Adaptive Genetic Management of a Reintroduction Program from Captive Breeding to Metapopulation Management of an Arboreal Marsupial

Type: Journal article

Reference: Pierson, J. C., Berry, L., Alexander, L., Anson, J., Birkett, M., Kemp, L., Pascoe, B. A., Farquharson, K. A., & Hogg, C. J. (2023). Adaptive Genetic Management of a Reintroduction Program from Captive Breeding to Metapopulation Management of an Arboreal Marsupial. Diversity, 15(7), 848.


The application of genetic data to conservation management programs can be hindered by the mismatch in timelines for management decisions and the acquisition of genetic data, particularly genomic sequence data that may require outsourcing. While applying genetic principles where data are absent can provide general guidelines for actions, genetic data can often fine-tune actions through adaptive management. We describe the adaptive genetic management of the establishment of a metapopulation of a small arboreal marsupial, the red-tailed phascogale (Phascogale calura). Two captive breeding programs were established as source populations, with genetic principles applied to the establishment of the first program and empirical genetic data used to guide the establishment of the second program. Genetic data from both programs were then used to allocate founders to three new populations to create a metapopulation with diversity both within and among the sites. Building and maintaining the diversity of metapopulations when recovering threatened species will reduce pressure on the original source populations and increase the resilience of the species.

ABC Radio: The race to save Australia’s dirty frogs

Simon Tang (2022 Honours Student) joined producer Shelby Traynor (ABC Radio) and Dr Jodi Rowley (Curator of Amphibian & Reptile Conservation Biology at the Australian Museum and UNSW) to talk about the pathogen-fighting peptides of frogs.

Listen to the full broadcast here:


Making bioinformatics more accessible

by Dr. Kate Farquharson (Post-doc)

In the AWGG lab, we are generating genomic resources for diverse Australian vertebrates, including birds, marsupials, amphibians and reptiles. However, following bioinformatics instructions can sometimes feel a bit like this:

And for non-model organisms, it can feel like being asked to draw an owl when you don’t even know what one looks like (or worse, imagine being given a picture of a human as a reference point). So, how do we make bioinformatics more accessible to people getting started? We have been working hard to carefully document our in-house workflows and contribute to public how-to guides, such as the Genome Assembly with Galaxy guide.

Documenting your work not only helps others but can be a useful way to remember what you have done before! Good documentation can help you to train others, present your methods and ensure your analysis is reproducible. Some tips for documenting your work include:

  • Always keep track of the software and versions used
  • Try out an editor such as Visual Studio Code, which allows you to easily insert code and scripts and integrates well with Github
  • Don’t forget your science brain! It can be very easy to follow a tutorial from start to finish but have no idea what the end result means. A few sentences to justify your approach and explain how you interpret your results will help others use your guide correctly

Good documentation is just one step we are working on as part of the Threatened Species Initiative and ARC Centre of Excellence in Peptides and Protein Science to make genomics and bioinformatics more accessible to conservation end-users.


Dr Kate Farquharson is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Bioinformatics within the ARC Centre of Excellence for Innovations in Peptide & Protein Science. She applies bioinformatic approaches to the assembly and annotation of genomes and transcriptomes of Australian species to identify targets for peptide discovery. Kate completed her PhD in the AWGG lab in 2020, where she used statistical and molecular genetic approaches to investigate adaptation to captivity in conservation breeding programs. Kate specialises in synthesising, analysing and interpreting data, and in communicating results clearly to a range of audiences.


My Favorite Culture Shock: Australia’s Wildlife

by Meadhbh Molloy (PhD Student)

I remember when I learned about the Tasmanian devil and DFTD in my Conservation Medicine textbook as a new master’s student in Virginia, USA. Since I was a child, I loved learning about different animals from all over the world but admittedly, I did know little about the Tasmanian devil. I was inspired by the many amazing researchers that were working on their conservation. I kept thinking about the Tasmanian devil throughout my master’s program and thought that maybe…I can go to Australia…and research Tasmanian devils as well for my PhD (I remember my first Zoom meeting with Carolyn…I was so excited!). After many more Zoom meetings, proposal drafts, a scholarship offer (thank you American Australian Association!), and a pandemic, I finally arrived in Sydney in August 2022. While I was eagerly looking forward to the first time I would see a Tasmanian devil, I have some honorable mentions of the other wildlife I have seen.

