Skip to Content

Conservation Genetics Lab

Lab Members

Heidi Ahonen


Phone: +612 9850 7982

Heidi AhonenMy interest in marine biology brought me to Australia four years ago to undertake some courses in Macquarie University as part of my Master’s degree back in Finland. As a result I ended up doing my Master’s thesis at Macquarie University on “Global phylogeography and population structure of grey nurse shark (Carcharias taurus)” under the supervision of Adam Stow followed by working as a research assistant on the same project. During this time I have been studying the population structure of the grey nurse shark (Carcharias taurus) both on a global scale and within Australia and developing a method that made it feasible extract quality DNA from shark jaws and teeth which has great utility for conservation research on endangered sharks and rays.

Currently I’m doing my PhD on the mating system and population structure of the Australian sea lion (Neophoca cinerea). I have always been interested in evolutionary biology and behavioural ecology and my current research is using both molecular and acoustic tools to understand factors that determine the mating systems of this species and in turn how mating systems influence population structure.

The Australian sea lion has a breeding system unlike any other pinniped species, with high levels of asynchrony between neighbouring colonies, prolonged breeding period and a non-annual breeding cycle. For most pinnipeds, selection drives male fidelity to a single colony, and enhances genetic structure. By contrast, Australian sea lion males potentially have the option of siring pups throughout much of the year and at different colonies. Hence male mating success across different colonies may counteract the high degree of structure driven by extreme site fidelity in female sea lions. Thus male mediated gene flow between colonies maybe critical to the identification of management units. Genetic techniques allow us to determine paternity and relatedness as well as levels of genetic differentiation and population structure.

As a part of my PhD I will also investigate micro-geographic variation in male call structure. This provides an alternative approach to investigating the evolution of colony structure. Australian sea lion males have the most depauperate vocal repertoire of any sea lion. This simple repertoire may reflect the ecological circumstances in which these animals breed, with very low colony densities and asynchronous breeding. Yet even in this simple system males are able to discriminate between males and females of their own species and distinguish the calls of conspecifics from other species (Gwilliam et al. 2008). Moreover, the barking calls of male Australian sea lion have sufficient information embedded to provide the potential for individual discrimination (Gwilliam et al. 2008). Crucial to the current research there are tentative indications that there might also be geographical variation in male vocal structure (Attard 2008). Use of molecular and acoustic techniques simultaneously will provide an extremely powerful method of determining the extent of population structure and critically, the rate at which it has developed in Australian sea lion.

This project is a collaboration between Macquarie University and Paris 11 University (Cotutelle agreement) and I am being jointly supervised by Adam Stow at Macquarie University and Isabelle Charrier at Paris 11 University.

Heather J Baldwin


Phone: +612 9850 6950

Heather J BaldwinMy main areas of interest are behavioural ecology and conservation genetics. For my honours project I am investigating the relationship between genetic relatedness and social interactions in grey-headed flying-fox colonies. I will examine patterns of relatedness both within camps, to determine whether related individuals tend to roost in close proximity, and whether core colony members are more closely related than nomadic individuals. I will also examine relatedness between camps and patterns of dispersal and philopatry, particularly whether dispersal is sex-biased. The knowledge gained through this research may contribute to management decisions on the conservation of this vulnerable keystone species, as well as provide insight into kin selection, cooperation, and conflict. I’m also a member of the BEEF lab with Culum Brown.

Abigail Cabrelli


Phone:(02) 9850 8191

Abigail CabrelliI am interested in the impacts of disturbance on species and their ecosystems, and the implications these have for conservation. I am also interested in the application of quantitative approaches to understand these effects, particularly with regard to the assessment of extinction vulnerability. In February 2009 I began my PhD looking at the impacts of current and future climate change on Australia’s reptiles. I plan to use data on species distributions to model range shifts across a large number of Australia’s reptiles and then project potential distributions under future climate scenarios. I also hope to identify the particular life history traits, such as poor dispersal abilities and temperature-dependent sex determination, which may make some species especially vulnerable. These results will then be used to develop a risk assessment framework for evaluating the vulnerability of Australia’s reptiles to the impacts of climate change.

