Phenotypic divergence in island mammals - can morphology infer adaptation and inform conservation?

Mixing mammal populations for conservation

Remnant populations of many mammal species in Western Australia have been isolated for between 50 - 8000 years. Substantial differences in body size, skull morphology and life history traits exist among remnant populations, with some even recognized as separate subspecies. Recently (<20 years ago), some of these populations have been translocated and bred together for conservation purposes.

For at least one of these species, comparison of purebred vs hybrid individuals at a mixed introduction site revealed that body size differences between source populations had a strong genetic basis. Whether such differences reflect divergent adaptation or are effects of genetic drift is unclear.

Managers are concerned about outbreeding depression if distinctive populations are to be mixed. Consequently we need to reassess how distinct each population is before more mixing is done. Comparing how mixed populations differ morphologically from the original populations will be a large focus of this research, to help understand how particular traits are passed on.

This PhD project forms a key component of a research partnership between Australian museums, conservation organisations and universities, funded by The Australian Research Council. The project is co-supervised by Dr Kenny Travouillon (Western Australian Museum) and Dr Kym Ottewell (Western Australian Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions).

For more background information see the suggested readings below.

Project goals

To quantify phenotypic divergence of now extinct mammal populations.

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To use phenotypic and genomic evidence of population divergence to provide guidance on when and how to mix populations

To use phenotypic and genomic evidence of population divergence to provide guidance on when and how to mix populations

Boodie joey image credit Judy Dunlop at DBCA Image credit: Judy Dunlop at DBCA

As part of this project the successful PhD applicant will:

  • Use quantitative methods to assess morphological differences between remnant and pre-decline populations of several mammal species. This will involve measuring body size and skull shape (obtained by three-dimensional morphometrics on CT-scans of museum specimens) to infer phenotypic variation in traits such as locomotion, diet, growth and predator vulnerability. 
  • For some species, the genetic basis of variation can be assessed via newly available annotated reference genomes. Potentially, markers associated with trait genes could be analysed, and their correlation with habitat and climatic variables determined.

Collaborations and funding

Substantial funds have been secured from the Australian Research Council and our partner organisations for this project, expertise and logistical support are also included.

Research team leader - Dr Nicola Mitchell

I lead the Conservation Physiology group in the School of Biological Sciences. We work primarily on threatened reptiles, amphibians and mammals, with a focus on understanding trait variation and developing models to aid translocation decisions and assess impacts of climate change. I am a project leader on fauna translocations for the Threatened Species Recovery Hub, and serve on the Commonwealth Threatened Species Scientific Committee.

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:

  • Thorough knowledge of statistical and programming software is essential, and a background in morphometric analysis and/or genomics is desirable.

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 applicationDifferent application procedures apply to domestic and international students.


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