Environment Institute

1. Genetic profiling of trees helps convict timber thieves 

EPSON MFP imageOur researchers helped convict National Forest timber thieves in a landmark case in the United States. An international team including Dr Eleanor Dormontt and Professor Andy Lowe developed DNA markers for certain trees. This was used to create a DNA profiling reference database of trees which could be used in court proceedings. Illegal logging continues to be a scourge around the world, posing a huge threat to global biodiversity. The industry is estimated to be worth USD100 billion annually.

This research also led to the publication of The Best Practice Guide for Forensic and Timber Identification for the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime(UNODC). The best practice guide was developed with a substantial contribution from Dr Dormontt. Following the publication, the global scientific community came together in a call to stop illegal logging. The campaign continues to end this egregious practice.

2. Sea snakes have extra sense for water living

Tseasnakehe move from life on land to life in the sea has led to the evolution of a new sense for sea snakes. Sea snakes were found to have a kind of Force-like sensing capability. On their heads are tiny structures called ‘scale sensalia’, which allows sea snakes to perceive objects around them without direct touch. While it’s not certain what these snakes can actually sense, it’s thought that sea snakes can pick up the vibrations that are generated underwater by moving objects.

This research was performed by PhD student Jennna Crowe-Riddell and her supervisor Dr Kate Sanders. The story was featured in many media outlets including Australian Geographic and Cosmos Magazine. Learn more about this great story by listening to this Radio Adelaide podcast featuring Crowe-Riddell.

3.‘Snotty gobble’ could be good weed controller

A native parasitic plant found commonly throImage courtesy of Wikimedia Commonsughout south-eastern Australia was found to show great promise as a potential biological control agent against introduced weeds. The native vine native vine Cassytha pubescens, also known as ‘snotty gobble’, could save millions of dollars each year by acting as a control against invasive plants. Snotty gobble was found to grow on many invasive species via suckers, which latch on to a host plant, leaching water and nutrients.

The research was done by Dr Robert Cirocco, Professor Jennifer R. Watling and Associate Professor José M. Facelli and featured in New Scientist.

4. Carp in our rivers

‘Holy Carp’ screamed the headlines! Europeacarpn carp are an invasive species causing much devastation in our river systems. Managing the current carp infestation problem in the Murray River systems has benefits and risks, and how we manage those can all have an impact on our environment. The Australian Government announced, to the bemusement of many, that a strain of herpes could be used to wipe out 95% of the carp population over the next 30 years. But our Honours student Richie Walsh under the supervision of Professor Justin Brookes, showed that the sudden death of mass amounts of European carp could be detrimental to the River Murray. Decomposed carp left in the River Murray would cause a drop in the oxygen levels, endangering native aquatic animals.

5. New artificial reef to be built to support local marine habitats

The South Australian coast line is getting a boOyster reefost, thanks to research from Professor Sean Connell and Dr Heidi Alleway. Their research uncovered that oyster reefs characterised much of South Australia’s coastline from 1836 to 1910, forming one of the most widespread habitats for protein production, fisheries catch, biodiversity and filtration for water quality that sustain surrounding habitats. As a result of this discovery, a new $600,000 artificial reef system is to be built south of Ardrossan, constructed from limestone, oyster shells and live native oysters. The construction of the new reef is set to bring about a raft of intergenerational economic, social and environmental benefits.

6. Bilby netting for conservation genetics. By Lauren White

Third year PhD student Lauren WhiImage courtesy of Wikimedia commonste gave us an insight into the life of a researcher. White studies the genetics of bilbies, which were once found through much of arid Australia, but have had their ranges drastically reduced due to changes in land use and the introduction of feral animals. Reintroduced populations can experience loss of genetic diversity over time, leading to negative effects such as inbreeding. For this reason, it is important to monitor the genetic diversity over time.

Here’s a teaser of her great story: It’s early evening at Arid Recovery; we’re driving slowly through the reserve peering intently around us using the light of a powerful spotlight torch. The silence is broken by a shout. “BILBY!”

7. New partnership to boost Asia-Pacific conservation

We announced that we’re part dronesof a strategic partnership with global organisation Conservation International (CI) that will help boost conservation efforts in the Asia-Pacific region, including a global conservation drone program. The University of Adelaide and CI established a joint Centre for Applied Conservation Science, and a philanthropic partnership to raise funds for the Centre’s activities and for other CI priority activities in the region. Associate Professor Lian Pin Koh was announced as the Centre Director. The partnership is already achieving its goals, helping Timor-Leste develop a marine conservation program.

