October 2017

What’s behind the loss of little leatherbacks?

Australian and US scientists say they’re not sure why numbers of leatherback turtle hatchlings declined significantly in the US Virgin Islands between 1990 and 2010. Hatching success dropped from 74 per cent to 55 per cent during the period, but there were no recorded changes in local temperatures and rain levels which might help explain the drop, say the scientists.

Read more here

Scientists look for a new culprit for decreasing turtle birth rates.

A 20-year study on the hatchling habits of the leatherback turtle has concluded with a call for further research after scientists were unable to attribute dwindling numbers to climate change.

Read more here – Monash University press release 

August 2017

Experts uncover mystery ‘sea creatures’ that savaged teen’s legs . Interview on 9 News  

Experts have solved the mystery of bizarre flesh-eating sea critters that mauled a teenager’s legs after he went for a dip at a Melbourne beach.

Click here to see the interview with Richard. 

May 2017

Research featured on the New Scientist Daily News.

Pregnant rays tangled in trawler nets have small, sickly babies.

The accidental capture of pregnant rays in fishing trawls harms their unborn babies.

Rays often get tangled up in trawling nets dragged behind boats to catch large volumes of fish. They are usually thrown back into the sea, but being trapped and brought up to the surface can be traumatic — and sometimes fatal.

Read the article here

Unborn rays traumatised when their mothers are captured: world-first study finds.

Cathy and Sonia rePresent in South Africa

In September, Andre, Sonia and Cathy attended the Ninth International Penguin Conference in Cape Town, South Africa. This was a fantastic meeting at which to showcase the data resulting from Sonia and Cathy’s first season at Phillip Island, and to network with penguin scientists from all over the world! Andre presented findings on penguins in biodiversity hotspots and the issues facing these important penguin areas. The latest findings of the IUCN Specialist Group on Penguins (@IUCNPenguin on Twitter), in which Andre is a expert adviser, were presented in a keynote on the second day. Cathy presented her findings on penguin diet and the prevalence of gelatinous prey. She was pleased to be the only one presenting on genetic analysis of diet, affording her research and presentation lots of attention and offers of collaboration. Sonia presented her first tracking and accelometry results in a poster session, and at the 11th hour was invited to present her data within one of the workshops!

The team were thrilled to visit some African Penguin colonies and compare the differences between these and the Little Penguin. Cathy and Sonia were particularly amazed at how much time the birds spent “hanging out” on the beach, compared to our penguins, who work tirelessly throughout the day to find food for their chicks. After the conference, Cathy and Sonia were able to investigate the incredible floristic biodiversity of the area, with highlights including the fynbos of Table Mountain and the entirety of South African flora at the Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens.

Cathy helps us all tweet about penguins with #PISCI1

In November, Cathy and Andre (Phillip Island Nature Parks) were involved in coordinating the Twitter conference and live tweeting of the face to face conference at the Phillip Island Nature Parks Research Symposium and Twitter Symposium 2016. This hybrid event, the first of its kind, saw past and present researchers, local and international come together to present recent research and conservation outcomes at the centre. Our hashtag #PISCI1 reached more than 98,000 people, and trended at #24 in Australia! You can catch up on all the research in the conference proceedings here, including presentations by Andre, Ross, Hayley, Sonia, and Cathy: https://storify.com/CathyCavallo/pisci1

#WSTC3: a conference, but not as you know it

Our resident seabird nerds Cathy, Sonia, and Andre (Phillip Island Nature Parks), presented their work as part of the World Seabird Twitter Conference (#WSTC3). In its third year, this hugely successful international conference again showcased the best of the world’s latest seabird research, from taxonomy to climate change, foraging ecology and diet through to tracking, fisheries management and ecosystem modelling. Differing from traditional face to face conferences, the medium of Twitter allows the entire seabird science community to come together without the associated travel costs or emissions! It is a highly interactive format, where questions can be asked of presenters throughout the conference, and international collaborations spring up in moments.

You can catch up on Cathy’s presentation by clicking here.

And Sonia’s by clicking here.

Chris and Fran have become parents!

We are proud to announce the successful hatching of over 200 green sea turtle eggs, collected from Heron Island, Queensland in January. Fran has taken blood and cloacal samples from his hatchlings while Chris is currently in the process of testing hatchling metabolic rates, swimming performance, and crawling performance. The hatchlings are happily settling into their new housing facilities in Fishcore where they will live for the next 12 weeks.

