Avoiding extinction: natural and sexual selection in the wild

   School of Biological Sciences

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  Dr Natasha LeBas, Prof Leigh Simmons  Applications accepted all year round  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Wild populations are becoming smaller and more isolated; whilst simultaneously having to adapt to a rapidly changing environment and climate. Against this stark dichotomy of adapt or perish, it is imperative that we learn how best to support small, fragmented populations. While lab-based systems exist to guide us, there are few robust natural systems within which we can develop our understanding. In the proposed projects we leverage a natural system whose unique population dynamics mimic those of many threatened species. The project will investigate

1) the key factors in the wild that enhance adaptive potential in a changing environment

2) the role of sexual selection in improving genetic health.  

We are powerfully placed to determine the relationships between natural and sexual selection and genomic parameters in the wild due to our long-term study system, the ornate dragon lizard (Ctenophorus ornatus). We have over 3,500 individuals sampled from over 70 wild populations dating back 26 years. The ornate dragon resides on isolated granite outcrop ‘islands’ within a ‘sea’ of wheatfields, providing the level of replication and population variation required to establish the predictors of extinction. The ornate dragon genome is sequenced and annotated, ensuring we can rapidly and accurately measure genomic parameters.  

The PhD may investigate:

• The capacity and role of sexual selection to remove damaging mutations in the wild, with a focus on the role of sperm health as a first indicator of high mutation load. Sperm health is the ‘canary in the coal mine’ indicator trait for genetic health and environmental harm.

• The genetic and demographic predictors of population persistence versus extinction in a changing environment in the wild.

• Rapid adaptation to a changing environment in the wild. 100-year-old land clearing has altered granite surfaces and changed selection pressures on lizard coloration.

To be a successful applicant you would ideally have a background in evolutionary biology, conservation or genomics/bioinformatics depending on project preference. The project on lizard coloration has a large image analysis component and an engineering/maths background would be considered. You would either have, or be predicted, to get a first-class Honours or Master’s degree at an institution of high repute. The degree must have included a research project that represents a significant contribution to the final mark. While papers are important evidence of research ability a high GPA weighs more on the ranking process, so if your GPA is good but you have no publications please consider applying.

If you are interested, please email us with a CV, academic transcripts and brief letter stating your interest and background and we will let you know whether we think your skill set and academic record would place you well against the competition.

Applications are open for both Australian (domestic round) and non-Australian (international round) applicants.

Update: The next international round will open on the 1st of July and close 30th August 2024. A short domestic round (Australian and New Zealand applicants) is currently open and will close 4th March 2024. Please contact us if you are interested in applying.


Biological Sciences (4)

Funding Notes

Australian Research Council Discovery Project


Levy, E., Kennington, J., Tomkins, J. & Lebas, N., 2010. Land clearing reduces gene flow in the granite outcrop-dwelling lizard, Ctenophorus ornatus. Molecular Ecology. 19, p. 4192-4203
Dugand, R., Tomkins, J. & Kennington, W., 2019. Molecular evidence supports a genic capture resolution of the lek paradox. Nature Communications. 10, 1359.
Lebas, N. & Marshall, N. J., 2000. The role of colour in signalling and male choice in the agamid lizard, Ctenophorus ornatus. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London: series B. 267, p. 445-452
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