More information on the piccel website.

Siobhan Dennison


Phone: +612 9850 6950

Siobhan DennisonIllegal bush rock collecting is posing a huge threat to the habitat of much of Australia’s wildlife. The Copper Tailed skink, Ctenotus taeniolatus, utilises exfoliating sandstone slabs as retreat sites, and in the Sydney sandstone environment these features are often removed to decorate suburban gardens.

For my Honours project I am looking at the conservation genetics of these skinks to get an idea of how much help they need to reinhabit an area if artificial rocks are used to replace their stolen habitat.

By using genetic markers to measure the distance and rates at which these lizards disperse, we can work out whether or not it is sufficient to replace bushrock in disturbed areas, or if translocation of individuals is needed to increase genetic diversity in recovering populations to avoid inbreeding.

My other interests include captive breeding, behavioural ecology, and I have a special fondness for turtles… and I love fieldwork! I started in the conservation genetics lab as a volunteer in my last year of undergrad, and never went away, really…

Paul E. Duckett


Phone: +612 9850 6950

Paul E. DuckettMy primary research interests surround climate change and the conservation of Australian arid zone ecosystems. During the glacial maxima of the Pleistocene species became isolated in remnant populations, called refugia, due to geological barriers and range contractions. In Australia, the Pleistocene epoch is characterised by hyper-aridity events during periods of glaciation. These hyper-aridity events caused the expansion of inland deserts, and contraction of woody vegetation, and are potentially analogous to the glaciation experienced in northern hemisphere biomes. Preliminary investigations on the genetic structure of our model woodland inhabiting gecko Gehyra variegata from the eastern arid zone of Australia, indicates significant geographical structuring. The structure present is consistent with allopatric fragmentation and a subsequent range expansion; congruent with a peak in amplitude for Pleistocene climatic oscillations around 400,000 years ago. The genetic partitioning suggests that some past refugia for Gehyra variegata are associated with catchment areas. If catchment areas are important refugium for woodland species in general, these areas will be important for the conservation management of arid Australia; particularly in light of the increasing aridity that is predicted for some areas of inland Australia.

I plan to further this work by integrating geographic information systems and species distribution modelling in conjunction with additional molecular data to identify historical and future refugia in arid Australia for the woodland generalist, Gehyra variegata.

I also perform various roles to facilitate the teaching of undergraduate Biology students within Macquarie University, and act as a personal tutor for HSC Biology students. Outside of the science community I enjoy an active life and have a passion for wildlife and landscape photography.

See Pauls photography here.

Jessica Gwilliam


Phone: +612 9850 8143

Jessica GwilliamMy research interests include conservation, evolutionary and population genetics and behavioral ecology. My prior research has involved examining hybridization in fur seals using genetic markers and the investigation of acoustic communication in Australian sea lions.

For my PhD I am studying speciation, population structure and mating systems of shark populations using molecular techniques. Most sharks are difficult to study in the wild. Genetic techniques provide a fantastic tool for studying these species as a lot of information can be obtained from a small tissue sample. My research focuses on gummy sharks in the Oceania region. There are believed to be a number of different gummy shark species in this region, although their genetic relationships are still uncertain and will be resolved as a part of my study. Gummy sharks are targeted by economically important commercial fisheries in Australia and New Zealand. During the 1970’s, overfishing resulted in severe declines in gummy shark numbers in both regions and it is unknown whether these historical population declines may have lead to loss of genetic diversity. Loss of genetic diversity may result in declines in fitness as populations are unable to adapt to sudden environmental change and may be more vulnerable to factors such as disease. As part of my research I will document remaining levels of genetic diversity in these populations.

Very little is known about shark mating strategies. Do they return to the same places to mate or pup? How do they choose a mate? Is dispersal sex-biased? A large number of fisheries target sharks and without understanding a species mating system it is difficult to design appropriate management strategies. My research involves the investigation of aspects of mating systems including polyandry, philopatry and dispersal in gummy sharks. This information is essential for designing appropriate management strategies, estimating effective population size and identifying rates at which genetic diversity may erode.

