Academy recognises young environmental scientists protecting Australia

November 10, 2017

PhD students Ms Melissa Houghton from the University of Queensland and Mrs Charlie Phelps from Edith Cowan University are the 2018 recipients of the Australian Academy of Science Max Day Environmental Science Fellowship Award.

The award provides up to $20,000 for early-career researchers working on the conservation of Australia’s flora and fauna, the ecologically sustainable use of resources and the protection of the environment and ecosystem services.

It is named in honour of Academy Fellow, the late Dr Maxwell Frank Cooper Day AO, who spent a lifetime championing entomology, conservation and forestry, as well as helping other scientists. He died in July this year aged 101.

Ms Houghton will use the award to conduct the first study of insects, spiders and other organisms without a backbone (invertebrates) on Macquarie Island since the eradication of rabbits, rats and mice in 2014. The World Heritage Listed subantarctic island is located in the Southern Ocean, approximately half way between Australia and Antarctica.

As a dog handler Ms Houghton took part in the successful eradication mission on the island. Now she is studying the island’s 300 native and 50 non-native invertebrate species and their interactions to determine how Macquarie Island’s complex ecosystem is recovering and changing following the conservation effort.

Ms Houghton said invertebrates are often overlooked in conservation science and rarely included in biodiversity monitoring or conservation management.

“Yet they are highly sensitive to environmental change and are great indicators for the health of an ecosystem. How they respond to environmental change enables meaningful assessments of benefit and return-on-investment for large-scale Australian conservation actions, such as island eradications,” Ms Houghton said.

Ms Houghton will return to the island in January for her third and final invertebrate survey. Ms Houghton is supported by the National Environmental Science Programme, Threatened Species Recovery Hub.

Mrs Charlie Phelps will study the effects of bacteria, increasing temperature and kelp-eating organisms (herbivory) on the ecologically-important kelp, Ecklonia radiata, sometimes referred to as the ‘biological engineers of temperate Australian reefs’.

The kelp provides habitat and shelter for many marine animals and juvenile fish, enhances biodiversity, assists in nutrient cycling and supports the fishing and tourism industries.

Bleaching of the kelp, where the surface tissue turns white, can have a drastic effect on its health and can lead to death. Increasing water temperatures and bacteria have been identified as possible causes. Mrs Phelps’ study will be the first to inoculate the kelp with microbial pathogens and use interactive stressors (temperature and herbivory) to help determine the extent of bleaching from a type of bacteria known as R10.

Mrs Phelps said she will put bacteria and sea urchins into 40 tanks containing the kelp and simulate several different environmental conditions to see how the kelp responds.

“This research will help inform how the kelp may respond to future heatwave scenarios and other factors, such as the impacts of a tropical herbivore species that could potentially over eat the temperate kelp,” Mrs Phelps said.

Ms Houghton and Mrs Phelps will receive their awards at the Academy’s annual signature science event Science at the Shine Dome on 23 May 2018.

Two researchers were also highly commended for the Max Day Environmental Science Fellowship Award:

  • Dr Tatiana Soares Da Costa from La Trobe University for her project ‘Development of New Herbicide Cocktails for Effective Weed Management’.
  • Dr Emma Camp from the University of Technology Sydney for her project ‘Set-Up For Survival – The Holobiont Signature Facilitating Australia’s Coral Communities In The Face Of Climate Change’.

More information about the awards can be found here.

Media contact: Dan Wheelahan – ph: 0435 930 465 –

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