Behavioural evolution in Tasmanian devil

Analysing pedigrees of wild Tasmanian devils to reveal disease-induced changes in social organisation, sexual selection and behaviour

Degree type


Closing date

27 March 2023



Citizenship requirement


About the research project

Novel infectious diseases can cause high mortality in the host animal leading to severe population decline. Tasmanian devils have suffered more than 80% population decline across their range in the last 25 years due to a rare, fatal transmissible cancer – devil facial tumour disease (DFTD). DFTD is spread by biting and kills most devils once they reach sexual maturity as they bite each other during the mating season. Extreme adult mortality will create strong evolutionary selection pressure and we expect that both devils and their tumours will evolve towards an endemic state in which they coexist with potential recovery of the devil population. Population decline has now stabilised, and devils persist in long-diseased areas of Tasmania. Devils are evolving resistance to the disease, and their dispersal patterns, life history and behaviour are changing. There appears to be a reduction in aggression, which may reduce the chance of becoming infected.

The project will show how severe and sustained population decline affects the social organisation, the mating system, sexual selection in and behaviour of the Tasmanian devil. We will use a large pedigree of a wild population that has been monitored for 23 years to test whether these social and behavioural changes are heritable and whether the attributes of individuals and lineages adapt them better to the disease. The project will involve field trapping of Tasmanian devils and construction and analysis of a large pedigree data set derived from genomics. The study site and Tasmania are beautiful and the site and methods are established. The project is part of an international collaboration and will imbed the student in a multi-disciplinary team with regular meetings of investigators and other students in Australia and the US. The supervisory team covers the range of speciality expertise in ecology, genomics and mathematics required for the project.

Primary Supervisor

Meet A/Prof Menna Jones


Applicants will be considered for a Research Training Program (RTP) scholarship or Tasmania Graduate Research Scholarship (TGRS) which, if successful, provides:

  • a living allowance stipend of $31,500 per annum (2023 rate, indexed annually) for 3.5 years
  • a relocation allowance of up to $2,000
  • a tuition fees offset covering the cost of tuition fees for up to four years (domestic applicants only)

If successful, international applicants will receive a University of Tasmania Fees Offset for up to four years.

As part of the application process you may indicate if you do not wish to be considered for scholarship funding.


Applicants should review the Higher Degree by Research minimum entry requirements.

Additional eligibility criteria specific to this project/scholarship:

  • The degree must be undertaken on a full-time basis
  • Applicants must already have been awarded a First-Class Honours degree or hold equivalent qualifications or relevant and substantial research experience in an appropriate sector
  • Applicants must be able to demonstrate strong research and analytical skills
  • Applicants must meet English requirements or be able to do so before commencement

Selection Criteria

The project is competitively assessed and awarded.  Selection is based on academic merit and suitability to the project as determined by the College.

Additional essential selection criteria specific to this project:

  • A good understanding in the fields of behavioural and quantitative ecology
  • Ability to conduct field work in remote locations
  • Proficient with quantitative analyses of genomic data sets
  • Ability to work with multiple and large data sets
  • Proven success in developing mathematical models and coding in R statistics
  • Ability to work as part of an interdisciplinary team
  • Current driver's licence

Additional desirable selection criteria specific to this project:

  • Experience with 4WD and remote field work

Application process

There is a three-step application process:

  1. Select your project, and check you meet the eligibility and selection criteria;
  2. Contact the Primary Supervisor, A/Prof Menna Jones to discuss your suitability and the project's requirements; and
  3. Submit an application by the closing date listed above.
    • Copy and paste the title of the project from this advertisement into your application. If you don’t correctly do this your application may be rejected.
    • As part of your application, you will be required to submit a covering letter, a CV including 2 x referees and your project research proposal.

Following the application closing date applications will be assessed within the College. Applicants should expect to receive notification of the outcome by email by the advertised outcome date.

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