How to catch a Tasmanian devil

by Dr Elspeth McLennan (Post-doc)

Tasmanian devils are nocturnal. We set traps during the day and overnight curious devils will come to investigate. The traps we use are made of strong PVC plastic fashioned into a cylinder with a spring trap door (see cover picture). The traps are baited with a devil’s favourite treat, a piece of fresh lamb or wallaby. The meat is tied onto the end of a string, fed through the trap, and tied to a pin which holds the door open.

Tasmanian devil inside trap

When a devil comes investigating the smell of the meat, they walk to the end of the trap and take the bait. When the meat is pulled and eaten, the pin holding the door open is pulled free and the door swings shut. A second pin slides forward as the door closes and locks it. Devils spend the night in a cosy enclosed space with a full belly. The field biologists begin checking the traps as soon as the sun is up. As its daylight, we often find devils snoozing in their traps.

To perform a health check on the devil, we place a hessian sack over the opening of the trap, gently tilt the trap and the devil slides forward into the sack. The sack is used to keep the devil’s eyes covered to keep them calm making them easier to handle while we check them over. We take their weight, check their body condition, look for wounds and record pouch young in females. For populations suffering from devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), the disease status of each animal is also recorded. Once the devil has been processed, they are released. On a single trapping trip, we will often see the same devils a few times. The free food and somewhere to crash is clearly a good draw.


Dr Elspeth McLennan

Dr Elspeth McLennan (Post-doc) is working the on the Koala Genome Survey, investigating both neutral and functional diversity across the koala’s range to better understand the impacts of a changing climate. Elspeth has expertise in conservation genetics and using translocation and assisted colonisations as a conservation management tool.

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:


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)


“It’s an iterative process” – lessons learnt during the first year of my PhD

by Andrea Schraven (PhD Student)

I began my PhD in July 2021, and in May 2022 I sat down with my panel to confirm my candidature. Although I found the lead up to my confirmation unnecessarily daunting, I am glad I have ticked this major milestone off. Now fully immersed into my research project, I want to share a couple of the big lessons I’ve learnt over the past year.

Read. I came in with no prior knowledge of population genetics, which is an integral part of my project. So having the first four months stuck at home in a COVID lockdown had some perks, it allowed me to buckle down and start reading. I read everything, from theoretical concepts to current literature, I stalked experts in the field on google scholar and sought out the publications of my other lab members (a MUST DO when starting in a new lab), and within a month I had filled an entire notebook. Reading the current literature is a constant practise and I have slowly learnt to be more systematic about it to save time, this is important as other tasks continuously pile up.

Record everything. I like to draw out my ideas and process them on paper, leaving the more stringent writing for my laptop. But whether you prefer the “old school” way of pen and paper or use only the computer, get it down. When I got further along with my research, I found the most essential part of developing my project (with reminders from my supervisors), was not the writing up of the experimental design, codes, or analyses I was using but recording the decisions I was making along the way. This has saved me so much headache in the long run, especially when I’m asked why I chose to go in a certain direction.

Sometimes doing nothing at all is progress. One of the best pieces of advice my supervisors gave me early on was to take what I have learnt from my readings and with the broad objectives of my project go and sit quietly to think. I started to implement this by stepping away from computer, and with just my pen and paper I’d spend hours thinking of how I could apply these grand concepts to my project. Sometimes the better half of a day would go by with the feeling that I hadn’t accomplished anything. This is when I’d take whatever ideas I had back to my supervisors to discuss and flesh out actionable steps, and sometimes those ideas never panned out or weren’t feasible, whereas others really caught on and I am currently implementing them.

Admin chores. Finally, those pesky administrative tasks and online modules that everyone hates doing, rip the band aid off from the beginning and get them over and done with.