8. Investigating native plants for South Australian pickles

We got ourselves into a pickle, a gSuaeda australis_Lorraine Phelanood one though, with South Australian food manufacturer Spring Gully Foods to investigate potential sources of food colourings among Australian native plants. The project was awarded an Innovations Connections Grant of $25,000, under the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme. Dr Casey Hall is part of the research team that will focus on arid zone plants known to be edible and with strong colours. These plants are often salt-tolerant and desert-adapted and grow abundantly throughout Australia. Hall will be identifying pigment compounds and testing extracts with Spring Gully Foods to see how suitable they are. We can’t wait for the delicious results!

9. EI members head to Marrakech Climate Change Conference

The Marrakech Climate Changclimate change ice berge Conference brought together the world’s governing bodies to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, and our members went along to share their voice. The delegation from the University of Adelaide included Professor Andrew Lowe (Head of Delegation), Manny Solis (Deputy Head of Delegation), Mike Young and Charlie Hargroves. The delegation attended key sessions related to their fields of expertise including water, environmental and city sustainability, disaster relief programs, and the Global Carbon Fund and its role in supporting low-emission and climate-resilient development pathways.

10. Platypus venom could hold key to diabetes treatment

Just when you thought platypuses couldnplatypus‘t get any more amazing, their venom, it seems, could help to treat diabetes. Research led by Professor Frank Grutzner at the University of Adelaide and Associate Professor Briony Forbes at Flinders University found that platypus venom contains a hormone that regulates blood glucose levels. This hormone could be used to provide an extended release of insulin for those with diabetes. How these findings can be converted into real treatment is the next question.

Want more research goodness? Dont miss also our Top 25 High Impact Peer-reviewed publications for 2016!

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It has been another productive year of research for the Environment Institute in 2016. Showcased below are 10 of our most pivotal journal articles of the year*.

1. Cultural innovation and megafauna interaction in the early settlement of arid Australia. Nature

Warratyi rock shelter

Warratyi rock shelter – Photo by Giles Hamm

This paper describes research proving that humans occupied Australia’s arid interior and began developing sophisticated tools 10,000 years earlier than previously documented – around 49,000 years ago. The Warratyi rock shelter is about 550km north of Adelaide, in the Flinders Ranges. The findings from the cave show it to contain the oldest evidence of Aboriginal occupation in South Australia. Humans arrived in Australia about 50,000 years ago but the timing of their settlement in arid regions and cultural innovation have been uncertain.

The project was led by arid zone research archaeologist Giles Hamm, an Honorary Fellow of the South Australian Museum and La Trobe University PhD candidate, working with geochronology specialists at the University of Adelaide Dr Lee Arnold and Professor Nigel Spooner, along with geomorphologist Dr Peter Mitchell, and other researchers from Flinders University and the University of Queensland. They have worked for the last nine years with the Adnyamathanha people in the Flinders Ranges.

Citation: Hamm, G., Mitchell, P., Arnold, L. J., Prideaux, G. J., Questiaux, D., Spooner, N. A., . . . Johnston, D. (2016). Cultural innovation and megafauna interaction in the early settlement of arid Australia. [10.1038/nature20125]. Nature, 539(7628), 280-+. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature20125

2. Predicting and mitigating future biodiversity loss using long-term ecological proxies. Nature Climate Change

Spatial demographic models are built using 'best estimates' for demographic and environmental attributes, using information from congeneric species and allometry.

Spatial demographic models are built using ‘best estimates’ for demographic and environmental attributes, using information from congeneric species and allometry.

Uses of long-term ecological proxies in strategies for mitigating future biodiversity loss are too limited in scope. Recent advances in geochronological dating, palaeoclimate reconstructions and molecular techniques for inferring population dynamics offer exciting new prospects for using retrospective knowledge to better forecast and manage ecological outcomes in the face of global change. Opportunities include using fossils, genes and computational models to identify ecological traits that caused species to be differentially prone to regional and range-wide extinction, test if threatened-species assessment approaches work and locate habitats that support stable ecosystems in the face of shifting climates. These long-term retrospective analyses will improve efforts to predict the likely effects of future climate and other environmental change on biodiversity, and target conservation management resources most effectively.

