Behavioural Ecology Research Group

University of Queensland

Current Projects

Association patterns of female kangaroos: causes and consequences of individual differences in sociality

This project is investigating the association patterns of female eastern grey kangaroos living at Sundown National Park in southeast Queensland and Wilsons Promontory National Park in Victoria. Eastern grey kangaroos have a fission-fusion social system, in which individuals come and go from groups frequently. We are documenting patterns of sociality of females (e.g., group sizes and compositions, numbers and strengths of social bonds with other females) and testing whether factors such as genetic relatedness, reproductive state or temperament explain individual differences in sociality. We are also investigating possible fitness costs and benefits of differences in sociality by investing patterns of vigilance, feeding competition and offspring survival. We recognize individuals based on their natural features and extract DNA from faecal samples collected from these known individuals at Sundown; at Wilsons Promontory individuals are marked and tissue samples collected for genetic sampling.
People: Clementine Menz, Natalie Freeman, Emily Best, François Favreau, Simone Ludlow, Rebecca Dannock, Amy Edwards, Joanne Towsey, Zhi Zhao Lim, Anne Goldizen at Sundown; Wendy King, Michael Noad, Graeme Coulson (University of Melbourne) at Wilsons Promontory

Grey Kangaroo Grey Kangaroo Grey Kangaroo

Kinship and sociability in eastern grey kangaroos

The main objective of this research is to quantify how the overlap of kin in both time and space affects association patterns in eastern grey kangaroos, according to age, sex and reproductive status. At the same time, individual variation in sociability will be measured and the fitness costs and benefits of individual differences in social behaviour evaluated. The study area is at Wilsons Promontory National Park in Victoria, where we have marked over 500 animals. The kangaroos exist at high density in a large, open population.
People: Wendy King, Graeme Coulson, Michael Noad, Anne Goldizen

Grey Kangaroo Grey Kangaroo Grey Kangaroo

Phylogeography of eastern grey kangaroos (Macropus giganteus): evidence for an open-woodland habitat refugium in southeast Queensland

Phylogeographic studies have led to the identification of several physical and dry-habitat barriers to gene flow in species in eastern Australia. Rainforest habitat refugia separated by these barriers date back to the Last Glacial Maximum during the Pleistocene era and allowed mesic-habitat fauna to persist during dry climate periods. Less is known of patterns of the dry-habitat species. The eastern grey kangaroo (Macropus giganteus) provides an example of a species that prefers drier, open-woodland habitat as opposed to rainforest. We are testing the possibility of an open-woodland refugium in southeast Queensland, suggested by preliminary data from this species, using mitochondrial DNA control region sequences and microsatellite genotypes from scat and tissue samples collected in Queensland and New South Wales. The data suggest a more complex phylogeography than previously thought, specifically with two distinct clades in Queensland. Interestingly, a monophyletic clade occurs in the Sunshine Coast area of southeast Queensland. Due to the restricted area in which this clade occurs and the lack of contemporary barriers to gene flow, we hypothesize that this clade represents an area that became a refugium of suitable habitat that kangaroos retreated to during the climate oscillations of the Pleistocene. Evidence of contemporary gene flow was also found (either due to natural migration or anthropogenic translocations) through some individuals with closely related haplotypes being separated by large geographic distances.
People: Brett Coghlan, Vicki Thomson, Jennifer Seddon, Anne Goldizen

Grey Kangaroo Grey Kangaroo Grey Kangaroo

Patterns of vigilance in marsupial herbivores

We are examining patterns of vigilance in mammalian herbivores, including at this point eastern grey kangaroos, red-necked pademelons, Bennett's wallabies and common wombats. An overarching objective is to compare the factors affecting the vigilance of individuals across the spectrum from solitary species such as the wombat to quite social ones such as the eastern grey kangaroo. One area of our research concerns the degree to which vigilance is synchronized across group members, or conspecifics that are grazing in close proximity, and the causes of such synchronization. Another involves untangling patterns of antipredator versus social vigilance. We are also examining how factors such as sex, reproductive state, and distance to cover affect both individuals' vigilance and the degree of synchronization among individuals. Finally, we are quantifying variation among individuals in their vigilance patterns and attempting to determine the causes of this variation.
People: Rebecca Dannock, Amy Edwards, Olivier Pays (Université d'Angers, France), François-René Favreau, Joanne Towsey, Alecia Carter, Anne Goldizen

