Environmental stress as a threatening process for the western ringtail possum

Determining the impacts of stressful environments on possum populations


The western ringtail possum (Pseudocheirus occidentalis) has been declared critically endangered and to date, the role of stress on the survival of the western ringtail possum has not been clarified.

Given the species' critically endangered status it is highly likely that populations living near busy roads or within the urban matrix experience unprecedented levels of stress. Stress hormone levels can be measured in scats and hair using methods developed previously (Young et al. 2004; Mastromonaco et al. 2014; Stubsjøen et al. 2015) and used in our laboratory. We expect that individuals and populations exposed to stressors like busy roads, traffic noise and danger from living in urban settings will have higher levels of glucocorticoids that are physiological indicators of stress (Möstl & Palme 2002).

Populations that live in stressful environments are also likely to have reduced reproductive outputs, which could compound the problem and hinder our chances of recovering the species (Wingfield & Sapolsky 2003). 

We will investigate this by measuring sex steroids (oestrogen) in females and relating these to the reproductive outputs of individuals. This will be achieved through a collaborative effort between the PhD students involved in this project, Bronte Van Helden (the other student working on urban western ringtail possums in Albany) as well as FAWNA wildlife carers who look after injured and orphaned possums in captivity so that we can obtain a snapshot of different populations living in artificial versus natural situations.

We are looking for a PhD student who will be engaged in investigating these issues. The student will work closely with FAWNA and its veterinary officer and volunteers to develop methods to test possum personality traits and to select a subsample of possums with extreme personalities (e.g. the most bold and the most shy) to follow their fate post release using radio telemetry.

For more background information, see the suggested readings below.


Suggested readings

Research team leader: Associate Professor Roberta Bencini

I mainly work on projects in wildlife conservation and management, with industry-funded projects to minimise the impacts of development and roads, road construction and other developments on wildlife.


How to apply

Interested in becoming part of this project? Complete the following steps to submit your expression of interest:

Step 1 - Check criteria

General UWA PhD entrance requirements can be found on the Future Students website.

Requirements specific to this project:

  • Existing PhD scholarship (we do not have funds for the stipend and funding is pending for the project)
  • Capacity and willingness to work in the field including at night (the species is nocturnal) and to spend a significant amount of time in the field.
  • Willingness to apply for funding to support operating costs for the project with assistance from the supervisor.

Step 2 - Submit enquiry to research team leader

Step 3 - Lodge application

After you have discussed your project with the research team leader, you should be in a position to proceed to the next step of the UWA application process: Lodge an application. Different application procedures apply to domestic and international students.


Domestic students

All domestic students may apply for Research Training Program and University Postgraduate Awards (UPA) scholarships

International students

A range of scholarships are available from international organisations and governments. The full list, organised by country, is available on the Future Students website.

In addition, all international students may apply for International Research Training Program scholarships.

Indigenous students
Indigenous students are encouraged to apply for Indigenous Postgraduate Research Supplementary Scholarships.
Forrest Foundation scholarships
All international and Australian students who wish to study towards the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) at The University of Western Australia may apply for Forrest Scholarships.

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