Green turtle research

Fransiscus has been busy with a number of field trips, mostly to Mon Repos and Heron Island in Queensland, where he’s been sampling nesting female loggerhead and green turtles. In March 2017, Franciscus returned to Heron Island to collect data on hatchling green turtles, sampling about 60 turtles this trip.

Have a look at the his short movie showing some of his field work with sea turtles on Heron Island in the southern Great Barrier Reef.



Little penguin foraging

After several months of tracking penguins, field work is finished at the little penguin colony in St Kilda and Hayley is now preparing to submit her Honours thesis. Using GPS logs from 2008, 2011, 2012, and 2016, she is currently piecing together how weather plays a part in penguin foraging. It appears that rainfall and the flow rate of the Yarra River are the main determining factors in the birds’ foraging location and success. Wind velocity and direction have also been found to have a significant effect on the distances they travel.


Effects of zinc contamination

Natarsha has been spending the last 9 months researching the sublethal effects of zinc contamination on Southern brown tree frog (Litoria ewingii) tadpoles. Currently, Natarsha is working on her final honours thesis for submission in mid April. So far, she has found that both low and high concentrations of zinc significantly accelerate time to metamorphosis. Also, at early and mid developmental stages, zinc has the ability to increase body length and mass. Finally, moderate concentrations of zinc significantly increase general activity levels of tadpoles, and zinc has not shown to have any significant effects upon tadpole anti-predator behaviours.



Looking into the `time` dimension of biologger datasets

While we often work toward definitive, quantitative answers to the questions we ask, an important step in the process to getting there is effective data visualisation. To that end, Ross has been developing several tools to help our researchers visualise their data more easily, and in more informative ways. One of these tools is `gpsTracks`, an R package which interpolates the often sparse geo-location data from tracked animals, and displays it as a time-lapse video. This is an example application, showing the foraging behaviour of Phillip Island’s penguins during each of the 3 key breeding stages. Each pathway is an individual penguin, with its prey encounters displayed as “bubbles”. Toward the end of the video, a kernel density plot emerges, revealing where the penguins’ foraging has been concentrated.

This will be a powerful tool for our researchers in guiding data analyses, as well as when communicating their data to wider audiences.


Sean with a leatherback hatchling. Pacuare, 2016.

Sean Williamson: travelling, talking, and turtles

Sean completed his final PhD experiment on Costa Rican leatherback turtles, returning from his final field season in September last year. This time he was working on the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica at Pacuare Nature Reserve and hosted by Ecology Project International ( http://www.pacuarereserve.org/ ).

Whilst Sean was away from Australia he was also able to ‘nip’ across the Atlantic and present two talks at the 2016 Society for Experimental Biology conference. The first talk was titled “Embryonic development is constrained by in utero oxygen availability prior to oviposition”, which Sean gave during the special Satellite meeting, which was focused on Egg Physiology and organised by Dr. Steve Portugal. The second talk was titled “Novel insight into the developmental physiology of turtle eggs provides a new tool for conservation”, which Sean gave during the main conference. Sean was awarded the only student grant to attend the Satellite meeting and an SEB student travel grant for the main conference. Since returning to Australia, Sean is now working on writing up his PhD thesis with the aim of submitting in the next two months.




 Sonia does 3MT, and makes it to the final!

Our Spanish PhD student, Sonia Sanchez, participated in the School Three Minute Thesis (3MT) Competition at Monash last August. Sonia did a great job presenting her research in three minutes (and speaking surprisingly slow for her!), earning the honour of competing in the Faculty final!



Another great year for the little penguins at Phillip Island!

The Penguin Team has just finished another successful breeding season! This season didn’t start as early as the previous one (the first egg was recorded in August) but numbers indicate that it’s been a great year for little penguins again. The breeding success is around 2 chicks fledged per pair at Penguin Parade (there are still few chicks left in the colony). Many of the adults are either moulting in the colony or some of them have already finished their moult and are out at sea.

With this season, Cathy and Sonia have finished the data collection for their PhDs! So now they are busy analysing all these data and preparing their first manuscript and the Mid-candidature milestone for the nest month. Cathy has collected near 1000 scat samples more and she’ll be analysing the DNA from them at the Australian Antarctic Division, in Tasmania, later this year. Sonia has tracked the foraging trips of 72 different penguins more and now she’s looking at the effort and success of these birds finding food. Penguins from Radio Tracking Bay dive deeper, but they don’t seem to be as successful as those from Penguin Parade!