Citation: Fordham, D. A., Akçakaya, H. R., Alroy, J., Saltré, F., Wigley, T. M. L., & Brook, B. W. (2016). Predicting and mitigating future biodiversity loss using long-term ecological proxies. [10.1038/nclimate3086]. Nature Climate Change, 6(10), 909-916. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nclimate3086

3. Ocean acidification alters fish populations indirectly through habitat modification. Nature Climate Change


Sharks likely to experience behavioural changes amidst a changing climate

As the Earth’s oceans warm, sea-dwelling creatures experience a raft of changes. While much attention has been directed towards small-bodied fishes, we know relatively little about the effects of ocean warming and acidification on large predators like sharks. This paper has uncovered the climate-sensitive metabolic and behavioural changes of large predators.

The research was brought to you by Jennifer Pistevos, Associate Professor Ivan Nagelkerken, Dr Tullio Rossi and Professor Sean Connell.

Citation: Nagelkerken, I., Russell, B. D., Gillanders, B. M., & Connell, S. D. (2016). Ocean acidification alters fish populations indirectly through habitat modification. [10.1038/nclimate2757]. Nature Climate Change, 6(1), 89-93. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2757

4. Biological role in the transformation of platinum-group mineral grains. Nature Geoscience


Biofilms can be used to find platinum-group minerals

Platinum-group minerals are an important resource, yet finding them amongst the geological terrain can be a challenge. Research by Dr Frank Reith and an international team of experts has shown that microorganisms can help us to detect platinum-group metals. The team used scanning electron microscopy to analyse biofilms covering mineral grains in Australia, Columbia and Brazil. Biofilms are capable of forming or transforming platinum-group mineral grains, and may play an important role for platinum-group element dispersion and re-concentration in surface environments.

Citation: Reith, F., Zammit, C. M., Shar, S. S., Etschmann, B., Bottrill, R., Southam, G., . . . Brugger, J. (2016). Biological role in the transformation of platinum-group mineral grains. [10.1038/ngeo2679]. Nature Geoscience, 9(4), 294-298. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2679

5. Early cave art and ancient DNA record the origin of European bison. Nature Communications

Black painting of bison (putative European bison, or wisent) at Grotte de Niaux (Niaux cave in Ariège, France), dated to the Magdalenian period (~17,000 years ago). Under Creative Commons licence.

Black painting of bison (putative European bison, or wisent) at Grotte de Niaux (Niaux cave in Ariège, France), dated to the Magdalenian period (~17,000 years ago).
Under Creative Commons licence.

Ancient DNA research revealed that Ice Age cave artists recorded a previously unknown, hybrid species of bison and cattle on cave walls more than 15,000 years ago. The mystery species, known affectionately by the researchers as the ‘Higgs Bison’ because of its elusive nature, originated over 120,000 years ago through the hybridisation of the extinct Aurochs (the ancestor of modern cattle) and the Ice Age Steppe Bison, which ranged across the cold grasslands from Europe to Mexico.

This research was led by the Australian Centre for DNA researchers Dr Julien Soubrier and Professor Alan Cooper, working with an international team including those from the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), Polish bison conservation researchers, and palaeontologists across Europe and Russia.

Citation: Soubrier, J., Gower, G., Chen, K., Richards, S. M., Llamas, B., Mitchell, K. J., . . . Cooper, A. (2016). Early cave art and ancient DNA record the origin of European bison. [10.1038/ncomms13158]. Nature Communications, 7(ARTN 13158), 13158-13151-13158-13157. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ncomms13158

6. Global proliferation of cephalopods. Current Biology


Credit: Scott Portelli

This research was a huge cause for celebration. Unlike the declining populations of many fish species, the number of cephalopods (octopus, cuttlefish and squid) has increased in the world’s oceans over the past 60 years.

Cephalopods have a unique set of biological traits, enabling them to adapt quickly to changing environmental conditions, more so than many marine creatures. As the marine environment has been transformed due to increased human use and climate change, cephalopods have responded with a surge in population numbers. But ‘why?’ remains the elusive question.

This paper was led by Dr Zoe Doubleday and Professor Bronwyn Gillanders, working with an international team of researchers.

