Two young scientists receive environmental science award

November 10, 2017
Melissa Houghton will study insects, spiders and other invertebrates on Macquarie Island.
Charlie Phelps will study the effects on kelp of bacteria, increasing temperature and kelp-eating organisms.

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.

Macquarie Island invertebrates

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

Kelp in temperate Australian reefs

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.

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.

Highly commended

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 award

Read the Academy's media release

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