This page describes the current research projects being undertaken in the Mulder lab. For information on past projects, please navigate to the Home page and click through the photos in the slide show, or visit the Publications page.
1. Understanding individual differences in social behaviour: the role of personality
In many animals, individuals differ consistently in suites of correlated and heritable behaviours, comparable to human personalities. Recent research suggests that personalities should influence key socio-ecological processes (e.g. dispersal, cooperation, parental investment, and mate choice), but they have rarely been studied in this context.
We are using an experimental approach to determine how:
a) personality affects critical social and life-history decisions in a cooperatively breeding bird
b) early social environment contributes to the development of personality.
We are using the superb fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus) as a model system to explore these questions. We hope to shed light on the ecological importance of personality variation and improve our understanding of the evolution and maintenance of social behaviour.
2. Behavioural ecology of the black swan
Our research into the behavioural ecology of the black swan (Cygnus atratus) began in 2006 when we started tagging and monitoring the population at Albert Park, Melbourne. Over time, many projects have been carried out on this population including research into mating systems, communication, and response to disturbance. Individuals are marked with collars with unique identification codes allowing us to track individuals over time. This long-term monitoring program utilises a group of citizen scientists who regularly submit sightings of individual birds at various locations around Victoria, through a website (myswan.org.au) and a smartphone application (available from iTunes).
Two projects are currently being carried out on the tagged black swan population. The first examines the function of bill colouration, and the role it may have as an identity or quality signal. Black swans have a distinctive white stripe on their red bills. This is the first study to examine the function of non-pigmented bill ornaments, facilitating comparison of the selection processes favouring difference colouration traits. The second study that examines the complex relationships and structure of social networks within the population, and the costs and benefits associated with centrality in the network.
3. Conservation genetics of the threatened malleefowl
The malleefowl (Leiopa ocellata) is a threatened Australian megapod; most notable for the large mounds it builds to incubate its eggs. Severe habitat loss and fragmentation has meant that the malleefowl has lost over half of its natural range. The species is also threatened by predation from introduced foxes and feral cats. This reduction in both range and population size is likely to have resulted in a loss of genetic diversity.
In this project, we aim to investigate the genetic variation of malleefowl across their range, and compare this with historical museum specimens to establish any changes. We will also examine the mating system of malleefowl by examining the paternity of chicks. We can then use this information to create a population viability model to determine which populations are at risk of extinction.