Richard speaks on radio about sea turtles and climate change3rrr-logo

Richard was again a guest on ‘Radio Marinara’ on RRR Melbourne, talking about climate change and its impact on sea turtles.  A recording can be found by clicking here.

The segment starts at 19.45 and runs for about 15 minutes.


Ross crunching massive numbers of penguin recordings

Sometimes, on the path toward useful data, collecting it is the easy part, and trying to actually use it is the hard part. That’s certainly the case when it comes to our Automated Penguin Monitoring System “weighbridges”, which scan and weigh Phillip Island’s penguins with very little field work required. Ross has been working on making the 10s of millions of data-points that come out of this system more reliable, and more accessible to our researchers. He’s created algorithms to continuously analyse the data as it’s collected, along with a user interface which gives researchers an easy and intuitive way to get the information they need, make sure it’s accurate, and put it into a format they can use.

Ross 1


Derek about to finish his PhD on shark bycatchchinook-salmon

Derek is preparing to submit his PhD thesis and has accepted a position working for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.  For his new job, he will be modelling stocks of Pacific salmon and help to designate fishing quotas.  He has returned to the United States, plans to submit his thesis in the next few days, and will commence working in the beginning of May.





International Penguin Congress in Cape Town, South AfricaCape Town

Sonia and Cathy have just been accepted to present their PhD research to the International Penguin Congress in Cape Town later this year. Sonia will present the results of her first GPS and accelerometry tracking season, while Cathy will present IPC 9the DNA analysis of her diet research, which reveals a high incidence of jellivory (predation on jellyfish) in the species at Phillip Island. They are looking forward to meeting researchers in their field and catching up with the local African Penguins.




Milestone achieved: Confirmation!

Phd loadingCongratulations to Cathy and Sonia, who recently completed the PhD milestone of Confirmation. Cathy and Sonia were required to submit a progress report and present a 25 minute presentation on their research, including their plans for the coming years. Their respective panels were impressed by what the penguin team have achieved so far, and enthusiastically approved the continuation of their research.



A great year for the little penguins at Phillip IslandChicks 1

Field season is over for the Penguin Team! It’s been a great year for the little penguins down in Phillip Island, with more than 1.5 chicks fledged per pair at both sites, Penguin Parade and Radio Tracking Bay. A particularly long season that started very early (first egg was recorded in May) has allowed some pairs to lay three clutches, when usually they would only lay one or sometimes two. By March, most of the chicks had already fledged and many of the adults were either moulting or had finished their moult and were on long trips out at sea.

Regarding the data collection for their PhDs, Cathy has collected more than 980 scat samples and she’ll be analysing the DNA from them at the Australian Antarctic Division, in Tasmania, for the next two months. Sonia has completed her tracking season with success, obtaining data for 67 trips, all from different birds. GPS data have already revealed a strong spatial segregation between the two sites.

GPS tracks


Sean completes 5 months field work in Costa Rica

Sean has recently returned from a 6 month field trip to Costa Rica, where he collected data for four experiments and is now getting stuck into the writing and analysis. There were many long nights spent patrolling a leatherback sea turtle nesting beach aptly named “Playa Grande” in the Guanacaste province of Costa Rica. Sean worked full-time as a field biologist for the Leatherback Trust whilst he completed his PhD experiments.  He has since arranged with the director of the Pacuare Nature Reserve to return to Costa Rica in June, this time to the Caribbean side, to complete the final experiment for his PhD.

Sean 1       Sean and Richard

Congratulations to Brian and Lynette for PhD completion

The PhD theses of Brian and Lynette were passed by examiners and both have been awarded their doctorate – big congratulations all round.  Lynette and Brian completed their studies on frog ecology and frog responses to environmental salinity respectively, and will graduate in May.

Brain Lynette



Drones are great for finding turtles

At Heron Island on the Barrier Reef, Richard recently trialled the use of a quadcopter drone for surveying for turtles and identifying sex from the air.  Despite some anxious moments with low battery power far from home, the system worked very well and will be the basis of a larger-scale project soon.