Stephen J. Hoggard


Phone: +612 9850 6950

Stephen J. HoggardI am interested in social insects and how they are adapted to cope with the disease risks inherent in communal living. The main focus of my PhD is investigating these adaptations in wasps, whereby I am examining both genetic and chemical defences in colonies of social wasps compared to those found in solitary species.

In addition to my PhD, I am involved with related research examining social adaptations in thrip species and act as a practical demonstrator for first year biology courses.

Steve McAlpin

SteSteve McAlpinve is a field biologist who is also carrying out a MSc with the Conservation Genetics Lab on Tjakura (Egernia kintorei) – the great desert burrowing skink. He has run ongoing biodiversity monitoring for more than a decade at Uluru and other Central Australian locations, with particular emphasis on Tjakura and Mulgara populations. Steven is the recovery team leader for the Tjakura skink and was the lead author on the national recovery plan for this species (recovery plan)

Shannon M. Smith


Phone: +61 2 9850 6950

Shannon M. SmithPreviously a member of the Biodiversity and Bioresources group at Macquarie University exploring the notion that selection by microbial pathogens was critical to the evolution of sociality, I became interested in the ambrosia beetle, Austroplatypus incompertus. This beetle and its unique characteristics now form the basis of my PhD research within the Conservation Genetics Laboratory. Endemic to Australia, A. incompertus excavates multi-branched gallery systems and cultivates fungus within living Eucalyptus trees. Our work will help elucidate the ecology of symbiotic fungi associated with A. incompertus. Furthermore, as the only known example of eusociality within Coleoptera, this research presents an exciting avenue to study of the origin of cooperative breeding and the evolution of sociality. I am also involved in a study of the population genetics of an endangered population of Emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae) from the North Coast region of New South Wales, Australia, and a pilot study utilizing molecular tools to explore the relationships between and within copepod populations in various groundwater sources.

Vincenzo P. Repaci


Phone: +61 2 9850 6950

Vincenzo P. RepaciI did my undergrad at Macquarie and my honours in the Conservation Genetics lab working on native bees where I built an understanding of gene flow within and among populations.

To further pursue my interest in conservation genetics I’ve been working as part of the long term study of Cunningham’s skink for my PhD. The types of questions that I’m particularly interested in are the behavioural-genetic changes associated with land clearing and the impact of landscape factors on functional loci such as the major histocompatibility complex (MHC).

In addition to my main project I’m also involved in providing genetic data for the mala conservation group and working on human mate choice in collaboration with other PhD students.

I find that teaching is one of the most fun and rewarding parts of an academic career and have been involved in lecturing and tutoring several different courses

(visit Vincenzo’s website)

Kate D.L. Umbers


Phone: +61 2 9850 6279

Kate D.L. UmbersGenerally I am interested in ultimate questions. The function of colour in the natural world, population genetics, and behavioural ecology are fields I enjoy. For my PhD, I am studying the function of colour change in the chameleon grasshopper (Kosciuscola tristis) and its population genetics across Australia's alpine region.

In 2006 I completed my honours year studying paternity patterns in the Ciulfina praying mantids from the Australian wet tropics. During my undergraduate years I worked as a genetics research assistant on anti microbial defenses and the evolution of sociality in Australian native bees. I also collaborate on cuttlefish population genetics project with another PhD student from Macquarie University.

Visit Kate’s website.



Visi ut aliquid ex

Ut enim ad minima veniam, quis nostrum exercitationem ullam corporis suscipit laboriosam, nisi ut aliquid ex ea commodi consequatur.

Visi ut aliquid ex

Quis autem vel eum iure reprehenderit qui in ea voluptate velit esse quam nihil molestiae consequatur, vel illum qui dolorem eum fugiat quo voluptas nulla pariatu

Et harum quidem rerum facilis est et expedita distinctio.