PhD Project: Investigating the spatial ecology, behaviour and welfare of translocated eastern brown snakes in the ACT

25 June 2021

Investigating the spatial ecology, behaviour and welfare of translocated eastern brown snakes in the ACT

Interested in a PhD exploring Eastern brown snake ecology and conservation in the bush capital? If so, we are seeking a highly qualified and motivated PhD applicant to join an exciting trans-disciplinary and mixed-method collaboration between sociologists, ecologists and science communication scholars at the ANU.

The PhD project investigates the spatial ecology, behaviour and welfare of translocated eastern brown snakes in the ACT. Snakes have been routinely translocated from urban environments and private properties for several decades, however, the animal welfare issues contingent on this activity are rarely considered or documented. There is a growing body of evidence on various species of snake that shows the detrimental impacts of translocation.

Therefore, this PhD project will seek to critically investigate this issue by addressing the following questions:

  • What threats do translocated snakes face?
  • Can they find thermally suitable shelter sites?
  • Do they maintain body condition?
  • Do they have larger home ranges than resident snakes and how long does it take to establish the range?
  • What physiological and environmental factors might effect these ecological processes?
  • What are some of the ecological implications of mass snake translocation in and around urban environments?

Snakes play a key ecological role in Australian urban ecosystems, as both predators and prey. They control numbers of diverse species in the food chain, including certain introduced pests, as well as providing a food source for various native animals. As such, their presence is fundamental to the production of biodiverse and healthy ecosystems. Yet, due to historical and continuing persecution, and various environmental factors, many snake populations are considered to be diminishing.

This project will use radio-telemetry methods to compare the spatial ecology of translocated and resident brown snakes to minimise animal welfare issues and inform translocation guidelines in Australia. Using various techniques, the project will generate a set of novel baseline data on species biology and ecology that will inform the conservation of this – and other – snake species through enhancing public understandings of how venomous snakes live in and make use of the sub/urban environment – and respond to processes of translocation.

As a consequence of professionalised snake catching services operating in the Canberra region, large numbers of eastern brown snakes are removed from properties and relocated to surrounding nature reserves or comparable habitats each year. Nothing is known ecologically about the individual and population impacts of such translocation, particularly habitat use and survivability rates post-release. By following and observing a comparative sample of this taxa (i.e. a control group and an experimental translocated group), and collecting different data points on their biology, behaviour and ecology, the project will generate an empirical evidence-base that will be disseminated via public education initiatives and scholarly publications to improve species conservation outcomes, thereby contributing to biodiversity knowledge and policy.

 

There are three key components to the research:

  1. Intensive tracking via experimentation with telemetry technologies and attachment methods to distinguish movement and behavioural profiles for each individual snake.
  2. Establishing a baseline for eastern brown snake thermal biology by exploring how, as ectotherms, their movement patterns and behaviours, and habitat selection, is structured and differentiated by particular environmental thermics and conditions.
  3. Systematic measurement and collection of biological materials to inform the analysis of bodily condition.

In addition, the study will reveal the current and future threats this sample of snakes confront as a result of urban development, habitat loss and contamination, climate change and feral predators.

Successful candidates will work closely with Australian National University and Charles Sturt University faculty and students, The Ginninderry Conservation Trust and other relevant stakeholders in the government, industry and community sectors as the project develops. The project will be supervised by a trans-disciplinary panel of scholars and practitioners in ecology and biodiversity studies, sociology and science and technology studies. Candidates will be exposed to cutting-edge methodological approaches and conceptual frameworks, and benefit from exposure to diverse disciplinary and substantive networks. Successful applicants will be co-located across the Fenner School of Environment and Society and the ANU School of Sociology, as well as taking up periodic residences in the Ginninderry Conservation Trust premise and in the Institute for Land, Water and Society at Charles Sturt University.

 

Candidate requirements

Even though this is principally an ecology project, we see the candidate engaging in transdisciplinary collaboration so that their ideas and writing are informed by the cross-fertilisation of different disciplinary concerns, knowledges and approaches. As such, we will consider candidates from a range of disciplinary backgrounds, such as herpetology, wildlife ecology, landscape ecology, snake ecology, sociology, conservation ecology, science communication, and science and technology studies.

A scholarship is available to potential students who:

  • Are domestic students;
  • Have successfully obtained an offer of admission to a PhD program;
  • Have a Bachelor degree with first-class honours (or equivalent academic qualification)

 

Application process and closing dates

Interested individuals are invited to submit an expression of interest to both A/Prof Gavin Smith (gavin.smith@anu.edu.au) and Dr Damian Michael (dmichael@csu.edu.au) by 30 July 2021 stating their interests and ideas for a proposal, detailing their experience in this broad field and including their academic transcript(s) and CV.

 

Research at the Australian National University

In the latest World University Rankings, The Australian National University was the top-ranked institution in Australia for environmental research. The Fenner School of Environment & Society has a large, dynamic community of PhD students who are provided with high quality office facilities, computer and statistical support, and access to field equipment, laboratory facilities and a fleet of 4WD vehicles. Students are encouraged to collaborate widely and attend national and international conferences.