Drone Heron Island   Male Turtle



International Sea Turtle Symposium

Richard and Sean attended the International Sea Turtle Symposium in Lima, Peru.  The symposium is an annual meeting for sea turtle biologists, managers and conservationists from around the world and a focal point for international planning.  Sean presented a talk titled ‘Use of hypoxia to extend embryonic arrest in turtle eggs and prevent movement-induced mortality’ which was very well received.  Following the symposium a trek on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu was a fantastic experience.

symposium photo

Richard trail  Machu Picchu 2


March 2016

Penguin help: Australia’s next generation of scientistsabc logo

Richard and Cathy were featured on the ABC TV show, 7.30 and also interviewed for an ABC online article. The article and video shows how research on the Phillip Island little penguins helps reveal what is happening out in the oceans off Australia’s south-east, where water temperatures are rising faster than almost anywhere else in the world.

You can watch the 7.30 show clip here, and read the online copy below or here.

ABC Penguin Video picture



October 2015

Lynette submits her PhD thesis

Congratulations to Lynette on the submission of her thesis ‘The ecology of native Australian frogs’.  It was a close thing, but she made her deadline and the thesis is now in the hands of two external examiners. After some great work in the field and the lab Lynette is now recovering, finishing manuscripts and de-stressing.

Well done frog-lady!

Lynette PHD

Richard talks to Labrats

Richard presented to about 50 school kids from grades 4 to 10 on his marine biology research work.  The kids are part of the ‘Labrats Science Club ‘ http://www.labratclub.com/ that allows children interested in science to explore beyond what is offered at school. Richard’s presentation on the day was about sea turtles, fisheries and ‘The Fishing Game’ which to illustrate principles of sustainability in the oceans, using chocolates as fish.  Nothing motivates kids like chocolates.



September 2015

Nikki completes two major projects

Congratulations to Nikki on two major events. Nikki submitted her PhD thesis on foraging and reproductive ecology of little penguins, as well as welcoming baby Lily just a few weeks later.   The thesis was passed by the examiners without requiring revision, which is an unusual and outstanding achievement. The formal, hardcover final copy was then lodged at the graduate school with Lily’s assistance. High-five Dr Nikki!

Nikki & Lily


Media coverage of Lynette’s project

Bleating Tree frogLynette’s PhD project on the ecology of Litoria frogs was featured in a story in The Age newspaper, focusing on the invasion biology of the bleating tree frog at Lord Howe Island. Lynette’s thesis is in the final stages of completion.

The Age - Logo







Derek’s first PhD paper published

SharkDerek was lead author on a global meta-analysis of shark survival rates from fisheries capture and the impact of respiratory mode and gear type. The active ram-ventilating sharks are the ones at most risk of mortality because they can’t move enough to keep water flowing over the gills. Suffocation and death are a common result, so conservation and management actions need to address this vulnerability. The work was published in the world’s top fisheries journal Fish and Fisheries.


Dapp, D.R., Walker, T.I., Huveneers, C., and Reina, R.D. (2015). Respiratory mode and gear type are important determinants of elasmobranch immediate and post-release mortality. Fish and Fisheries doi: 10.1111/faf.12124

Media coverage of this project:

Monash University News – http://monash.edu/news/

The Age  newspaper – The Age - LogoMarine science breathes life into netted apex predators  –  by Peter Spinks

3rrr-logo3RRR’s Radio Marinara interview – You can listen to the interview here (they come in at 16 mins 22 secs).



Penguin work in the mediaWild Melbourne 2

The penguin team met down at Phillip Island to plan the coming breeding season and hear research proposals from Sonia and Cathy. While they visited their various research locations, they were shadowed by a filming crew from Wild Melbourne, who filmed two “Science Shorts” segments for their website. The first features Richard and Andre discussing their Phillip Island research and how the marine environment influences little penguin foraging. For the second segment, Wild Melbourne followed Cathy and Sonia as they went about their fieldwork which is now in full swing: checking colony attendance, egg and chick numbers and weighing the growing chicks. These films and an accompanying article about our little penguin research can be found at:


Wild Melbourne is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to engaging the Victorian community with its local wildlife and wild places, to promote appreciation and conservation.

Wild Melbourne 1 Wild Melbourne 2



Cathy attends AMSA

Cathy attended the Australian Marine Sciences Association annual conference, which was held in Geelong in early July. She presented her Masters research, which was published earlier this year in the journal Functional Ecology. In this study, Cathy developed a model to predict green sea turtle hatchling responses to warming temperatures in their incubation and dispersal environments. She found that climate change is likely to significantly affect sea turtle egg viability and hatchling dispersal potential. This research can be found at:


Cavallo, C., Dempster, T., Kearney, M. R., Kelly, E., Booth, D., Hadden, K. M., Jessop, T. S. (2015), Predicting climate warming effects on green turtle hatchling viability and dispersal performance. Functional Ecology, 29: 768–778. doi: 10.1111/1365-2435.12389



June 2015

Automated Penguin Monitoring System (APMS) reaching full functionality.

