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We seek to develop a greater understanding of organisms, their interactions with each other and how those interactions are altered by natural and anthropogenic disturbances.

The life blood of Biological Sciences at UTAS comes from our energetic and enthusiastic post-graduate research students.  These young researchers have chosen to undertake either a two-year Master’s degree or a three-year PhD, during which they take charge of a supervised research project and develop skills in project management, experimental design, data collection and analysis, scientific communication and time management.

Postgraduate projects available for the current round are shown on the Research Degrees site under the School of Natural Sciences.  However, other projects become available on a regular basis.

Research Specialisations and Strengths

Behavioural Ecology asks fundamental questions about how an organism’s behaviour allows it to deal with the challenges presented by its environment. Crucially, how well organisms deal with those challenges forms the bedrock for large scale ecological and evolutionary change. The Behavioural and Evolutionary Ecology Research Group (BEER Group) examines these questions across a broad range of research contexts. This includes asking how and why organisms live together in complex societies, how behavioural traits interact with environmental conditions to influence offspring development (including things as important as offspring sex), how behaviour mediates the outcome of hybridisation between species, and how environmental conditions influence the aging process. Answers to all these questions are not just important for understanding how the world works – they are also crucial for addressing many of the world’s pressing environmental issues. Indeed, the current speed of environmental change means that organisms need to respond to new environmental conditions over extremely short time periods. An increased understanding of how they achieve this will be crucial for predicting the impacts of this change across biological systems.

To tackle the above questions, we utilise a range of systems relevant to our individual research needs. This includes a heavy focus on lizards as a model system, but also marsupials, birds, frogs and insects. We have a range of facilities, access to long-term data and international collaborative networks all of which help us tackle these questions in integrated, multidisciplinary and holistic ways.

Relevant Researchers:
  • Erik Wapstra: Sex allocation, sex determination telomere biology, developmental plasticity, life history evolution
  • Geoff While: Social evolution, developmental plasticity, hybridisation
  • Elissa Cameron: Ecological physiology, reproductive biology
  • Chris Burridge: Population, evolutionary and conservation genetics
  • Menna Jones: Wildlife and habitat management
  • Rodrigo Hamede: Disease ecology and epidemiology

Tasmania provides an ideal environment in which to conduct studies relevant to conservation biology and wildlife management. Like many islands, Tasmania is characterised by unique and fascinating fauna including endemic species in each of the major animal phyla, such as the famous Tasmanian devil (largest marsupial carnivore) and the giant freshwater crayfish, Astacopsis gouldi.

And while some native animals are rare and hard to find, others – wallabies, potoroos, pademelons, possums, bandicoots, wombats, bats, lizards, snakes, frogs, eagles, wrens and arthropods … even echidnas and platypus! - can be seen in easily accessible places around cities, gardens, local reserves and national parks. Tasmania is a naturalist’s paradise.

Research conducted in zoology addresses many topics relevant to the conservation and management of the Tasmanian fauna. We are focussing on the impact of landscape management on native fauna and ecosystem processes as well as the epidemiology and ecological impacts of wildlife diseases, including Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD).

Relevant researchers:
  • Leon Barmuta: Freshwater ecology, community ecology, environmental management
  • Chris Burridge: Population, evolutionary, conservation genetics
  • Scott Carver: Host-parasite interactions, epidemiology
  • Chris Johnson: Population and community ecology
  • Menna Jones: Wildlife and habitat management
  • Rodrigo Hamede: Disease ecology and epidemiology
  • Ashley Edwards: Comparative endocrinology
  • Geoff While: Invasion biology, climate change

Over the next decades, Earth will witness unprecedented changes in ecosystem form and function as a result of climate change, land use change and human activities. In Tasmania the past decade has been the hottest and driest on record. In addition to extended droughts and more frequent flash flooding, the frequency and severity of bushfires continue to increase at alarming rates. Drought, flood and fire are negatively impacting ecosystems, property, and physical and mental health.

Investigating and understanding the impacts of global change on natural ecosystems and human society is essential for environmental planning and management, damage mitigation and policy development.

Relevant researchers:
  • David Bowman: Fire ecology, pyrogeography
  • Barry Brook: Population ecology, stochastic analysis and modelling
  • Chris Johnson: Management of threatened and invasive species
  • Mark Hovenden: Terrestrial carbon balance

Tasmania is home to a diverse range of terrestrial ecosystems including buttongrass plains, temperate rainforests, dry sclerophyll, wet sclerophyll, grassland and alpine habitats. The easily accessible natural resources provide countless options for scientific enquiry and are central to our research and teaching programs.