Citation: Doubleday, Z. A., Prowse, T. A. A., Arkhipkin, A., Pierce, G. J., Semmens, J., Steer, M., . . . Gillanders, B. M. (2016). Global proliferation of cephalopods. [10.1016/j.cub.2016.04.002]. Current Biology, 26(10), R406-R407. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.04.002

7. Carbon isotope discrimination in leaves of the broad-leaved paperbark tree, Melaleuca quinquenervia, as a tool for quantifying past tropical and subtropical rainfall. Global Change Biology

The broad-leaved paperbark tree

The broad-leaved paperbark tree

Leaves of the Melaleuca quinquenervia (broad-leaved paperbark tree) were found to be an excellent predictor of rainfall patterns. This paper came about from an amazing stroke of good fortune, when researchers discovered that Professor Margaret Greenway had collected leaves of Melaleuca quinquenervia every month for 12 years

This extraordinary resource allowed researchers to link the carbon isotope ratio in leaves to historical rainfall records, a relationship which can be used to determine past rainfall levels in Australia by looking at leaves that have been preserved in sediment thousands of years ago.

The research will help Australia understand how the droughts and flooding rains we’ve experienced in recent history compare to the past. The project was led by Dr John Tibby.

Citation: Tibby, J., Barr, C., McInerney, F. A., Henderson, A. C. G., Leng, M. J., Greenway, M., . . . McNeil, V. (2016). Carbon isotope discrimination in leaves of the broad-leaved paperbark tree, Melaleuca quinquenervia, as a tool for quantifying past tropical and subtropical rainfall. [10.1111/gcb.13277]. Global Change Biology, 22(10), 3474-3486. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/gcb.13277

8. The Illegal Wildlife Trade Is a Likely Source of Alien Species. Conservation Letters


Illegally traded reptiles are a threat to Australia

The illegal reptile trade in Australia, including venomous snakes, could put our wildlife, the environment and human lives at risk. This paper outlines a model developed that helps us to identify the likelihood of establishment an alien species (like snakes or other reptiles) establishing themselves that has been introduced to the wild, accidentally or on purpose. Of the 28 reptile species that were analysed, 5 were likely to be established in the wild, while a further 7 could be established without any recapture or control measures in place.

The thriving black market of illegal reptiles in Australia, which includes the distribution of venomous snakes, makes this research particularly important. This research was led by Pablo García-Díaz and Associate Professor Phill Cassey with support from the Invasive Animals CRC.

Citation: García-Díaz, P., Ross, J. V., Woolnough, A. P., & Cassey, P. (2016). The Illegal Wildlife Trade Is a Likely Source of Alien Species. [10.1111/conl.12301]. Conservation Letters. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/conl.12301

9. The role of phytoplankton as pre-cursors for disinfection by-product formation upon chlorination. Water Research


Cleaning by-products threat to water quality

Water quality remains one of the greatest concerns with regards to human health. Treating water with disinfectants is critical to eliminate pathogenic micro-organisms. However, disinfecting water sources leads to disinfection by-products, which have been related to birth-defects and cancers. This paper details the role of phytoplankton in the build-up of disinfection by-products. The research was led by Professor Justin Brookes and his team.

Citation: Tomlinson, A., Drikas, M., & Brookes, J. D. (2016). The role of phytoplankton as pre-cursors for disinfection by-product formation upon chlorination. [10.1016/j.watres.2016.06.024]. Water Research, 102(C), 229-240. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.watres.2016.06.024

10. Finding needles in a genomic haystack: targeted capture identifies clear signatures of selection in a non-model plant species. Molecular Ecology


Australian native hopbush

The Australian native hopbush can be described as a true Aussie battler, able to survive a vast spectrum of environmental conditions, whether it be cool and wet or hot and dry. Hopbush can adapt by non-permanently altering their structure and physiology or through long-term natural selection. Due to these amazing capabilities, hopbush is often studied as a means to identify how plants may adapt with a shifting climate.

This research used novel genomic techniques to investigate selection and adaptation at the level of the genome. The study focussed on populations of hopbush distributed along a 700 km aridity gradient along the Mount Lofty and Flinders Ranges. Genes shown to be under selection had a diversity of functions, including water use efficiency and adaptation to environmental stressors, such as temperature and salt. Findings in the current study provide potential links between the phenotypic variation observed in previous studies and the underlying genomic variation.

This research was done by PhD student Matthew Christmas under the supervision of Professor Andy Lowe.

Citation: Christmas, M. J., Biffin, E., Breed, M. F., & Lowe, A. J. (2016). Finding needles in a genomic haystack: targeted capture identifies clear signatures of selection in a non-model plant species. [10.1111/mec.13750]. Molecular Ecology, 25(17), 4216-4233. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/mec.13750

Want more research goodness? Dont miss also our Top 25 High Impact Peer-reviewed publications for 2016!