Ross has been busy installing, testing, modifying, and re-testing our penguin monitoring system at Radio-Tracking Bay (pictured), which has been collecting data for 196 days and has recorded more than 28,000 penguin crossings.

Radio-Tracking bay, with the APMS power and communications hut (Pinglu) at left.

Radio-Tracking bay, with the APMS power and communications hut (Pinglu) at left.

About 300 individual penguins have made their way across the new APMS platform, having their weight and time of crossing recorded. 173 of those penguins are implanted with an RFID microchip, meaning that their identity is also recorded, and their crossing data can then provide even more detail about their ecology. While this new system is in its infancy, it is already providing a valuable piece of the penguin ecology and marine ecosystem state project puzzle.

Little penguins crossing the new weighbridge at Radio-Tracking bay

Little penguins crossing the new weighbridge at Radio-Tracking bay


Richard and Sean attend the International Sea Turtle Symposium

The 35th annual symposium on sea turtle biology and conservation was held in Dalaman, Turkey, where Richard gave the invited keynote address entitled ‘Sea turtles and climate change’.

In attendance were the Governor of the Province of Muğla, several government ministers and about 600 conference delegates from over 50 countries. Sean presented his findings from an incubation experiment he had completed on Heron Island one week earlier. Talk about a quick turnaround! Sean’s presentation on the role of hypoxia in extending embryonic arrest was well received by the audience and there were many interesting questions from people excited by the potential applications of the findings for avoiding movement-induced mortality when transporting turtle eggs. Post-conference, Sean is currently recovering from his Turkish coffee addiction whilst Richard is a recovering from a near-fatal baklava overdose.

Richard keynote

Richard’s keynote presentation on sea turtles and climate change

Sean & Richard visiting the travertine terraces at Pammukale, Turkey. It looks like snow but it’s actually calcium carbonate

Sean & Richard visiting the travertine terraces at Pammukale, Turkey. It looks like snow but it’s actually calcium carbonate

Sean Eggs

Sean’s turtle egg data collection in the lab at Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef


Cathy returns from doing DNA analysis in Tasmania:

Cathy has returned from a trip to the Australian Antarctic Division in Kingston, Tasmania to learn and test genetic analysis techniques she will be using to investigate which prey species little penguins feed on. She started by extracting the DNA material from 300 samples of penguin poo! We are using a technique called DNA barcoding, which allows samples of DNA to be individually marked with unique sequences of DNA code. This relatively new method allows us to mix all DNA samples together, permitting many more samples to be examined than previous methods, in a rapid timeframe. A three-week cycle of DNA extraction, amplification, cleaning and barcoding culminated in one very exciting and nervous encounter with the DNA sequencing machine that will tell us what individual penguins at each site ate during the 2008/09 breeding season! The process was a success, and we are currently awaiting the specific results from the Australian Antarctic Division.


Cathy looking scientific and doing DNA extraction at the AAD

Cathy looking scientific and doing DNA extraction at the AAD

Cathy and DNA sequencing machine that does all the hard work while she relaxes

Cathy and DNA sequencing machine that does all the hard work while she relaxes


Sonia completes training on tracking technology in Strasbourg:

Recently Sonia has been at the Institut Pluridisciplinaire Hubert Curien (Strasbourg, France) for one week to get trained in the use of biologgers by our collaborators Dr Akiko Kato and Dr Yan Ropert-Coudert. She was taught how to set GPS and accelerometer (ORI, Axy-D and Wacu) loggers and to use Igor Pro Software for data diving analysis. Sonia carried a GPS logger while walking in Strasbourg, shown on the map here, so you can see how accurate GPS data are. We’ll deploy these loggers on little penguins in Phillip Island to figure out where they go to feed and to study their foraging behaviour during their breeding season.

‘Nude’ GPS datalogger

‘Nude’ GPS datalogger


Sonia’s walk through Strasbourg tracked by GPS

Sonia’s walk through Strasbourg tracked by GPS

Sonia and her Mum do some sightseeing

Sonia and her Mum do some sightseeing