The mammals. This is my favorite taxonomic group, so I was most excited to see the mammals of Australia. I’ve seen potoroos scampering about, fruit bats flying at dusk, koalas at a sanctuary in Brisbane, an echidna crossing the road near Royal National Park, and of course the iconic kangaroo grazing right by my camping site in Jervis Bay. The Virginia opossum is our only native marsupial in North America. I was delighted to see brushtail possums (the arguably cuter cousin) in trees and sidewalks in the city, and digging through our food while camping. We also have a mammal that likes to dig through our stuff at campsites- the American black bear. It’s ok! You can put all your food up in a “bear bag” and it (mostly) helps.

The spiders. When I was researching my move to Australia, I came across a blog post titled “Every American remembers their first huntsman spider”. I thought “oh, well I’ll be in a city, they probably don’t get that big, assuming they are even there!”. Wrong. Listen, I appreciate spiders and their ecological role. I know they are probably “more scared of me than I am of them”. That does not mean I was calm and collected when I saw my first huntsman on the bathroom floor. Back at home we have big spiders (mainly wolf) that roam around, but they are no match for a huntsman’s speed! While I’m still a little scared of spiders, my definition of what a large spider is has certainly changed.

All the birds! It’s hard to pick a favorite Australian bird, but I would have to go with the kookaburra (even though one stole the sausage right out of my hands at a barbecue). The first time I heard one, it was 5:30am and I thought a monkey was outside my apartment window. We also don’t have wild parrots where I am from, so my phone is now filled with photos of beautiful white cockatoos and rainbow lorikeets. I remember going on a walk around my new neighborhood within the first few days of arriving. I saw a magnificent bird and told my roommate, Kimberley, about it when I returned. The bird had long legs, a beautifully contrasting white and black body, and was strutting around a park. Upon showing her a photo she said “oh yeah, a bin chicken”.  A bin chicken? Not the nicest name. I now understand why they are called that.

I’ve seen many other amazing animals while traveling around Australia, including saltwater crocodiles near Port Douglas, stunning marine life while snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef, and even a camel when I visited Uluru (it was well-timed that I read “Tracks” by Robyn Davidson before my trip). I happened to feel particularly homesick when I went to Taronga Zoo on a nice spring day, only a couple months after I landed in Sydney. I arrived at the enclosure that I was most excited to see. I have waited a long time to come to Australia, and The Tasmanian devil has morphed from being the topic of one of my research chapters, to being a symbol of resilience and patience for my entire PhD. Immediately, the Tasmanian devil got up from a shady spot and walked across the enclosure to lie down in front of me. Did this little devil know it would be the first devil I would see in person, and knew the weight of this moment? Obviously not, it just wanted to sunbathe. Of all the animals I have seen so far, the Tasmanian devil remains to be my favorite. I look forward to seeing more of Australia’s wildlife before I return to the United States.


Meadhbh Molloy (PhD Student) is characterising the gut microbiome profile of Tasmanian devils at multiple locations across Tasmania


What my PhD has taught me: Turtles are awesome

by Holly Nelson (PhD Student)

So, you probably think Tasmanian Devils are adorable and Koalas are super cute. Well, let me tell you about turtles and four quick reasons why they’re awesome.

Person holding turtle - Shane Ruming NSW DPE

1. Free rent: Imagine having a portable, self-contained home acquired at birth, the Sydney housing market would be the least of your worries. Unlike hermit crabs, the shells of these little keratin caravans are an extension of their spine and are the equivalent of a ribcage.

2. Solar panel: A turtle’s shell is more than its home. Not only is it a protective barrier against predators, turtles also use it to synthesise vitamin D from UV light which is needed for bone and shell growth. Not only this, turtles have nerve receptors in their shells, making them suckers for butt scratches.

3. Mixed signals: If you’ve ever seen a turtle slapping another turtle, one word, foreplay. Yes, turtles slap each other’s faces to convey affection and to attract a mate. A male turtle will slap a females face multiple times to make it clear he digs her. No mixed signals in the turtle world.

4. Realer than Jurassic World: Who needs CGI when you have real life dinosaurs still roaming the earth? These little guys date back over 220 million years to the time of the dinosaurs – woah! So don’t waste your time watching the new Jurassic world movie (wasn’t that good anyway), enjoy some turtle videos instead.

Although there’s a never-ending list of intriguing facts about turtles, hopefully one of these points has made you appreciate these underrated little critters a bit more.


Holly Nelson (PhD Student) is working on how we can use genomics to revolutionise threatened species management. From genome assembly to downstream analyses using whole-genome data, Holly is using her work to answer genetic questions on the Bellinger River Snapping Turtle, Koala, and other threatened species. Her work, in partnership with the NSW Governments Saving Our Species program, aims to create more robust conservation strategies that can be developed and applied together with wildlife managers.