*NB: These papers were selected from a list of our top 25 peer-reviewed research papers to represent the quality and breadth of research published by Environment Institute researchers in 2016. The papers above are ranked by impact factor of the journal according to UofA Aurora data current at time of publication.

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Wild barramundi populations are likely to be at risk under ocean acidification, a new University of Adelaide study has found.

Published in the journal Oecologia, the study is the first to show that even freshwater fish which only spend a small portion of their lifecycle in the ocean are likely to be seriously affected under the higher CO2 levels expected at the end of the century.

“We already know that ocean acidification will affect a lot of marine species that live their entire lives in the sea,” says project leader Professor Ivan Nagelkerken, from the University’s Environment Institute. “But this research has shown that fish such as barramundi – which only spend a short part of their lives in the ocean – will be impacted by ocean acidification.”

Most adult barramundi live in freshwater rivers but need ocean water to hatch their eggs. The baby barramundi and juveniles grow up in coastal areas (estuaries, swamps, shallow coastlines) for a few years, then they migrate upstream to join other adults in the river.

The researchers found that in higher CO2 levels, the response by baby barramundi to less salty, warmer waters and estuarine smells was reversed compared to baby fish in waters with current CO2 levels.

“Developing baby barramundis, hatched in the oceans, need to find estuaries as intermediate habitats before they move upriver to complete their lifecycle,” says PhD candidate Jennifer Pistevos, who conducted the research under the supervision of Professor Nagelkerken and Professor Sean Connell.

“They are therefore expected to respond positively to the warmer, less saline and smelly water of estuaries, but only once they’ve reached a certain stage of development. We believe the baby fish in acidified waters were responding to estuarine signals at an earlier stage than they should be. They may not be developmentally ready – a bit like running before they learn to walk.”

Professor Nagelkerken says the failure to adequately time their move to estuaries is likely to have serious consequences for adult barramundi population sizes.

“Recruitment into estuaries is a delicate process and needs to be well-timed to match food abundance and to avoid predators,” he says.

“Barramundi could be considered a robust species in terms of fluctuating environmental conditions and it was thought they could possibly deal satisfactorily with acidified waters. But we’ve shown just the opposite. This will have a significant impact on fishing – both recreational and commercial – where there is dependence on wild catches.”

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The Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC has released its final Hazard Note of the year, asking the question “What Can Economics Offer Emergency Services?” Natural hazards are, of course, a costly affair, yet mitigation options are not free from cost either. Building a compelling case for the risk-reducing and financial benefits of mitigiation options are essential […]

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A big congratulations to Dr Vicki Thomson (School of Biological Sciences) who has been awarded one of only four Australia-India Strategic Research Fund Fellowships from the Australian Academy of Science. The fellowship, which is valued at $88,000, will enable Dr Thomson to undertake work at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bangalore. She will study the disease […]

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The human microbiome is increasingly being recognised as an important part of our well-being. But research is showing that our interact with microbiomes in the environment can have a huge effect on the microbiomes in our bodies. The beneficial bacteria that populate our body play a huge role in our metabolism and physiology. If the population […]

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The Goyder Institute has launched a new project in collaboration with the University of Adelaide and CSIRO to improve our resilience against climate change. The Climate resilience analysis framework and tools project will be spearheaded by Associate Professor Seth Westra. The project aims to help decision makers, planners and designers in adopting and implementing alternative climate change adaptation […]

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Recent surveys by Australian scientists have identified an apparent significant decline in the numbers of trapdoor spiders across southern Australia Famous for their carefully camouflaged burrows – some with lids or ‘trapdoors’ from which they launch themselves to catch their prey – trapdoor spiders are remarkable animals. The females of some species are known to […]

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Environment Institute Director, and Executive Dean of the Faculty of Sciences at the University of Adelaide Professor Bob Hill, calls for a shift in focus from curing people once they are ill to instead supporting the healthiest society that we can, to help prevent much of the illness that will be endemic on an increasingly ailing planet. […]

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Australian researchers have discovered remarkable evolutionary changes to insulin regulation in two of the nation’s most iconic native animal species – the platypus and the echidna – which could pave the way for new treatments for type 2 diabetes in humans. The findings, now published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, reveal that the same […]

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