Andrea Schraven (PhD Student; co-supervised with Dr Catherine Grueber) is projecting the long-term impacts of supplementation to improve the status of wild Tasmanian devil populations with the ongoing threat of DFTD. By evaluating population genetic and fitness data before and after translocations, she is comparing how populations change over a few generations, and then feeding the data into computational models to simulate “evolutionary time”. The results will directly inform conservation management decisions for the species long-term recovery.


Holidays in the Sun

by Patra Petrohilos (PhD Student) 

I am not a seasoned traveller.

I can count the number of times I have been on a plane on my fingers. The only time one of those planes took me overseas was 20 years ago.

Then I heard about a summer school that was being held in Cambridge on the evolutionary biology and ecology of cancer. When my supervisors suggested I apply to attend, I reacted pretty much as if they’d suggested I apply for the first manned mission to Mars. That’s the kind of amazing thing you fantasise about. Not the kind of thing you get to do in real life.

Despite my unworldliness, I had heard of Cambridge. I knew it was home to the third oldest university in the world – one so old that it predated the Aztec Empire. And I knew it was “a long way away”. But it wasn’t until I was sitting on a plane for fourteen hours straight (and then a second plane for an additional seven hours) that I appreciated what “a long way away” actually meant.

“How long was your flight?” a European PhD student asked me soon after I arrived.

“Well, the first one was fourteen hours.”

I’m not sure what shocked her more – the fact that I’d had to endure a fourteen-hour flight, or the fact that after such obscene amount of time I was still only partway to my destination. Either way – it was reassuring to not be the only one who hadn’t realised just how far “a long way away” can actually be.

And so began one of the best weeks of my entire life:

There were morning walks through the lush forest.

There were squirrels frolicking in the greenery. Like an Enid Blyton book come to life!

There were fancy meals in even fancier dining halls. I basically spent my days pretending to be a rich character in a Jane Austen novel.

Dining Hall and food

There were pints of beer in 16th century pubs shared with new friends from all over the world.

New friends with job descriptions I didn’t even know existed! (Exciting and exotic sounding things like “fish vet” and “mathematical oncologist”). I told them excitedly about my project and listened, enthralled, as they told me about theirs. We attended workshops on evolution and mathematical modelling and game theory and applying landscape ecology methods to cancer research.

But back to my favourite part – those 16th century pubs. I was determined to try all the exotic British foods that I only knew from books – toad in the hole, black pudding, pickled eggs. Pickled eggs! Imagine my delight to see an entire jar of them glistening temptingly behind the bar.

“Would you like the full experience?” the bartender asked me.

When someone asks if you want the full experience, the answer is always “yes”. In this case, the full experience turned out to be crushing up a bag of salt and vinegar chips before rolling your pickled egg in the salty, sour, crunchy crumbs of pure deliciousness.

Pickled eggs - Salt and vinegar chips

I clutched my English delicacy with glee as I eagerly headed back to our table. For some reason, my new friends looked slightly less excited with my find than I was. Their facial expressions spanned the entire gamut of confusion, from shock to amusement to admiration at my bravery. Evidently, they were fellow foreigners like me, I told myself, unfamiliar with the fineries of traditional English bar snacks.

And then – “I have never in my life seen anyone actually order a pickled egg,” a lovely English doctor announced.

Ok so maybe it was less a British delicacy and more something they tell stupid Australian tourists. It was still delicious.

Cambridge had a magic that I had thought only existed in literature. The entire trip felt like falling into the pages of my favourite childhood books, like I had finally been handed my letter from Hogwarts. I was Alice in a wonderland of history.

I saw baby swans as I went punting down the Cam River.

I was thrilled to drink beer at the Eagle – that famous Cambridge pub where the structure of DNA was first announced. I was even more thrilled to see that someone had the gumption to add Dr Rosalind Franklin’s name to the plaque out the front.

I even loved the charming signs telling me to wash my duvet.

I returned to Sydney, energised and inspired; armed with a
renewed fervour to attack my PhD. I can’t wait to carve out my own tiny sliver
of novelty in the monolith of human knowledge so that I can tentatively place it
upon the shoulders of the giants who came before me. Thank you so much to my
supervisors Professor Kathy Belov, Dr Carolyn Hogg and Dr Emma Peel for making
this happen.


