PhD and MRes (Masters) students

 Harry Suter — PhD student, July 2019-

Harry Suter

I am a co-tutelle PhD student registered at both the University of Bristol and Macquarie University. My supervisors are Andy Radford, Ben Ashton, Ines Braga Goncalves and Martin Whiting

I am interested in understanding how sociality influences the evolution of cognition. Sociality has long been seen as a major driver of cognitive evolution, with leading hypotheses suggesting that an increase in the complexity of an organism’s social life requires an increase in cognitive investment. However, research has typically focused on the importance of just within-group interactions, overlooking a second major axis of sociality: interactions with conspecific outsiders. Out-group interactions likely present novel cognitive challenges and increase the complexity of within-group interactions.

The aim of my PhD is to investigate how these interactions with outsiders drive cognitive evolution. To do so, I am quantifying the cognitive performance of the cooperatively breeding cichlid fish, Neolamprologus pulcher, and the territorial bearded dragon, Pogona vitticeps, in response to social treatments of differing social complexity. I am also using meta-analytical and theoretical approaches to investigate interspecific differences in neuroanatomy and cognitive performance in relation to variation in social life history traits.”

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Jai Lake — PhD student, April 2022-

Jai Lake

PhD project: How to be social: understanding the mechanisms underpinning complex sociality

I’ve wanted to work with animals for as long as I can remember, likely due to a childhood spent watching David Attenborough and Steve Irwin. I followed this passion and completed an integrated Masters’s degree in Zoology at the University of Bristol, UK, during which time I became increasingly interested in animal behaviour and social systems. After my degree, I worked on a variety of projects looking at aspects of sociality, including social learning in chickens, cooperation in molerats, and communication in chimpanzees.

I am now a PhD student with the Lizard Lab working under the supervision of Martin Whiting and Geoff While. The aim of my project will be to understand how social systems are formed and maintained, using a combination of behavioral ecology and neuroscience techniques. I will be specifically looking at the Egernia group of skinks, which display a wide range of social systems and are therefore an ideal model for investigating the evolution of sociality. I’m excited to begin working on a system that is new to me, and to live in a country with some sunshine. 

Yorick Lambreghts — PhD student, November 2019-

Yorick Lambreghts

PhD project: Unraveling the co-evolutionary dynamics between kin recognition and social complexity

I completed my MSc in Behavioural and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Antwerp (Belgium) in 2017. I have always been especially interested in animal behaviour, which led me to mainly participate in projects on personality related behavioural traits in birds and lizards. While I liked working with birds, I have come to prefer lizards because they cannot fly away.

For my PhD I will investigate the early evolution of social groups with a particular interest in the role of kin recognition. As a model system I will use reproductively bimodal species (females of the same species are either egg-laying or live-bearing depending on population) such as Saiphos equalis and Lerista bougainvillii in addition to family-living lizards of the Egernia group. Specifically, I will look at the evolution of kin recognition, its importance in the early evolution of sociality and how it becomes refined as social systems become increasingly complex. My PhD will be in collaboration with Martin and also, Geoff While (University of Tasmania), and Camilla Whittington (University of Sydney). Technically, my PhD is through UTAS!

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Stephanie Deering— PhD student, January 2022-

Stephanie Deering with her Masters study animal, the Magnificent Tree Frog.

Phd project: Investigating behavioural innovation and animal culture in overcoming species invasions

For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to work with animals. I started out my journey in the veterinary space but quickly realised my passion was in animal behaviour and the natural world. I completed a Bachelor of science (Zoology) and Bachelor of Natural Science (Animal Science) at Western Sydney University. I continued on to complete my Master of Research at Macquarie University, investigating aggregation behaviour and cognitive performance in magnificent tree frogs.

I am currently undertaking my PhD through the University of Canberra, supervised by Simon Clulow, Richard Duncan and Martin Whiting. The aim of my PhD is to investigate predator-prey interactions in Torresian crows and invasive cane toads (a novel, toxic prey). My project focuses on understanding how behavioural innovation and social learning have played a role in developing behaviours to safely consume toads.

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Bethan Govier — PhD student, December 2022-

Bethan Govier and a very large Günther’s gecko on Round Island.

