Crabs, kea and insects’ sense of smell: SBS celebrates 12 new PhDs

02 February 2015

Dr Jane Goodall and Raoul Schwing at Messerli Research Institute Vienna
Dr Raoul Schwing with Dr Jane Goodall at Messerli Research Institute in Austria

The meaning of kea calls, the molecular makeup of the sense of smell in insects and the breeding habits of the invasive Asian paddle crab – these are just three of the areas researched by the School of Biological Science’s newest Doctors of Philosophy.

SBS celebrated 12 new PhDs late last year. Among them was Raoul Schwing, whose PhD research aimed to find out more about the chirps and squawks kea make and why. Initially, he followed the noisy alpine parrots in their natural habitats for two seasons and recorded their vocalisations, which allowed him to define seven different call types.

Dr Schwing, pictured right with renowned conservationist Jane Goodall and a kea at Messerli Research Institute in Vienna, Austria, the only kea laboratory in the world, says the findings could be useful in many ways. Conservation is one: “For example, we could use the kea's own calls to attract them to a catch site for banding purposes, or to maybe even repel them from a dangerous site.”

Colm Carraher’s research focused on understanding the molecular makeup of the sense of smell in insects.  “Insects have been shown to detect a wide range of aromas, called odorants in science, and so can be used in the horticulture industry to detect other insects or pathogens,” he says. “They could possibly be used in biosecurity for similar purposes, or the wine industry to detect important yeasts and bacteria for different types of wine.”

Nicholas Wong studied the Asian paddle crab, an invasive pest first reported in Auckland in 2000. Thanks to his research, we now know how they got here (from Japan) and how they breed (multiple times a year) – information essential to controlling them.

Several pieces of research focused on the potential impacts of climate change on sea life.  Fathima Iftikar explored how rising temperatures affected mitochondria, the powerhouses of cells, in the hearts of fish and crabs. “I wanted to know why the heart appears to be the first organ to fail in animals as temperatures rise.” 

Ramon Gallego studied Southern Ocean meroplankton, and found that they could be the ocean’s equivalent of the canary in the coalmine. “They are extremely sensitive to shifting environmental conditions, and their presence and relative abundance can be used to monitor change.”

Christine Sheppard’s research showed how introduced tropical and sub-tropical plants that displace native species could thrive and spread if global temperatures rise. “The results show that we need to worry about the fact that climate change will mean introduced plants, particularly those that have come from tropical or sub-tropical climates, become a bigger problem,” Christine says.

The other new PhDs are Araceli Samaniego; Ai Fen Chai; Miguel Roncoroni; Kristi Biswas; Kimiora Henare and Mingming Li.