Diversity in the Dark: the hidden wonders of subterranean life

by Toby Kovacs (PhD Student)

Australia is famous for its unique flora and fauna, harbouring some of the most unique and highly endemic groups of organisms. When I’m sitting around with my family discussing Australian biodiversity, often the first places we think of are the rainforests, the Great Barrier Reef or the hyper-biodiverse region of South Western Australia. We do unfortunately, often go without mentioning, the plethora of small, white and blind creepy crawlies living directly beneath our feet (quick have a look).

Not many people know that Australia contains an extraordinary level of subterranean (underground) life, living in the shadows. Scientists have long considered cave systems as natural ‘evolutionary laboratories’ due to the apparent simplicity of cave ecosystems. However, surprisingly few studies have contributed to our broad understanding of subterranean evolution. Subterranean fauna are characterised by their troglomorphic (cave adapted) features resulting from the loss of traits no longer required in the absence of light. These include the loss of pigment and eyes, as well as the elongation of antennae, legs and body. Although caves are the most well-known subterranean landscape, because of their accessibility and sick stalactites and stalagmites (Sydneysiders should check out the Jenolan Caves), they are not the only place you can find subterranean fauna (think a little deeper).

Modern subterranean surveys using deep bore holes and subterranean traps have found that inhabitable landscapes extend well beyond the observable caves. In the last decade a diverse array of life has been discovered in previously inaccessible non-cave subterranean landscapes. Australia, in particular the Western Australian Pilbara and Yilgarn regions, contains some of the most biodiverse non-cave subterranean landscapes known, predicted to contain ~3000 species (Halse 2014). Animals inhabit tiny, interconnected air pockets up to 150 m below the surface, where the air remains humid and relatively cool compared to the scorching surface temperatures. Here you can find spiders, cockroaches, beetles, isopods, centipedes, millipedes, pseudoscorpions, fish, crustaceans and even flies. Unfortunately, mining is abundant in these regions and conservation strategies for subterranean fauna are limited due to the vast majority of species being undescribed. However, genetic analysis provides a powerful tool for identifying species and assessing biodiversity in subterranean landscapes. If you’re interested in exploring the available specimen collections don’t hesitate to reach out, there’s so much work to be done!

 If you’re interested in visiting caves check out:

If you want to learn more about subterranean fauna check out:

  • Culver D.C., Pipan T. 2019. The Biology of Caves and Other Subterranean Habitats. Oxford University Press.
  • Halse S.A., Pearson G.B. 2014. Troglofauna in the vadose zone: Comparison of scraping and trapping results and sampling adequacy. Subterr. Biol. 13:17–34.


Toby Kovacs

Toby Kovacs (PhD Student) I am using historical and modern Koala genomes to assess shifts in functional diversity over time, estimate genomic mutation rates, and test for signatures of local adaptation. I have a background in phylogenetics and molecular evolution and am completing my PhD in the Molecular Ecology, Evolution and Phylogenetics Lab in collaboration with the Australian Wildlife Genomics Group and the Center for Evolutionary Hologenomics (University of Copenhagen)

Genomes of two Extinct-in-the-Wild reptiles from Christmas Island reveal distinct evolutionary histories and conservation insights

Type: Journal Article

Reference: Dodge, T. O., Farquharson, K. A., Ford, C., Cavanagh, L., Schubert, K., Schumer, M., Belov, K, & Hogg, C. J. (2022). Genomes of two Extinct‐in‐the‐Wild reptiles from Christmas Island reveal distinct evolutionary histories and conservation insights. Molecular Ecology Resources. doi:10.1111/1755-0998.13780


Genomics can play important roles in biodiversity conservation, especially for Extinct-in-the-Wild species where genetic factors greatly influence risk of total extinction and probability of successful reintroductions. The Christmas Island blue-tailed skink (Cryptoblepharus egeriae) and Lister’s gecko (Lepidodactylus listeri) are two endemic reptile species that went extinct in the wild shortly following the introduction of a predatory snake. After a decade of management, captive populations have expanded from 66 skinks and 43 geckos to several thousand individuals; however, little is known about patterns of genetic variation in these species. Here, we use PacBio HiFi long-read and Hi-C sequencing to generate highly contiguous reference genomes for both reptiles, including the XY chromosome pair in the skink. We then analyze patterns of genetic diversity to infer ancient demography and more recent histories of inbreeding. We observe high genome-wide heterozygosity in the skink (0.007 heterozygous sites per base-pair) and gecko (0.005), consistent with large historical population sizes. However, nearly 10% of the blue-tailed skink reference genome falls within long (>1Mb) runs of homozygosity (ROH), resulting in homozygosity at all major histocompatibility complex (MHC) loci. In contrast, we detect a single ROH in Lister’s gecko. We infer from the ROH lengths that related skinks may have established the captive populations. Despite a shared recent extinction in the wild, our results suggest important differences in these species’ histories and implications for management. We show how reference genomes can contribute evolutionary and conservation insights, and we provide resources for future population-level and comparative genomic studies in reptiles.