Research projects in Plant Ecology are many and varied. Traditional ecologists use field-based experiments to study the interactions among plants, and between plants and the environment, in order to understand how ecosystem function and how environmental change might affect them. Other researchers approach ecology from an evolutionary perspective, using evidence from fossils and living plants to investigate evolution of species, communities and vegetation types, with a view to understanding how and why plants live where they do. Another research theme centres on plant hydraulics: how the vascular system enables plants to survive – or otherwise – in different environments, and how this knowledge can be applied to developing drought-resilient crops.

Relevant researchers:
  • Tim Brodribb: Plant hydraulics, drought physiology
  • Mark Hovenden: Plant physiology, terrestrial ecology
  • Greg Jordan: Paleoecology, plant evolution, plant physiology
  • David Bowman: Landscape ecology, fire-vegetation interaction, dendroecolog

Forests are complex ecological systems.  Their function is determined by the genetic makeup of the dominant species and the interactions of their dependent communities. At UTAS we use our local eucalypt forests as living laboratories in which to investigate patterns and processes of genetic variation, examining fundamental processes such as gene flow, adaptation, speciation and community interactions, including plant-animal interactions and pest management.  Outcomes of this fundamental research have applications in industry, forest management, conservation and restoration.

Relevant researchers:
  • René Vaillancourt: Population genetics, genetic control of complex traits
  • Brad Potts: Tree breeding, forest restoration
  • Dorothy Steane: Adaptation genetics and genomics
  • Rebecca Jones: Conservation genetics and phylogenetics
  • Julianne O’Reilly-Wapstra: Plant-animal interactions
  • Sue Baker: Forest ecology and sustainable management
  • Greg Jordan: Forest ecology

Most land plants are anchored by their roots to a single place for their entire life. As they can’t move, they need other strategies to cope with the challenges that come their way, which include extreme temperatures, lack of water and nutrients, disease and herbivores. Our research aims to understand how plants grow, how they respond to the world around them, and the features that enable them to be successful across diverse environments.

Our work uses a range of molecular, genetic, genomic, biochemical, physiological and other analytical approaches to investigate many important plant processes and characteristics. These include seed germination, light perception and response, shoot branching and growth habit, leaf function and water loss, the control of flowering, responses to environmental stresses, use of nutrients, and beneficial relationships with bacteria and fungi.

We aim to understand the underlying mechanisms including gene networks, hormonal control, environmental sensors and metabolic pathways that regulate these aspects of plant development and physiology at the level of cells, organs, and the plant as a whole.

In addition to providing fundamental understanding of plant biology and evolution, this work has many current and potential applications in crop improvement for sustainable agriculture and food security. Our researchers are key members of the Centre of Excellence for Plant Success in Nature and Agriculture.

Relevant researchers:
  • Jim Weller: flowering and reproduction, light responses, crop domestication and adaptation
  • Steven Smith: seed germination, plant growth, architecture and responses to environment
  • Eloise Foo: Plant hormones, symbioses, nodulation, arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis
  • Frances Sussmilch: molecular physiology and genetics of stomatal function

Honours Research and Summer Research

Students who have completed a relevant Bachelor’s degree may enrol in an Honours program to study under the supervision of a team of researchers. Over nine and a half months, students carry out their own research project guided by their supervisory team, undertake a literature review, write a research proposal and present a research seminar.

If you are interested in undertaking an Honours project, contact one of the co-ordinators or get in touch with potential supervisors directly.

Every year the College of Science and Engineering awards a number of scholarships that allow undergraduate students to conduct research for 6 - 8 weeks over the summer break, between November and February.

Embedded within an existing research group, you will gain valuable research experience as well as a bit of cash. This experience will give you an edge for pursuing your new career, demonstrating that you can put your knowledge into practice, and building valuable skills in time and project management.

It may also pave the way for a career in research, starting with a research Honours year and leading all the way to a PhD.

Contact Mark Hovenden about this program.

Associated Centres

Biological Sciences hosts three ARC funded research and training centres: the ARC Training Centre for Forest Value (2016-2020) and nodes of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage (2017-2023) and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Plant Success in Nature and Agriculture (2020-2026). We also lead a major national GRDC-funded project on the genetics and physiology of phenology in pulse (grain legume) crops (2019-2024). These offer valuable training opportunities to talented students interested in pursuing higher degrees in a range of fundamental and applied research areas.

We are also home to the Fire Centre Research Hub that brings together fire researchers from around Tasmania and is a contact point for the research needs of fire practitioners in Tasmania and around the world.