year, taking into account the quality of the candidates and the financial situation of the Fund.

Tony Price Award

In the late 1970s, local Auburn resident Greville Anthony (Tony) Price (1934–2010), recognised the value of the vegetation of Duck River and Rookwood Cemetery in Auburn, both for the species they held and the clues they could give to past vegetation patterns. He spent three years surveying and collecting plants in the area and compiled an extensive list of the existing plant species, recorded ecological observations, and interpolated them into a picture of the landscape and vegetation of the district at the time of European settlement. 

Tony Price was a student in the (then) School of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University in the 1980s. Tony Price was widely consulted for his botanical knowledge, and his ecological work and opinions provided baselines for research, as well as environmental management by councils, catchment authorities, community groups and others, both locally and within the wider district. He was a founding member of the Friends of Duck River Reserve whose activities included: petitioning for interpretative signage; instigating fencing of the area to protect it from minibike riders and overflow parking at the Melita Soccer Stadium; gaining funding for the removal of old car bodies from the reserve; ensuring the retention of trees along the riverbanks; propagating local species and undertaking bush regeneration work. Tony Price left a small bequest to Macquarie University to support future plant ecology research. 1

1. Hewitt, A. Revisiting Tony Price’s (1979) account of the native vegetation of Duck River and Rookwood Cemetery, western Sydney. Cunninghamia 13, 25–124 (2013).

The Milthorpe Postgraduate Award

This scheme is supported by a bequest to the (then) School of Biological Sciences by the family of Fred Milthorpe. Professor Milthorpe was a Founding Chair in the School of Biological Sciences. He was a plant physiologist in the classical sense, influencing a generation of plant scientists here and abroad. His research revealed underlying biological processes that are critical to forestry, agriculture and horticulture. His philosophy was to make discoveries by inspiring postgraduate students to be curious about their research questions and thoughtful about how they execute them. This award aims to foster these philosophies. The maximum amount of the award is $1500 and the award is offered in alternate years.

Locally referred to as The Hill, the area is committed to non-intrusive research, such as learning to avoid predation, and natural animal behaviours.

Vertebrates (birds, fish, reptiles) or invertebrates (bees, flies, spiders) are observed in natural settings with minimal disruption to their normal environment. This allows the researchers to verify findings they have documented in the field. Other areas of investigation are water ecology and the competitive abilities of native trees.

The primary focus of the research is to determine how evolution has effected the development of brains by observing the animal's behaviour as they interact with their environment in competition with their own and other species.

Research has a strong focus on conservation and environmental protection and all work with vertebrates has been approved by the Animal Ethics Committee.

Find out more about the Macquarie University Fauna Park.


The research notes that fish cognition and their sensory perception are generally on par with that of other animals. Brown therefore argues that more consideration should be given to fish welfare and anti-cruelty issues.

Brown says that most people rarely think about fish other than as food, or as pets. However, they are second only to mice in terms of the numbers used in scientific research, and the more than 32,000 known species of fish far outweigh the diversity of all other vertebrates combined. Very little public concern – which is so important to inform policy – is ever noted about fish welfare issues. Brown believes this relates to incorrect perceptions about the intelligence of fish, and ultimately of whether they are conscious. Such attitudes are also influenced because humans rarely come into contact with fish in their natural environments.

Brown’s review focuses especially on bony fish. It suggests that fish are, in fact, far more intelligent than many previously believed. Fish have very good memories, live in complex social communities where they keep track of individuals, and can learn from one another. This helps to develop stable cultural traditions. Fish even recognise themselves and others. They also cooperate with one another and show signs of Machiavellian intelligence, such as cooperation and reconciliation. They build complex structures, are capable of using tools, and use the same methods for keeping track of quantities as humans do. For the most part the primary senses of fish are just as good, and in many cases, better, than that of humans. Their behaviour is very much the same as that of primates, except that fish do not have the ability to imitate.

The level of mental complexity fish display is on a par with most other vertebrates, while there is mounting evidence that they can feel pain in a manner similar to humans. While the brains of fish differ from other vertebrates, fish have many analogous structures that perform similar functions. Brown concludes that if any animals are sentient, fish must be considered to be so too.

“Although scientists cannot provide a definitive answer on the level of consciousness for any non-human vertebrate, the extensive evidence of fish behavioural and cognitive sophistication and pain perception suggests that best practice would be to lend fish the same level of protection as any other vertebrate,” concludes Brown, who acknowledges that such a move has implications for the fishing industry, among others. “We should therefore include fish in our ‘moral circle’ and afford them the protection they deserve.”

Fish intelligence, sentience and ethics. Animal Cognition. Brown, C. (2014).

Using data collected over 18 years on nearly 7000 females, researchers from Macquarie University, the University of Tasmania, CEFE-CNRS, and the University of Oxford, show that young females have a lower chance of survival following their first breeding event compared to experienced breeders or non-breeders.

Moreover, females starting to breed early, for example at age three, are even less likely to survive to the following year than females first breeding at age four.
Lead researcher Marine Desprez from Macquarie University says given the number of southern elephant seals at Macquarie Island has been in decline for many years, the loss of young female seals has grave ramifications.

“The age at which individuals first reproduce is an important factor that may be the most important determinant of a female seal’s lifetime reproductive output, which in turn can have major consequences on population dynamics.

“Elephant seals are apex predators, at the top of the food chain. They integrate the resources available within the southern ocean, making them critical indicators of the productivity and health of the ocean.

“Currently, their population is declining at a rate of 0.8 per cent per year, and an earlier study estimated that since 1988, there has been a reduction of approximately 5400 breeding females.

”Female elephant seals fast while they feed their pup, during a lactation period that lasts about 24 days. This quickly leads to a reduction in body mass, on average of 35 per cent. They can lose up to a costly 8kg a day.”

Reproduction is even more costly for the young first-time mums because they are still growing when they first breed. Female elephant seals grow until six years of age, so at three are still young and generally smaller. Growing animals must allocate energy to both growth and reproduction, therefore only the strongest and healthiest first-time mums will survive their first breeding event.

“This study is a first step in understanding the long-term decline of the population of elephant seals at Macquarie Island. The more we understand the elephant seals’ life, the better we may be able to prevent their decline,” said Marine.

“Our next step is to investigate if there is a link between the decline of the population and the environment in which the seals live and then to predict how the population will evolve in the future.”

The full research paper “Age-specific cost of first reproduction in female southern elephant seals,” has been published by Biology Letters.

Age-specific cost of first reproduction in female southern elephant seals, Biology Letters June 2014, Desprez, Marine; Macquarie University, Harcourt, Robert; Macquarie University, Hindell, Mark; University of Tasmania, Cubaynes, Sarah; University of Oxford, Gimenez, Olivier; CEFE-CNRS, McMahon, Clive; University of Tasmania (Corresponding author (marine.desprez@mq.edu.au), published online.

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