Searching for PhD and honours students

Project Description

We are looking for excellent PhD (and honours) students to commence in 2019 on projects associated with two Australian Research Council grants examining evolution and adaptation in tiger snakes.

The candidate should have a strong interest in evolutionary biology (including the field of molecular evolution) and the natural history of reptiles. They will join a vibrant research team of Australian and international researchers, based at the University of Adelaide, that is focused on the diversity and evolution of Australian snakes.

The candidate will be supervised by Dr. Vicki Thomson and will be based at the South Australian Regional Facility for Molecular Ecology and Evolution at the University of Adelaide.

Project summary:
This project examines the geographic variation amongst tiger snakes in anatomy, ecology, and life history traits, and the relationship of these factors to venom toxins and production. The tiger snake is a unique system showing evolution/adaptation of multiple traits across island populations, including body size, head size plasticity, venom evolution, scale colouration etc. The project, which will be developed with the student, can be developed to examine island evolution in a range of traits, which could include the evolution of venom toxin genes that play critical roles in adaptation to different prey items on the islands, regulation of genes involved in plasticity of head size, evolution of genes involved in growth that results in gigantism or dwarfism etc. We have recently generated two genomes of tiger snakes, so these resources will be available to examine genes known to be involved in growth, metabolism, pigmentation etc. As part of this project, the candidate will develop skills in genomic DNA and RNAseq analyses, including next-generation sequencing and the associated bioinformatics.


Applicants should hold a first class honours degree or equivalent (MSc) and have experience in molecular genetic analyses and/or bioinformatics. Applications or enquiries should be sent by email to Vicki Thomson (

Australian students should first apply for an Australian Postgraduate Award scholarship in the mid-year round (due May 31st, 2019) for commencement between July 1st and Nov 30th 2019 (see International students should first apply for a University of Adelaide scholarship. The next round closes on Feb 15th for commencement between July 1st and August 31st. (or April 30th 2019 for commencement before 30th Nov 2019). See:

Thank you.


Dr. Vicki Thomson
School of Biological Sciences

The University of Adelaide
Benham Building
North Terrace Campus
South Australia 5005


University website:

Personal website:

Twitter: @Vicki_Thomson


Smaller emus on smaller islands

Background photo for meme © 2012 Rex Boggs, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

Have you ever wondered how animals evolve when they are on a permanent diet? Over long time frames? Well, looking at what happens on islands is a perfect way to find this out.

In our recent study (‘Genetic diversity and drivers of dwarfism in extinct island emu populations’ published in Biology Letters), we found that the average size of each island’s emus seems to be related to the size of the island they were stranded on. It has long been known that large animals tend to become smaller on islands, known as island dwarfism. This is what appears to have happened to groups of emus isolated on Kangaroo and King Islands, as well as Tasmania, when sea levels rose after the last glacial period and cut them off from the mainland.

When early Europeans first discovered these small emus on the islands they thought they were completely different species and quickly hunted them to extinction, as they provided an easy food source to hunt. We know this from the early written records from the time, but we don’t know much else.

When we look at the DNA of the island emus, we notice that it looks pretty similar to that of the mainland emu. This suggests to us that they are the same species, just slightly smaller in size (approximately 30% smaller on King Island, 20% smaller on Kangaroo Island, and 10% smaller on Tasmania). The reduced amount of food available on the islands and the lack of need to walk long distances to find food, likely resulted in incrementally smaller emus over each generation. What we don’t know for certain is whether they each reached an optimal size for their island, or if we hadn’t driven them extinct, would they still be getting progressively smaller?

We think it is the former: with the smaller the island, the smaller the emus rather than the longer the isolation, the smaller the emus.

Rebranding as


After attending a talk by Corey Bradshaw ( about ‘Pimping your profile’, I decided to buy my own domain and rebrand my personal wordpress website as I hope this will be the beginning of a beautiful relationship – between my blog and I.

Now I don’t expect to be blogging daily or weekly at the beginning, more like once a month. The blog posts are likely to cover diverse topics within the field of conservation genetics and evolutionary biology, so if this area interests you check back here regularly for new stories.


The usefulness of social media to career scientists

Recently our lab group’s journal club reviewed a paper talking about ‘Narratives of Science Outreach’ (click here for access to the full paper). Now this is particularly timely as more and more of our daily life as scientists is spent explaining what we do the general public and talking to journalists about our research. I think the main idea to come out of our journal club discussion was that social media use by scientists is the way of the future. It will increasingly be used to attract students (and hence their money) to undergraduate degrees at the ‘popular’ (read ‘social media savvy’) universities and as undergrad student numbers are what’s filling university coffers these days, scientists that can use this to their advantage will be able to write their own ticket. In today’s highly competitive university environment, where voluntary redundancies are now turning not so voluntary, do we really need any more incentive to be out there pounding the pavement justifying our mostly-taxpayer-funded jobs?

Well, I’d argue that yes we do. One ultimate benefit to having an educated general population is that politicians are forced to add knowledge of a topic and logical arguments to their soundbites for the nightly news and not just spin. As climate change becomes more and more of an imminent threat to our way of life, its important that voters understand why scrapping the Climate Commission and Climate Change Authority, replacing the carbon tax with an emissions trading scheme, and  funding a multi-million dollar climate ‘consensus centre’ are not sustainable objectives for our federal politicians to support. We were able to avert one global catastrophe back in the 80’s and 90’s by replacing CFC’s in fridges and other appliances with non-ozone depleting chemicals. This achievement required years of research and hard work, political will, and an international treaty (the Montreal Protocol) to protect the planet’s ozone layer, but it is now projected that by 2050-2065 the ozone layer should return to pre-1980 levels (data from the Department of the Environment). Now, I’m not saying that minimising temperature increase due to climate change will be as easy as protecting the ozone layer, but we already know that it is possible for international will to be brought to bear on issues affecting us all. A vital first step of this process will entail us scientists increasing our ability to relate our knowledge and research directly to the general public. This may well start with talking to family and friends at BBQs about investing in solar power; discussing how Tiddalick the frog might be affected by climate change when reading bedtime stories to our kids; and letting our neighbours know how they can limit their cat’s damage to native wildlife by putting a bell on its collar, potentially preventing vulnerable bird species from being hunted to extinction. But these everyday conversations should by no means be the end of our attempts to promote science-based knowledge as essential in dealing with 21st-century life. We just have to find efficient ways to make outreach fit into our already overworked and underpaid lives as career scientists and concerned human beings.

The views expressed in this blog are the writer’s own and in no way reflect those of her lab group or the institution that she works for.

What’s been going on? – Part 1: Why did the chicken cross the Pacific?

Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD)

By Vicki Thomson

In the quest to find out what on earth is going on, I have been asking some animals how all the people of different cultures came together to create the modern world.

At home in New Zealand, I describe myself as a Pakeha, it means a New Zealander (Kiwi) of European descent. However, I also have some Maori blood. This means my ancestors were individuals of different cultures and homelands who all undertook travels to new worlds, and as a kid the stories behind these human journeys fascinated me.

View original post 943 more words