Environment Institute

Human ingenuity has been responsible for some of humanity’s greatest achievements from deep space exploration to clean drinking water. The University of Adelaide is keen to find the next big technological breakthrough at Ingenuity, an annual showcase of student projects exploring the dynamic world and applications of engineering, computer and mathematical sciences

The environment will feature heavily at Ingenuity, with projects aimed at modelling the ocean dynamics of Gulf St Vincent, using crop waste for cattle feed and much more. Researchers from the Environment Institute have been working with students who are showcasing several projects including “Murray River Salinity Predictions”, “Can Trade Solve World Hunger” and “Improving Flood Simulation Capacity”. We’re particularly excited by a project to understand bats.

A cross-disciplinary team of mechanical engineers and biologists are investigating bat echolocation, whereby bats use sonar to help navigate their surroundings. However, we know very little about the function and evolution of the organs responsible for bat echolocation.

The team have created digital and scale models of the bat vocal tract and noseleaf to better understand the bat’s inner biology. Find out the results at the “Accoustics of Bat Call Echolocation” stall at Ingenuity.

Ingenuity is on 9:30am – 3:30pm, 28 October 2016 at the Adelaide Convention Centre. All are welcome to this free event!

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Hoogakker-image-300x300The next Sprigg Seminar will be presented by Dr Babette Hoogakker from the University of Oxford with her talk entitled “New methods to assess ocean oxygenation in the past; examples from the Atlantic and Southern oceans.”

Title: New methods to assess ocean oxygenation in the past; examples from the Atlantic and Southern oceans
When: 4pm, Thursday 27 October, 2016
Where: Mawson Lecture Theatre

The presentation will be followed by nibbles in the Alderman Room.



Past reconstructions of ocean oxygenation are important to understand the natural oxygen cycle. Such datasets are valuable for the wider scientific community to validate climate models, and improve predictions of future oxygen changes. Novel datasets of oxygen usage in addition are important to define the role of biological processes in sequestering carbon in the oceans. During this talk I will discuss two recently developed proxies and examples of their application from the Atlantic and Southern (Pacific Sector) Oceans. The first proxy method allows for the quantitative reconstruction of bottom water oxygen concentrations (Hoogakker et al., 2015), the second proxy provides information about the presence/absence of low oxygen subsurface waters (Lu et al., 2016).


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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 has revealed that Ice Age cave artists recorded a previously unknown hybrid species of bison and cattle in great detail 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.

Research led by the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide, published today in Nature Communications, has revealed that the mystery hybrid species eventually became the ancestor of the modern European bison, or wisent, which survives in protected reserves such as the Białowieża forest between Poland and Belarus.

“Finding that a hybridisation event led to a completely new species was a real surprise – as this isn’t really meant to happen in mammals,” says study leader Professor Alan Cooper, ACAD Director. “The genetic signals from the ancient bison bones were very odd, but we weren’t quite sure a species really existed – so we referred to it as the Higgs Bison.”

The international team of researchers also included the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), Polish bison conservation researchers, and palaeontologists across Europe and Russia. They studied ancient DNA extracted from radiocarbon-dated bones and teeth found in caves across Europe, the Urals, and the Caucasus to trace the genetic history of the populations.

They found a distinctive genetic signal from many fossil bison bones, which was quite different from the European bison or any other known species.

Radiocarbon dating showed that the mystery species dominated the European record for thousands of years at several points, but alternated over time with the Steppe bison, which had previously been considered the only bison species present in Late Ice Age Europe.

“The dated bones revealed that our new species and the Steppe Bison swapped dominance in Europe several times, in concert with major environmental changes caused by climate change,” says lead author Dr Julien Soubrier, from the University of Adelaide. “When we asked, French cave researchers told us that there were indeed two distinct forms of bison art in Ice Age caves, and it turns out their ages match those of the different species. We’d never have guessed the cave artists had helpfully painted pictures of both species for us.”

The cave paintings depict bison with either long horns and large forequarters (more like the American bison, which is descended from the Steppe bison) or with shorter horns and small humps, more similar to modern European bison.

“Once formed, the new hybrid species seems to have successfully carved out a niche on the landscape, and kept to itself genetically,” says Professor Cooper. “It dominated during colder tundra-like periods, without warm summers, and was the largest European species to survive the megafaunal extinctions. However, the modern European bison looks genetically quite different as it went through a genetic bottleneck of only 12 individuals in the 1920s, when it almost became extinct. That’s why the ancient form looked so much like a new species.”

Professor Beth Shapiro, UCSC, first detected the mystery bison as part of her PhD research with Professor Cooper at the University of Oxford in 2001. “Fifteen years later it’s great to finally get to the full story out. It’s certainly been a long road, with a surprising number of twists,” Professor Shapiro says.

*The Higgs Boson is a subatomic particle suspected to exist since the 1960s and only confirmed in 2012.

A video explaining the research can be viewed here.

This story has been featured in media outlets around the world including ABC, BBC, Science, New Scientist, Gizmodo and many more.

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Australian scientists have good news for frog conservation ─ there may be longer than expected time to intervene before climate change causes extinction of some species. The scientists used new methods for modelling the threat of climate change on frogs in tropical north-eastern Australia and showed that, at least for some species, there is likely […]

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The next Sprigg Symposium will be presented by Associate Professor Ian Goodwin from Macquarie University. He will present a seminar entitled “What do Australian coasts tell us about past climate and Antarctic Ice Sheet Stability?” Title: What do Australian coasts tell us about past climate and Antarctic Ice Sheet Stability? When: 12:10pm, Friday 21 October, 2016 […]

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A native parasitic plant found commonly throughout south-eastern Australia, is showing great promise as a potential biological control agent against introduced weeds that cost millions of dollars every year to control. University of Adelaide research has found that the native vine Cassytha pubescens, better known as snotty gobble, is able to kill gorse, blackberry and […]

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PhD opportunities are now available in the related fields of ecological modelling, global change biology and biogeography at the University of Adelaide’s School for Biological Sciences, with joint external supervision from staff at the University of Copenhagen’s Centre for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate (CMEC). We are currently looking for enthusiast PhD students to work on […]

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Ecologists have estimated that invasive (non-native) insects cost humanity tens of billions of dollars a year – and are likely to increase under climate change and growing international trade. Researchers from the University of Adelaide in Australia and CNRS and Paris-Sud University in France have compiled the first comprehensive and robust database of the global […]

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The entries have been received, the votes have been counted and now we can announce the winners of the Environment Institute’s 2016 Photo Competition! A big congratulations to Charlotte Nitschke who has won the people’s vote! Charlotte’s image of a bearded dragon garnered the most votes on Instagram. Our congratulations also goes to Marc Jones, who won by […]

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Associate Professor Stephen Pruett-Jones from the University of Chicago will present a seminar. Title: Naturalized Parrots in the United States When: 12pm, Friday, November 4, 2016 Where: Lecture Theatre G10, Benham Building     Abstract The United States was home to two native species of parrots, the Carolina Parakeet and Thick-billed Parrot, both of which are now extinct. Nevertheless, […]

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