Exciting postgraduate research projects studying the genetic diversity of Pilbara fauna

MSU's blog | Created 3 years ago

The Western Australian Museum Molecular Systematics Unit is supporting the research of four PhD students, who are supervised by Research Scientists Dr Joel Huey and Dr Nerida Wilson, and funded through the Net Conservation Benefits fund. Each student and their research project will be introduced in these blog entries and we will provide exciting updates as their research progresses. To start, here is my blog.

Linette Umbrello - PhD student at the University of Western Australia

I have always been interested in wildlife and from a young age was enthralled with the native species that frequented our farm in the rural town of York, WA. At age ten I decided I wanted to be a zoologist and after completing High School in Northam I enrolled in Wildlife Management (BSc.) at the University of Western Australia.

During my undergraduate degree I had the opportunity to increase my knowledge and experience of native species. For my Honours project I studied a small group of woylies, or brush-tail bettongs (Bettongia penicillata) released into a new predator-proof fenced reserve at Whiteman Park, north of Perth. I studied the captive reared animals to see if they could survive in the new habitat and also assessed their impact on the Swan Coastal Plain environment. The woylies flourished in their new home and also performed useful ecosystem functions including; helping water penetrate the hydrophobic sandy soils and dispersing seeds and fungal spores. I graduated with First Class Honours and was awarded the Royal Society Student Medal.

Throughout my undergraduate degree I was also involved in volunteer work, including assisting the research of Dr Paul Doughty, the Herpetology Curator at the WA Museum. I then worked as a Technical Officer in the Terrestrial Zoology section (Mammals, Birds and Reptiles) at the Museum for almost four years, which included field work to the Houtman Abrolhos Islands and the Central Kimberley in WA. During my time at the Museum my knowledge of Australia’s native species vastly increased and I began to think more about their evolution and systematics.

Pilbara planigale (Planigale sp.). Photo copyright Linette Umbrello.

Pilbara planigale (Planigale sp.). Photo copyright Linette Umbrello.

Motivated to delve deeper to answer these questions I decided to conduct my own research and was successful in securing a PhD Scholarship at UWA in mid-2014. My research is partly funded by the Net Conservation Benefits Project, run through the Museum’s Molecular Systematics Unit. For my project I am asking questions about the mechanisms driving divergence in the small mammal fauna of the arid zone and will be using molecular data (DNA) to explore these mechanisms. The species I am focussing on are the dunnarts and planigales occurring in the Pilbara and North Western deserts of WA. These are carnivorous marsupials belonging to the family Dasyuridae and are distant relatives to the chuditch (western quoll) and Tasmanian devil. They are comparable in size to mice, but have a mouth packed full of sharp little teeth that they use to devour their invertebrate prey. Dasyurids show particularly high species diversity in the arid zone and my research will provide insights into their evolution, while also helping to inform conservation planning in an area subject to the pressures of mining development.

Long-tail dunnart (Sminthopsis longicaudata). Photo copyright Ryan Ellis.

Long-tailed dunnart (Sminthopsis longicaudata). Photo copyright Ryan Ellis.

Examining the remains of a nest-bitumen left by an extinct rodent

Linette examining the remains of a nest-bitumen left by the extinct lesser stick-next rat (Leporillus apicalis) at Mt Bruce, in the Pilbara of WA. Photo copyright Claire Stevenson.