Patra Petrohilos (PhD Student) is researching the evolution of devil facial tumour disease (DFTD). By investigating anticancer properties of naturally occurring peptides, she is aiming to identify novel agents with therapeutic potential against DFTD.


My Journey to a Wildlife Conservation Degree

by Lucy Ockert (2022 Honours Student)

Are you thinking about enrolling in a Bachelor of Science/Bachelor of Advanced Studies (Taronga Wildlife Conservation) but not sure if it’s the right degree for you? Two years ago, I was in a similar situation. I had originally enrolled in a Bachelor of Science at USYD, majoring in ‘Ecology & Evolutionary Biology’ and ‘Immunology & Pathology’. I always knew that I wanted to pursue science, yet there are so many different fields to choose from, being forced to decide straight after high school after being exposed to a tiny piece of the scientific puzzle. I enrolled in these two majors to give myself the opportunity to learn about two opposing fields of biological science and discover which one I wanted to pursue. While I found all my subjects incredibly interesting, halfway through my degree I realised that I wanted to contribute to conservation science and help remedy the ecological damage caused by humans over the past few centuries. I wanted to transfer into a major which was more focused on conservation than just biology or ecology – that’s when I found out about the Wildlife Conservation major in partnership with the Taronga Conservation Society Australia. Despite being a new degree, only starting the year I first enrolled in University, I knew it was the perfect degree for me. Many of my credit points transferred over from my Ecology & Evolutionary Biology major which was a bonus. I overloaded on subjects in my third year to catch up, and while challenging, it was worth it. The amazing teaching staff and small cohort form a tight-knit community of avid conservationists and creates an amazing environment to learn about all the skills needed to assist in wildlife conservation. We recently went to Taronga Western Plains Zoo for a week to learn about their conservation programs. It was a great opportunity to see first-hand the theories we have been learning about throughout the degree. We also recently completed a unit surrounding the health and welfare of wildlife where we learnt how to conduct diagnostic tests for stress and disease. We also were able to conduct a post-mortem on a (opportunistically collected) kangaroo. I’ve been able to gain a combination of experiences that would not have been possible in another degree and feel very fortunate because of it.

This year I started honours with AWGG, characterising the pouch microbiome of an extremely threatened and iconic species – the Tasmanian devil. I found this degree to be a perfect mix of theory and practice, providing me with the skills to eventually work in a field I am truly passionate about. I hope to continue with research, aiming to start a PhD next year after conducting some conservation volunteering in biodiversity hotspots around the world! If you’re not sure what you want to do but are interested in science and wildlife, I would recommend looking into the degree. Either way, you can always transfer if you change your mind!


Lucy Ockert

Lucy Ockert (2022 Honours Student) is characterising the pouch microbiome in lactating and non-lactating Tasmanian devils to understand the immunological protection of marsupial pouch young provided by cathelicidins.


The Secret Superpower of Frogs

by Simon Tang (2022 Honours Student) 

An intense, murky river. Densely packed trees, twisting into each other and Mother Earth below. Decaying detritus scattered throughout the landscape. This pulsating ecosystem is not the most welcoming of places. Many dare not to stay for too long, to avoid angering an infected mosquito, or brushing too close to a leech. In such a disease-riddled habitat, where bacteria and fungi fester and multiply, what thrives?

In the distance, the unperturbed croak of a frog, lazily perched atop a stone, reminds us of who prevails in these lands.

The frog is an enigmatic creature. While seemingly unassuming in appearance, they secretly walk a fine line between survival and destruction. This balancing act exists only as a result of their skin, a paradoxical blessing and curse. Frogs bear primitive, inefficient lungs, and so rely on their skin as a secondary respiratory organ to absorb enough oxygen. To sufficiently compensate for their lungs, their skin must be moist at all times, as water allows for more air to permeate into the skin. As a result, they are perpetually married to rivers and ponds, spending nearly their entire lives around them. While these water bodies are intrinsically life-giving, the enemy is never too far. Armies of hostile diseases lie beneath the water surface, primed to usurp the delicate skin that awaits them.