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Female social networks and association patterns in giraffes

We are studying the female giraffes in the Okaukeujo area of Etosha National Park in Namibia. Giraffes have a fission-fusion social system, in which individuals come and go from groups frequently. We are quantifying the social networks of these females, as well as the association patterns of individuals, determining who individual females associate with and the strengths of associations between pairs of females. We are then relating these measures to the home ranges of females, their flight distances as a measure of their boldness/shyness, their reproductive state and other individual characteristics to understand the costs and benefits of sociality in this species.
People: Kerryn Carter, John Carter, Bryan Shorrocks (University of York, UK), Diana Fisher, Anne Goldizen

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Ecology and management of urban flying foxes in southeast Queensland

In recent years, flying-foxes have been coming into increasingly closer contact with people due to existing daytime camps becoming enveloped by urban sprawl, and as a result of flying-foxes shifting into urban areas possibly in order to access more reliable food sources. Our towns and cities can support large numbers of these animals, and this close proximity to people can lead to human-wildlife conflict situations. This conflict puts managers of flying-foxes in a difficult position; they need to conserve populations of flying-foxes but also need to manage the negative consequences. This presents a really interesting challenge for conservation, and my PhD is focused around (i) understanding how and why the animals are distributed across urban environments in the way that they are, and (ii) how we can manage Australia’s urban flying-fox populations to make sure we conserve them, but also minimise the human-wildlife conflict.
Our research is being conducted in south-east Queensland, a region where many flying-fox camps have split up or changed location over the past few years. We want to find out why these changes are occurring and whether they are temporary or permanent. To answer these questions we are currently measuring the amount of foraging resources available for flying-foxes in Brisbane, and working out how the bats are spreading out across the urban environment when they leave their camps in the evenings. Our ultimate goal is to find out how we can manage urban vegetation into the future in order to ensure both adequate supply for the maintenance of urban flying-fox populations and thus their ecosystem services, such as pollination and seed dispersal, and to help ameliorate human-flying-fox conflicts.
People: Joanne Towsey, Colin Studds, Richard Fuller, Anne Goldizen

Behavioural trade-offs and the influence of spatial dynamics in the in blue wildebeest

For more information on this project, see → Rebecca Dannock
The project aims to study vigilance, foraging, communication and movement behaviours of blue wildebeest to determine the trade-offs that are made daily and how they affect survival. Through playbacks we are investigating whether wildebeest can differentiate between alarm and non-alarm calls of wildebeest and heterospecific herbivores. Playbacks will also be used to determine whether predator vocalizations cause short-term behavioural changes. These playback experiments will be used to characterise the effects that changing resource availability and associated body condition have on the response to predation pressure and group dynamics of wildebeest. We will also be focusing on landscape ecology to determine ecological effects on wildebeest behaviours including short-term (daily) and longer-term (seasonal) movements. These questions should allow us a chance to determine the effect of resource availability on behaviour, and how behaviour is therefore affected by fencing and habitat loss.
People: Rebecca Dannock, Anne Goldizen

Wildebeest Wildebeest Wildebeest

Conservation of the bridled nailtail wallaby

The bridled nailtail wallaby Onychogalea fraenata was once common in eastern Australia, but now exists naturally in one population at Taunton National park (Scientific) in central Queensland, and at two reintroduction sites: Idalia National park in western Queensland and Avocet Nature Refuge in central Queensland. The All three populations are small (probably <250 individuals). There is also a free-ranging, eclosed population at the Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s Scotia Sactuary in New South Wales. We are studying current threats, threat abatement, monitoring methods and conservation management of this species in Queensland. Two major threats are predation (from dingoes, feral cats and potentially foxes, although foxes are effectively controlled at Taunton and Idalia at present), and habitat change. Invasive buffel grass has caused obvious changes in vegetation structure, composition and food plant abundance in dry seasons in the last 20 years at Taunton.
People: Diana Fisher, Kristin Donaldson, Sally Green, Susan Nuske, Lisa Kingsley, Yiwei Wang (University of California Santa Cruz), Rod Fensham, Yvonne Buckley, Anne Goldizen, and DERM staff at Rockhampton

