WA’s biodiversity decline the focus of prestigious PhD scholarship

February 24, 2017

A Murdoch University student has been awarded the inaugural PhD scholarship by the Western Australian Biodiversity Science Institute (WABSI).

Rowena Burch will study native mammals and reptiles in the jarrah forests of the South West to determine how they respond to prescribed burns, timber harvesting and to programs aimed at controlling predators such as cats and foxes.

“Loss of biodiversity due to human impact is a critical issue in Western Australia. Rowena's research will deliver scientific information and help the State make more informed decisions around conservation and sustainable economic development,” WABSI’s Chief Executive Officer, Peter Zurzolo said.

A collaboration between Murdoch University and the Department of Parks and Wildlife, the project will use cameras and GPS technology to monitor predator numbers and their movements.

Results will help shape cost-effective control programs to better protect and manage unique fauna in the South-West.

Murdoch University researcher Dr Kate Bryant, who will co-supervise Rowena’s research along with colleague Dr Joe Fontaine and Department of Parks and Wildlife researcher Dr Adrian Wayne, said Rowena was a well-deserved recipient of this inaugural WABSI top up scholarship.

“Rowena comes into this project with outstanding qualifications in Conservation Biology and Biostatistics and will be able to apply her unique combination of skills to understanding key threats to our native fauna such as fire, feral predators and logging,” Dr Bryant said.

Rowena thanked WABSI’s board and staff for the scholarship.

“A PhD is a huge intellectual and financial undertaking, especially after several years in the workforce. This project provides me with an opportunity to use my statistical background for the benefit of our unique Western Australian wildlife,” she said.

Rowena will analyse data collected over the past 7-9 years by the Department of Parks and Wildlife in experiments conducted using the BACI or ‘before-after-control-impact’; a design used to monitor potential environmental impacts.

The project will also design and implement research to investigate responses to different types of predator control activity in the Upper Warren region, east of Manjimup, which is a fauna conservation priority area.

Using cameras, Rowena and her team will determine how abundant feral predators are in this area. They will compare the ecology of feral predators in baited and non-baited sites and the spatial ecology of feral cats.

Rowena’s research will clearly help fill an end user need: to better understand native fauna, how it responds to introduced changes and how we can better conserve and manage biodiversity in our South West.

This highly competitive scholarship is aimed at supporting research activities that contribute to improving, adapting and increasing our understanding of Western Australia’s biodiversity. In particular, where the research is collaborative and is clearly linked to the needs of end-users such as government, industry and community.

The scholarship aligns with the strategic role that WABSI plays in WA, to enable end-user driven, relevant research that helps to fill our gaps in biodiversity knowledge and to provide convenient access to biodiversity information.

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