Choosing to persist: sexual selection and conservation in the wild

Choosing to persist: sexual selection and conservation in the wild


The prevailing story of sexual selection, in which the sexes either compete for or choose the other sex, has been one of costly and detrimental extravagance. And yet, an opposing story has emerged, with elaborate ornaments reflecting a healthy genome and sexual selection instead powerfully sweeping away damaging mutations. Sexual selection is now poised to play a key role in conservation programs where deleterious mutation removal is paramount. Whilst this new role for sexual selection has been established in laboratory studies of insects the relevance of these findings to wild populations remains largely unknown. 

We are powerfully placed to determine the relationship between sexual selection and mutation load in the wild due to our long-term study system, the ornate dragon lizard (Ctenophorus ornatus). We have two thousand individuals sampled from over 70 wild populations dating back 26 years. The ornate dragon genome is sequenced and assembled, ensuring we can rapidly and accurately measure mutation load. The ornate dragon resides on granite outcrop ‘islands’ within a ‘sea’ of wheatfields, providing the level of replication and variation required to establish the role of sexual selection in reducing extinction risk. 

Our dataset also enables powerful opportunities to determine the environmental and genomic predictors of population persistence versus extinction, and adaptation in a changing environment.

Potential PhD topics include, but are not limited to:

  • The relationship between sexual selection and mutation load in the wild.
  • 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.
  • Determining the predictors of population persistence versus extinction in a changing environment in the wild. 

Depending on the project chosen, PhD students will have the opportunity to perform fieldwork, quantify sperm health and obtain skills in genomic techniques and data analysis (co-supervised by Prof Jacqui Batley).

Suggested readings

Research team leader: Dr Natasha LeBas & Professor Leigh Simmons

Dr Natasha LeBas

I am an evolutionary biologist who has conducted research in behavioral ecology, conservation biology and evolutionary theory. I utilize the ornate dragon lizard as a model system for conservation and evolutionary biology research.

Professor Leigh Simmons

My research uses both vertebrates and invertebrates to test the predictions and assumptions of theoretical models of sexual selection and life history evolution. I have worked extensively on sperm competition and paternal effects mediated via seminal fluid.



ARC Discovery Project
Choosing to persist: sexual selection in the wild



How to Apply 

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  • To be accepted into the Doctor of Philosophy, an applicant must demonstrate they have sufficient background experience in independent supervised research to successfully complete, and provide evidence of English language proficiency
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