Feeding behaviour of humpback whales off the coast of New South Wales

For more information on this project, see → CEAL
Humpback whales are a cosmopolitan species that undertake large annual migrations from polar feeding grounds to tropical breeding grounds. The species is divided into several separate populations globally. The east Australian population migrates from the warm tropical waters of the Coral Sea down to Antarctic waters which are a major feeding ground. Feeding and breeding activities are largely believed to be confined to set feeding and breeding areas; however there is growing evidence that humpback whales may feed opportunistically while migrating or on breeding grounds. The area off Eden, NSW has recently been highlighted as a potentially important area for feeding of humpback whales. Between September and November whales are seen feeding regularly in this area while migrating south to the Antarctic. Although the feeding behaviour of a number of humpback whale populations has been studied, very little research has been conducted on fine scale behaviour in the southern hemisphere. Additionally no research has been conducted on the importance of migratory stopovers to migrating cetaceans. For other migrating taxa such as birds, supplemental feeding at migratory stopovers is vital to the success of migration. Additionally, foraging behaviour and prey selection has been shown to change while on migration in these taxa, but this factor has never been considered for marine mammals. The feeding behaviour observed each spring off Eden provides us with a unique opportunity to address some of these questions. The purpose of this project is to determine the significance of feeding behaviour off Eden to the overall ecology of the East Australian population of humpback whales. Specifically this project aims to:

  1. Determine how whales feed by looking at fine scale feeding behaviour on a migratory stopover (using suction cupped D-tags, boat-based focal follows, acoustic recordings and biopsies for sexing animals in the feeding group),
  2. Consider how prey distribution and environmental features influence feeding behaviour (using remote sensed data and other environmental sampling measures including CTD casts),
  3. Look at the dynamics of group feeding behaviour (using theodolites on hill surveys and focal follow sampling),
  4. Determine what acoustic signals are used by the whales to synchronise feeding (using acoustics collected on D-tags) and determine the importance of sound in group feeding events.

People: Kylie Owen, Rebecca Dunlop, Michael Noad, Anne Goldizen, David Donnelly

Testing relationships between patterns of burrow use and dispersal in common wombats

All three extant wombat species exhibit unusual patterns of sex-biased dispersal for mammals, with females dispersing more frequently and/or further than males. Wombats are solitary when they feed at night but display a form of cryptic sociality through the sharing of burrows. We are documenting patterns of burrow sharing and the costs and benefits of this form of sociality, including how patterns of burrow use influence vigilance behaviour. Understanding costs and benefits of burrow-sharing will also allow us to test two hypotheses that have been proposed for why wombats have sex-biased dispersal patterns opposite those of most mammals.

  1. Because burrows are energetically costly and time-consuming to make, and such costs would be higher for juveniles, females may bequeath their burrows to their young by exhibiting breeding dispersal.
  2. It is known that some level of sharing of burrows occurs, and it may be that males benefit from sharing burrows with closely related males, thus selecting for male philopatry.

We are testing these hypotheses and others using a combination of molecular genetic techniques and ecological and behavioural data.
People: Cécile Vanpe, Anne Goldizen

Wombat Wombat Wombat

Quantitative genetics in the wild: an opportunity to incorporate environmental factors in our understanding of evolution

The debate about the relative importance of nature versus nurture has been around for decades, but despite this, there has been very little evidence of how these might in fact interact to drive evolution in the wild. Modern technology may have allowed scientists to dig deeper into the genetic variation of traits, but these advances have also demonstrated that most variation in traits cannot simply be explained by variation in genes. While it is accepted that genes and environment interact to influence phenotypic evolution, investigating how these may interact in the wild have posed both practical and statistical challenges.
Using the eastern water dragon as a model species, this project aims to address this challenge by incorporating critical environmental information into our understanding of evolution. To do so, we will bridge the gap between quantitative genetics and behavioural ecology and develop novel statistical and genetic methods to enable the partition of genetic, social, environmental factors, and their multiway interactions to better understand phenotypic evolution (e.g. fitness attributes, sex determination, social behaviour, mate choice, etc).
People: Celine Frere, Peter Prentis (Queensland University of Technology), Arthur Georges (University of Canberra), Anne Goldizen