Fortunately, this is no new foe for the frog. Over millions of years of evolution, frogs have accrued an impressive catalogue of chemical weapons tailored to neutralise these microbes. When the microscopic enemies begin their attack, the frog secretes a powerful, antimicrobial serum from their skin. Like waves of infantry soldiers, these secretions are efficient, and leave little in their way. After a tough battle, the enemy side has been defeated. The frog can rest easy, and breathe for another day.


In some ways, the chemical warfare between the frog and diseases reflects our own battle with pathogens. Over hundreds of years of research, we have developed our own chemical fleet of medicines and therapeutics to treat a range of diseases. When we are being overwhelmed by infections and illness, a simple pill can turn the tide.

However, the tide is turning back. Over the past few years, we have become intimately aware of how bacteria and viruses can impact our lives, and the devastating effects they can have on society. Diseases that were once thought to be controlled are now coming back, stronger than ever. Many animal diseases are also crossing the species barrier to infect humans, exposing us to diseases we have never experienced before. We are currently facing a pathogenic assault on all fronts, and our weapons are dwindling.

To help better treat diseases, my honours project is taking a closer look at the frogs around us. Through identifying the specific, bioactive peptides in the skin secretions of frogs, I am discovering unique molecules with disease-killing properties that have never been exploited before. These compounds have the potential to help inform better drug design, or even to be directly translated into novel treatments for human diseases.  

In a world where infectious diseases threaten to take over, our unlikely superhero might be hidden in a riverbank, sunbathing on a stone.


Simon Tang (2022 Honours Student) is creating a reference genome for the stuttering frog (Mixophyes balbus) for the purpose of characterising novel antimicrobial peptides.


Why I flew halfway around the world to study two small lizards at the University of Sydney

by Tristan Dodge (Fullbright Scholar)​

Now that you’ve been drawn in by my clickbait headline, allow me to introduce myself — my name is Tris and I’m visiting AWGG on a Fulbright Scholarship, which is an exchange program with the United States.

I’m an evolutionary biologist. Back home I’m a first-year PhD student at Stanford University, where I use genetic tools to understand ‘why do animals and plants look the way they do?’. There are actually two parts to this question:

  1. ‘what mutations in DNA sequences cause differences?’
  2. ‘why would such changes be beneficial and maintained over time?’

To answer these questions, my lab studies a group of freshwater fish species from Mexico called swordtails. My PhD research aims to understand why some fish have spots on their tail, some have spots on their bellies, and others have no spots at all. But while my PhD research will help us understand how evolution works in nature, it has little impact on the daily lives of species. For that reason, I wanted to do something that would contribute to help combatting the “biodiversity crisis”, a global issue where many species are threatened by extinction. The Fulbright scholarship’s mission of international collaboration fit nicely with this aim, so I jumped when the opportunity came.

So what’s the story with these lizards?

These lizards—the Christmas Island bluetailed skink and Lister’s gecko—have the unfortunate distinction of being the only two reptile species classified as extinct-in-the-wild. They’re both from Christmas Island, Australia, and almost went extinct in 2010 when invasive wolf snakes and giant centipedes ate all but 60 skinks and 40 geckos. These last few survivors were taken into captivity. Usually, when a species goes extinct in the wild, it tends to go permanently extinct shortly afterwards. But these reptiles have a fighting chance. Their numbers have increased over a decade of breeding to over 1000 individuals. And while Christmas Island is still unfriendly to lizards because the invasive snakes and centipedes are still around, hundreds of skinks have been released onto a neighboring predator-free island. 

But what does fish spot evolution have to do with reptile conservation? 