See all our publications HERE!

Conservation management in the context of unidentified and unmitigated threatening processes

Type: Journal Article

Reference: Stojanovic, D., Hogg, C. J., Alves, F., Baker, G. B., Biggs, J. R., Bussolini, L., Carey, M. J., Crates, R., Magrath, M. J. L., Pritchard, R., Troy, S., Young, C. M., & Heinsohn, R. (2023). Conservation management in the context of unidentified and unmitigated threatening processes. Biodiversity and Conservation, 1-17. doi: 10.1007/s10531-023-02568-0


The decision to intervene in endangered species management is often complicated. Migratory species exemplify this difficulty because they experience diverse threats at different times and places that can act cumulatively and synergistically on their populations. We use population viability analysis (PVA) to compare potential conservation interventions on the critically endangered, migratory Orange-bellied Parrot Neophema chrysogaster. This species suffers high juvenile mortality, but it is not clear why this is so. Given uncertainty about the best recovery strategy, we compare PVA scenarios that simulate various ways of utilizing captive-bred parrots to support the wild population in the context of unresolved threatening processes. Increasing the number of juveniles entering the population each year had the greatest benefit for population growth rate and size. Directly lowering juvenile mortality rates is difficult given uncertainty about the drivers of mortality in the wild. In lieu of this, releasing 100 juveniles from captivity to the wild population each autumn (either as a stand-alone action, or in combination with other interventions) was the most feasible and straightforward intervention of the options we tested. However, our PVAs also show that unless substantial and sustainable reductions can be made to juvenile mortality rates, Orange-bellied Parrots will remain dependent on intensive conservation management. This study highlights the utility of PVAs for answering practical questions about how to implement species conservation. PVAs provide a way to incorporate the best available information in a replicable modelling framework, and to identify impacts of parameter uncertainty on demographic trends.

See all our publications HERE!

Extinct in the wild: The precarious state of Earth’s most threatened group of species

Type: Journal Article

Reference: Smith, D., Abeli, T., Beckman Bruns, E., Dalrymple, S. E., Foster, J., Gilbert, T.C., Hogg, C. J., Lloyd, N. A., Meyer, A., Moehrenschlager, A., Murrell, O., Rodriguez, J. P., Smith, P. P., Terry, A. & Ewen, J. G. (2023) Extinct in the wild: The precarious state of Earth’s most threatened group of species. Science 379, eadd2889(2023).


Extinct in the Wild (EW) species are placed at the highest risk of extinction under the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, but the extent and variation in this risk have never been evaluated. Harnessing global databases of ex situ animal and plant holdings, we report on the perilous state of EW species. Most EW animal species—already compromised by their small number of founders—are maintained at population sizes far below the thresholds necessary to ensure demographic security. Most EW plant species depend on live propagation by a small number of botanic gardens, with a minority secured at seed bank institutions. Both extinctions and recoveries are possible fates for EW species. We urgently call for international effort to enable the latter.

See all our publications HERE!

Koala Genome Survey: an open data resource to improve conservation planning

Type: Journal Article

Reference: Hogg, C. J., Silver, L., McLennan, E. A., & Belov, K. (2023). Koala Genome Survey: An Open Data Resource to Improve Conservation Planning. Genes, 14(3), 546. doi: 10.3390/genes14030546


Genome sequencing is a powerful tool that can inform the management of threatened species. Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) are a globally recognized species that captured the hearts and minds of the world during the 2019/2020 Australian megafires. In 2022, koalas were listed as ‘Endangered’ in Queensland, New South Wales, and the Australian Capital Territory. Populations have declined because of various threats such as land clearing, habitat fragmentation, and disease, all of which are exacerbated by climate change. Here, we present the Koala Genome Survey, an open data resource that was developed after the Australian megafires. A systematic review conducted in 2020 demonstrated that our understanding of genomic diversity within koala populations was scant, with only a handful of SNP studies conducted. Interrogating data showed that only 6 of 49 New South Wales areas of regional koala significance had meaningful genome-wide data, with only 7 locations in Queensland with SNP data and 4 locations in Victoria. In 2021, we launched the Koala Genome Survey to generate resequenced genomes across the Australian east coast. We have publicly released 430 koala genomes (average coverage: 32.25X, range: 11.3–66.8X) on the Amazon Web Services Open Data platform to accelerate research that can inform current and future conservation planning.

See all our publications HERE!