A male peninsula dragon, Ctenophorus fionni. Kokatha Station, South Australia, 2012. Photo by Angus Kennedy.

A male peninsula dragon, Ctenophorus fionni. Kokatha Station, South Australia, 2012. Photo by Angus Kennedy.

PhD Projects

Brain Anatomy in Dragon Lizards

For my PhD I wanted to study brain anatomy in agamid lizards of the genus Ctenophorus. These lizards are colloquially referred to as "dragons" in Australia. A guide to the brain anatomy of a particular species is called an "atlas". There is no brain atlas that I am aware of for any dragon species, and very little is known about the brain anatomy of lizards in general. In fact, our knowledge of lizard brain anatomy (and reptile brain anatomy in general) lags far behind our knowledge of all other vertebrate groups. An important part of my project was learning about dragon brain anatomy in order to advance our  understanding of brain evolution across vertebrates. I made the first atlas of a dragon brain and contributed to other works on dragon anatomy, like this.

Comparing Dragon Colouration

A large part of my PhD project was based around the fact that some dragon species have flashily-coloured males and drab-coloured females, while in other species both the males and females are drab.  While this seems evident simply by looking at pictures of males and females of various species, I learned that comparing colour across species is not that simple. Lizard eyes are not human eyes, and a lizard may look quite different from the perspective of another lizard compared to the perspective of a human. I put a lot of effort into, and got a lot of help, properly quantifying differences in colour between males and females across species. The fruits of our labour are published here.

Variation in Dragon Brain Anatomy

Ctenophorus dragons may all belong to the same genus but they vary in life history, ecology, and sex in ways that make them an ideal group with which to study the associated variation in brain structure. Once I had figured out what a dragon brain looked like, I wanted to compare dragon brain anatomy across species to see if I could find patterns in how brain anatomy changed. I compared changes in brain structure with differences in external body morphology, ecological niche, and sexual selection to show that seemingly random differences in brain anatomy between species can be explained by evolutionary history. Part of this work is published here.

Waiting for the sun to warm up the lizards. Gluepot Reserve, South Australia, 2011. Photo by Tobias Hayashi.

Waiting for the sun to warm up the lizards. Gluepot Reserve, South Australia, 2011. Photo by Tobias Hayashi.

Pre-PhD Projects

Biodiversity in Tree Plantations

In 2009, under the supervision of Prof. Catherine Potvin and co-supervised by Prof. Hector Barrios, I undertook a study of biodiversity in commercial tree plantations in Panama.  The goal of the project was to get a preliminary understanding of whether commercial tree plantations could act as viable habitat for native animals.  I was based at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City and monitored biodiversity of select representative animal groups in Dr. Potvin's experimental tree plantation in Sardinilla for a short time over the summer.  As part of the monitoring I had to learn to identify bird song down to the species, as well as know the birds by sight.  As a result I blame this project for turning me into a full-on birder.  

Herpetofaunal Diversity in the Congo

In 2008, under the supervision of Prof. Kate Jackson, I went to Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo to survey reptiles and amphibians.  Congolese herpetofauna remains virtually unknown, whether you're talking about the "Big Congo" (Congo-Kinshasa) or the "Little Congo" (Congo-Brazzaville, where I was).  For this project I worked with Congolese researchers based at the Groupe d'Etude et de Recherche sur la Diversite Biologique (GERDIB), part of Brazzaville's Universite Marien Ngouabi.  In the Congo I was supervised by Dr. Ange Zassi-Boulou and I worked closely with Masters student Sylvestre Boudzoumou. This project resulted in this publication.

The Neural Substrates of Drug Addiction

From 2005 to 2008 I worked as an undergraduate in the lab of Prof. Cecilia Flores, conducting behavioural experiments on transgenic mice that are heterozygous for the gene Dcc.  I showed that these mice have abnormal behavioural responses to the locomotor and addictive properties of amphetamine and cocaine, two psychostimulant drugs.  I also worked on using immunohistochemistry to examine how the dopaminergic neurons of these mice were affected by the genetic modification. Work from this project is published here and here.