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Past Projects

Ecological and behavioural responses to habitat disturbance and fragmentation in the diademed sifaka

Lemurs, the endemic primates of Madagascar, are increasingly threatened by habitat loss and disturbance. Several studies have shown that species richness declines in disturbed and fragmented habitats, yet little is known about the proximate causes of extirpation. This project seeks to identify ecological and behavioural responses to habitat disturbance and fragmentation in Propithecus diadema, an endangered rainforest lemur. Specifically, we aim to:

  1. Combine observational data on feeding with nutritional analyses to quantify how nutritional intake changes with increasing disturbance.
  2. Quantify activity budgets and social behaviour, which may be adaptive responses or simply byproducts of shifts in nutrition and ranging.
  3. Describe the gastrointestinal helminth parasites found in this species and investigate effects of habitat, social structure and season on parasite diversity.
  4. Investigate physiologic health directly via animal capture, examining body mass and morphometrics, and bloodwork (serum chemistry, hematology, serology).

In addition to building an understanding the socioecology of this species, we hope that identifying the most important proximate ecological pressures in disturbed habitat will help both in prioritization of habitat for protection, and targeted conservation and restoration efforts which will alleviate those pressures.
People: Mitchell Irwin

Sifaka Sifaka Sifaka

Structure and dynamics of Australian flying-fox colonies

Flying-foxes, fruit bats of the Old World tropics and subtropics, form intriguingly large and stable colonies which at the beginning of last century were known to frequently have been comprised of up to half a million individuals. Surprisingly little is known about the dynamics and organisation of these rarely encountered large mammal aggregations. Our research done since the early 2000s has shown that the complex social and safety architecture of colonies has important implications for sexual selection in the large-scale lek-mating system, as well as individual safety. Positioning of individuals indicates social status and is closely associated not only with behavioural characters such as vigilance (alertness to social and environmental threats), but also physiological (stress and reproductive hormones) and immunological (immune response, ectoparasites) measures and body condition. These findings suggest insights into life-history trade-offs built around costs and benefits of social status and reproductive access in a unique mammalian model.
Future research aims at integrating cutting-edge methods in an interdisciplinary approach to better understand the proximate and ultimate processes governing colony structure and interactions between flying-fox species, at both micro- and macro-scales. Our work has shown that climate change will likely affect flying fox species differently, which may be of key importance to both conservation and human health. Some flying-foxes are already in decline and could be adversely affected by climate change. In relation to human health, there are concerns that human health may be affected by novel viruses associated with the bats. Only by better understanding the ecology of this keystone group of seed dispersers and engineers of forest biodiversity in Australia will we be able to effectively reverse flying-fox declines and associated negative long-term consequences for biodiversity. A better understanding of these species will also improve management practices for flying-fox camps, which are increasingly the source of conflict between humans and wildlife.
People: Kelly O'Laughlin, Stefan Klose (University of Ulm, Germany), Justin Welbergen (University of Cambridge, UK), Elisabeth Kalko (University of Ulm, Germany), Anne Goldizen

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Maternal behaviours in eastern grey kangaroos and their relationship to personality

We are studying the maternal behaviours exhibited by eastern grey kangaroos at Sundown National Park to identify whether maternal styles vary among mothers. We are recording behaviours such as vigilance, proximity to offspring, and maternal responses to vocalisations and offspring movements. The survival and growth rates of the young are being used as indicators of offspring quality to assess the effectiveness of different maternal styles. Additionally, we are examining the relationship between the maternal behaviours and the personalities of the mothers. We have chosen two axes of personality traits for comparison: boldness (risk taking versus risk averse) and sociability (based on the number of conspecific associations and the strength of these associations).
People: Anita Cosgrove, Emily Best, Anne Goldizen

Phylogeography of species endemic to NW Namibia's granite inselbergs

There are numerous granite inselbergs in north-western Namibia with high levels of endemism in both vertebrates and plants, however, the population genetics of taxa specific to this area are completely unknown. Processes of adaptation and speciation are favored on inselbergs which essentially function as islands, ecologically isolated from their surroundings. Phylogeographic studies allow us to better understand the effects of landscape features and past climatic fluctuations on species living in fragmented ecosystems. This project examines the evolutionary processes affecting taxa specific to this unique ecosystem, investigating the phylogeography of the landscape as well as species boundaries and degree of separation. The specific aims of the project are to:

  1. Characterize species boundaries and hybridization between the black mongoose (Galerella nigrata) and the slender mongoose (Galerella sanguinea)
  2. Investigate the effects of past climatic fluctuations and landscape features on the genetics of mongooses endemic to Namibia's granite inselbergs.
  3. Study the comparative phylogeography of various fauna occurring on Namibia's granite inselbergs.
  4. Look at the evolutionary processes occurring on Namibia's granite inselbergs from a conservation perspective

People: Sara Tromp, Jennifer Seddon, Anne Goldizen

Cultural transmission of humpback whale song and metapopulation structure in the South Pacific Ocean

This project is investigating the change and subsequent transmission of humpback whale song throughout the South Pacific Ocean over the last decade. Male humpback whales produce long, complex 'songs' that are thought to function in mating. All males within a population sing the same song but the song changes rapidly over time. All males must incorporate these changes to maintain song similarity. Populations within an ocean basin also have similar songs within the same year. The degree of similarity is dependent on geographical distance between populations with closer populations having higher song similarity than distant ones. The main populations being investigated in the region are east Australia, New Caledonia, Tonga, the Cook Islands and French Polynesia. Previous studies have demonstrated similarities among the songs of the South Pacific and east Australian populations for particular years, or from one population over time, but none have examined the dynamic nature of song change in the region. Quantifying how and where song changes are happening and tracking their subsequent spread will hopefully produce a better understanding of population structure in the region. This project in undertaken in collaboration with the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium and is funded by Sea World Research and Rescue Foundation Inc., Winifred Violet Scott Estate, Australian Department of the Environment and Water Resources and the Tangalooma Marine Education and Research Foundation.
People: Ellen Garland, Michael Noad, Anne Goldizen, Doug Cato

Phylogeny and phylogeography of the pademelons (Macropodidae: Thylogale) in Australia and New Guinea

Pademelons are medium-sized (3-9kg), forest-dwelling wallabies. The genus is one of only three macropod genera currently found in both Australia and New Guinea and is comprised of six species. These are found from the wet sclerophyll forests of Tasmania in the south to the tropical and alpine forests of New Guinea in the north. One species (T. stigmatica) is represented in both countries. Although these species are thought to be modern representatives of the ancestors to grazing kangaroos and wallabies, very little is known about the phylogenetic relationships within the genus or of genetic variation within species. Additionally there is evidence of decline in the Australian mainland populations and three New Guinea species have suffered significant local extinctions. This project will investigate broad-scale patterns of genetic variation within and among pademelons using mitochondrial and nuclear genetic markers. The specific aims of the project are to:

  1. Determine the population history and genetic diversity of the two mainland Australian species: the red-legged pademelon (T. stigmatica) and the red-necked pademelon (T. thetis).
  2. Examine patterns of genetic variation in the red-bellied pademelon (T. billardierii) across the state of Tasmania.
  3. Examine genetic variation within and between New Guinea species and use this information to infer the historical biogeography of the region.
  4. Combine the genetic data from all species to determine the phylogenetic relationships among them and the approximate timing of divergence of New Guinea and Australian species.

People: Peggy Macqueen, Anne Goldizen, Jennifer Seddon

Strategies for conserving habitat for the brush-tailed rock-wallaby

The brush-tailed rock-wallaby is one of Australia's most threatened wildlife species. This species suffers from local extinctions due to poor habitat quality and isolation of patches caused by landscape modifications. These factors limit population size and movement which place populations at greater risk from catastrophic events. Some of the urgent measures needed to conserve this species are to identify and actively manage high quality brush-tailed rock-wallaby habitat. This project used presence-absence surveys to generate habitat models for predicting the locations of high quality habitat for this species. We then tested different management strategies, including the use of expert opinion, for identifying and protecting prime quality habitat for brush-tailed rock-wallabies at multiple scales.
People: Justine Murray, Anne Goldizen, Hugh Possingham, Clive McAlpine, Sama Low Choy (Queensland University of Technology)

Managing Tasmanian devil populations affected by the Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD): the effect of DFTD on demography, population dynamics, and fine-scale population genetic structure

