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Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods

Animal physiological ecology

Research group

Our focus

Frog image by Keith Christian

Many animals have evolved unique adaptations to survive the extreme variations of the wet-dry tropics.

These include seasonal shifts in thermoregulatory behaviour, seasonal changes in metabolic physiology, and a range of adaptations to manipulate water balance to survive prolonged dry conditions, and, conversely, mechanisms to avoid taking up too much water in the wet season.

Specialist expertise and tech 

We combine field and laboratory experiments with microclimate measurements and mechanistic modelling to identify the importance and plasticity of animal physiological traits in relation to microhabitat use, seasonal activity patterns, and geographic distribution.

Meet the team

  • Prof Keith Christian
  • Karlee Peacock
  • Kimberley Day
  • Karla Cardenas
  • Dr Carla Eisemberg
  • Dr Christine Schlesinger 
  • Prof Karen Gibb
  • Dr Mirjam Kaestli
  • Alea Rose
  • Erin Westerhaus

Why this research is important

Questions about how animals survive in particular microhabitats have long been a central focus of classical ecology, but these topics have become increasingly important with respect to climate change. In order to develop adequate conservation responses to climate change challenges, it is crucial that we understand the interface between animals and their environment.

Key achievements and impacts

  • Discovery of unique adaptations, including underwater nesting by a freshwater turtle, seasonal metabolic depression by some reptiles and amphibians, paracellular absorption by juvenile crocodiles, and phylogenetic patterns in cutaneous resistance among frogs.
  • Quantifying amphibian and reptile skin-associated microbiomes across species, space, and microhabitats.
  • Discovery that microbial communities on reptile skin are as diverse and species-specific as those found on the more widely studies skins of amphibians.
  • Determining that disease exposure may drive selection of anti-fungal bacteria on the skin of invasive Australian cane toads.
  • Documenting that dehydration enhances innate immunity in a semi-aquatic snake.

Key projects

  • This is an ARC Discovery project (2019-2021) in collaboration with Professor Craig Moritz of the Australian National University which aims to determine whether species that have small geographic ranges and which live in historically stable refugia have evolved narrow climatic tolerances.

    The project will compare such species with more widespread, related species living in the same areas and combine field- and lab-based estimates of physiological tolerances with genomic estimates of population history and diversity.

    The expected outcome is to test the prediction from evolutionary theory that small-range, refugial species are intrinsically more sensitivity to climatic change. This addresses a fundament question in evolution and ecology and should provide improved guidance for ecological management of biodiversity hotspots.

  • This project aims to better understand the fundamental ecological and biogeographical relationships between animal hosts (frogs and geckos), and bacteria on their skin.

    Skin microbial communities provide protection against disease, but little is known about how they function.

    Significantly, the project aims to understand both the microbes and the chemicals they produce.

    Expected outcomes include foundational information that will guide future research efforts related to the factors that determine a healthy skin microbial community, which is needed before skin diseases can be combated.

    The benefit of this research is that it will provide information needed to inform and target conservation efforts to combat wildlife skin diseases.

  • The overall aim is to add to our understanding of the breeding and mound ecology of the Orange-footed Scrubfowl.

    This project will add to existing knowledge on this topic by employing two modern techniques that were not available in the recent past, thereby modernising and improving or knowledge of this unusual form of nesting by birds. 

    The new techniques are:

    1. the use of wildlife camera “traps” to quantify the annual activity of the birds on and around the nesting mounds
    2. the use of Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) to identify the microbes associated with the generation of heat used for egg incubation in the Scrubfowl mounds.

Interested in Animal Physiological Ecology?