I have had a somewhat unconventional journey to starting my PhD but have always known it would centre around lizards! I completed my BSc (Hons) in animal behaviour and welfare in 2015 and went on to work as a reptile keeper at Jersey Zoo. I then completed my Master’s in wildlife conservation with my thesis focused on behavioural variation in sand lizards that were destined for reintroduction across Southern England. Following this I spent a few feral years working as a warden of Round Island, an uninhabited nature reserve off the north coast of Mauritius before covid had me returning to England and working as an ice cream maker and a learning assistant in a children’s nursery… equally as wild! I’m now thrilled at the chance to utilise the skills I have learnt along the way to complete my PhD under the supervision of Martin Whiting and Geoff While.  

My PhD will firstly focus on how the early social environment influences subsequent social behaviour, personality and cognition. For this work I will be working on the Egernia group of lizards. A second aspect of my PhD will focus on exploring the behavioural implications of sex reversal in the bearded dragon, Pogona vitticeps.

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Rachel Wong— MRes student, February 2022-

Rachel and her dog Niko, who is very well trained!

I am a Master of Research (MRes) student, supervised by Martin Whiting, Benjamin Ashton and Culum Brown. I previously completed a Bachelor of Environmental Biology at the University of Technology Sydney in 2021 but have now moved on to study animal behaviour.

My MRes thesis is focused on understanding quantity discrimination in non-avian reptiles, specifically in the eastern water skink.I hope to discover how well eastern water skinks can discriminate quantities and relate these findings to other previously studied non-avian reptiles. Non-avian reptiles are severely understudied in studies relating to quantity discrimination. However, it is important to further our understanding of their cognitive abilities to improve our understanding of cognition in mammals and birds, as they can reveal the ecological relevance and evolutionary history of quantity discrimination. 

Joaquim Filipe Faria — PhD student, September 2020-

Joaquim Filipe Faria

I completed my Bachelors in Biology in 2017 and Msc in Biodiversity, Genetics and Evolution in 2019, at the University of Porto. I look forward to building a career as scientific researcher in the biological sciences, with an emphasis on genetics and evolution.
For my PhD, “In the Blood: Influence of endoparasites on host behaviour and interactions”, I will study lizard communities to tackle questions on parasite interactions in ecosystems. Using a model community composed of native lizard species from Portugal and an invasive one introduced in Lisbon, all from populations known to carry hemogregarine parasites, I will attempt to disentangle parasite diversity, interactions, and temporal fluctuations and to assess associations between parasitaemia levels and behaviour patterns of the hosts.
I am working under the supervision of David James Harris, with Martin Whiting and Rodrigo Megía-Palma as co-supervisors, and have received an FCT Scholarship for my project at the University of Porto.
I have also received education in both plastic arts (painting) and music (theory and violin playing). My work has been exhibited and I have performed in several concerts. I am currently a member of the Classical Orchestra of FEUP, for the second violins section.

Kari Soennichsen — PhD student, February 2022-

Kari Soennichsen

I am a PhD student at the University of Canberra, supervised by Simon Clulow, Richard Duncan, Sean Doody, and Martin Whiting.

My PhD is entitled “Feeding at the front: do spatial ecology and behavioural phenotype mediate the impact of novel toxic prey on small-bodied native reptiles?”

The cane toad invasion is one of Australia’s most critical conservation problems because of its catastrophic effects on native wildlife and ecosystem structure. My project aims to develop a framework to understand how and why predatory reptile species differ in their susceptibility to a novel toxic prey item. Specifically, I seek to examine the impacts of cane toads on small-bodied varanids and scincids in the West Kimberley and identify how the nature of predator-prey interactions drives population declines. I will quantify the impact of toad invasion by: a) monitoring populations of predatory reptile species before and after the arrival of toads, and b) studying the spatial ecology and cognitive phenotype of predatory reptile species and the ways in which these mediate inter- and intraspecific susceptibility to cane toads.

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Victoria Russell — PhD student, 2019-

Victoria Russell

PhD project: The Evolutionary Origins of Family Living

I am a PhD student registered at the University of Tasmania. I am co-supervised by Geoff While (UTAS) and Martin. I completed my undergraduate degree and BSc Hons year at the University of Tasmania looking at how genetic and environmental factors influence developmental stability in the wall lizard.

I am interested broadly in understanding the factors that mediated the early origins and maintenance of social structures. For my PhD I am working on the Egernia group, in particular focusing on the three types of social structures found within the group: solitary species, facultative social species and obligate social species. My focal topic will ask how key social traits, such as maternal aggression, social learning and kin recognition have been refined in social species relative to closely related solitary species.

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