This project aimed to determine the effect of DFTD on the population dynamics and fine-scale population genetic structure of affected populations, in order to investigate the consequences of, and evaluate the effectiveness of, various management strategies for recovery of affected populations. The specific aims were to:

  1. Determine the effect of DFTD on individual life history traits.
  2. Link changes in individuals parameters to changes in population vital rates/dynamics.
  3. Develop a model of the population dynamics of DFTD in devil populations. Utilise this model to explore the possible outcomes of different management scenarios on population trajectories and the likelihood of alleviating the impacts of this disease.
  4. Examine fine scale genetic differentiation in the Tasmanian devil, in order to make inferences about dispersal patterns and quantify dispersal distance.

People: Shelly Lachish, Anne Goldizen, Hamish McCallum (Griffith University)

Mimicry and cultural evolution in the songs of Albert's lyrebirds

Albert's lyrebirds (Menura alberti) are famous for their spectacular displays that feature rhythmic dances with loud and very complex songs. Their songs include amazingly accurate mimicry of at least 10 other bird species. All male Albert's lyrebirds within a population produce roughly the same sequence of mimicked sounds within their cyclical mating displays, but the sequence varies among different populations. It is not known whether the variation in individual mimicked components among populations reflects the underlying variation in the songs produced by the model species. It is also unclear whether the entire song is transmitted as a single unit, or if it results from a complex interaction of alternative learning paths (eg. could the sequence be culturally transmitted, but the elements themselves be repeatedly learnt from the model species?).
This project investigated the role of cultural transmission in shaping the complex song structure of the Albert's lyrebird by using a combination of observational and experimental techniques. Recordings of lyrebirds and the species they mimic were used to test whether lyrebirds accurately copy the local variants of other species' songs. Playback experiments using both natural and synthesised song sequences tested whether different components of the song result from the different learning paths.
People: Dave Putland, Anne Goldizen, Michael Noad

Acoustic and behavioural ecology of humpback whales

This project involves acoustic and behavioural research on humpback whales as they migrate along the east coast of Australia. Male humpback whales produce long, complex songs on their tropical breeding grounds and during migration to and from these breeding grounds. All the males in the any one population sing similar songs at any time, but the pattern of the song changes with time, all the males making the same changes to their songs to maintain concurrent song-matching. Whether the songs are primarily used for attracting females or for male dominance-sorting is not currently known, and so the evolutionary pressures that have shaped the design and changing nature of the songs are not understood. Our research aimed to better understand how and why the song patterns change, and how the singers use song to mediate interactions with other whales, and so better determine the role of song.
We are also engaged in a collaborative project with the Defence Science and Technology Organisation, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the U.S. Office of Naval Research. The main aim of this research is to examine how whales perceive and utilise the underwater acoustic environment. There is increasing concern about potential adverse effects of some sources of anthropogenic sound on marine mammals, and understanding how marine mammals interact with their acoustic environment is crucial to any assessment of the possible impacts these sound sources may have.
People: Michael Noad, Doug Cato (DSTO), Peter Hale, Josh Smith, Anne Goldizen

Conservation genetics of two insufficiently known inshore cetaceans: snubfin and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins in northeast Queensland waters

Recent research carried out by GJP in Cleveland Bay, northeast Queensland, indicates that Australian snubfin and Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins occur in small, localised populations close to coastal and estuarine environment. This information suggests that populations of both species are vulnerable to anthropogenic mortality and potentially rapid population declines. Molecular genetic techniques have proven to be effective tools for studies of ecology and management of target species. In this study we used molecular genetic methods together with behavioural data to:

  1. Assess the level of genetic structure among populations of snubfin and humpback dolphins in northeast Queensland.
  2. Use data from (1) to investigate the dispersal patterns in snubfin and humpback dolphins, thus defining any major groupings and their connectedness.
  3. Within these major groupings determine the association patterns, gender, and genetic relatedness among individuals of different sex of snubfin and humpback dolphins.
  4. Use data from (1) to estimate the genetically effective population size (Ne) of populations of snubfin and humpback dolphins in northeast Queensland waters.

People: Guido Parra (Flinders University), Mike Noad, Michael Krützen (University of Zürich), Bill Sherwin (University of New South Wales)