Evolution and conservation are tightly intertwined, and we can use similar genetic tools to gain insights into both processes.

Evolution has given rise to the biodiversity that we are now trying to conserve. Species are the way they are because their genes have evolved in response to a set of conditions, which humans are now rapidly changing, often too quickly for species to adapt in response.

Genetics can be a powerful tool for conservation. DNA sequencing is a process where we take an organism and break chromosomes from many of its cells into little pieces of DNA and read their bases (abbreviated as A,T,C, and G). This process has gotten much better over the last couple years: with today’s sequencing technologies, we can get millions of ‘reads’ back that are both very long (>10 thousand bases) and very accurate (fewer than 1 in 1000 bases are incorrect). 

My job is to use a computer to put those pieces back together and ideally make a single string of DNA for each chromosome (these chromosomes be anywhere from tens to hundreds of millions of bases long!). Then by then looking at differences in the DNA that each reptiles got from their mom and dad, specifically, where in the genome these differences happen, we can learn a lot of cool things that are directly relevant to conservation. For example, we can use these patterns to estimate historical population sizes, figure out how inbred an individual is, and predict mutations that might cause disease. Because this skink is a male and skinks tend to have X and Y chromosomes, we can also use this genome to develop tests to see if baby skinks are male or female (before you can tell by just looking at them). 

And what’s the point of it all?

By figuring all these things out, we can better manage captive populations of reptiles which will improve the species’ chances of survival. Importantly, figuring out how to save these extinct in the wild species holds lessons for other extinct in the wild species, which will likely increase as habitats continue to be degraded and invasive species continue to spread. Armed with insights gained from genetic tools, I hope we can reverse this extinction trend.


Tris Dodge

Tristan Dodge | Fullbright Scholar


Should I be afraid of the humble platypus?

by Adele Gonsalvez (2022 Honours Student)

The platypus.

Cute, cuddly, a collection of disparate animal features somehow merged into one animal?



Surely not.

But alas, just when you’d thought this Australian native couldn’t get any more bizarre (being egg-laying mammals and all) you’d be surprised again. Unbeknownst to many, the platypus is venomous – in fact, one of only a handful of venomous mammals in existence. Their secret weapon is attached to the ankles of their hindfeet – a spike-like spur connected to a venom gland. By wrapping their legs around their victim, they can jab their spur in and deliver venom into that poor unfortunate soul.

Now, who could possibly on the receiving end of the platypus’ venomous spur? The answer: the platypus. That’s right – the wrath of the platypus (in venom form) is unleashed against other platypuses. Male platypuses to be precise. You see, while female platypuses are born with spurs, they lose them by one year of age, meaning only male platypuses are venomous. The males use their venom against each other when in competition during the breeding season. The solid platypus logic is that in order to increase your own mating success, it helps to get rival males out of the picture – and injecting them with venom that causes temporary limb paralysis and a lot of pain, is an effective way to achieve this.

Now, should you be adding the platypus to your “Aussie animals who can kill me” list? Not quite. Platypus venom is yet to cause any human fatalities, and platypus envenomation in humans is quite rare. But it still packs a mean punch. Excruciating pain unable to be relieved by painkillers or first aid, and symptoms including nausea and gastric pain possibly persisting for weeks, certainly doesn’t sound like an enjoyable experience. In those few cases of humans being on the receiving end of platypus venom however, it generally only occurs when humans are physically handling platypuses, often zookeepers or fisherman. So, keep your hands to yourself and you should be right.

If you are ever lucky enough to see a platypus in the wild, floating down a river or chilling on the banks, there’s no need to be afraid. Just give the little guy some personal space and you should be at no risk of experiencing platypus venom.

Unless you are another male platypus during breeding season – well, in that case…

You should be afraid.


Adele Gonsalvez (2022 Honours Student) is investigating the expression and the antimicrobial activity of defensins from the platypus and short-beaked echidna.

Platypus photo by Kimberley Bateley