Searching for 2 PhD candidates - Wild Deserts Ecosystem Restoration

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The Wild Deserts project is an ecosystem restoration initiative based in the far north-west of NSW in Sturt National Park. The project is a partnership between the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney, Ecological Horizons and the NSW Government National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). With funding through the NSW Government Saving Our Species program, the Wild Deserts project aims to restore an area of Sturt National Park through the removal of feral pest species and the reintroduction of seven locally extinct mammal species (Pedler et al. 2018). The project has constructed two 20 km2 fenced exclosures from which all feral species, macropods and emus have been removed. In addition, a ‘Wild Training Zone’ area of 100 km2 has been created in which low densities of feral predator populations will be managed using innovative control techniques to provide an area in which predator training of native species can occur. In 2020, reintroductions commenced within the exclosures and to date, three species have been reintroduced – greater bilbies, crest-tailed mulgara and Shark Bay bandicoots.

Fencing exclusion zone


The research team

The Wild Deserts project is underpinned by a strategic adaptive management approach (Kingsford et al. 2020) to ensure the success of the project in meeting its vision and to ensure project outcomes can be measured. Wild Deserts team members Dr Rebecca West, Dr Reece Pedler, Professor Richard Kingsford, Associate Prof Katherine Moseby, and Dr John Read are UNSW Sydney and Ecological Horizon academics with diverse areas of expertise and will make up the supervisory panels. Bat ecology expert Dr Tanya Leary (NPWS) will also join the supervisory panel for project 2.

The candidates

Wild Deserts are seeking two PhD candidates to join the team in early 2022 and contribute to our research. We are seeking self-motivated applicants with a demonstrated ability to work safely and independently in a remote field setting. Field work will be conducted at the Wild Deserts project site in Sturt National Park, and so the successful candidate will need to spend considerable time there. Accommodation is available on site for field work. Laboratory work will be conducted at UNSW Sydney. The projects will be supported by the Centre for Ecosystem Science in the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at UNSW Sydney. The successful applicant must enrol in a PhD programme at UNSW Sydney, starting in 2022 and will need to acquire an Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) or equivalent award to take up the position. Funding for equipment and analysis costs are covered by Wild Deserts with some funds available for travel, but we will also support successful applicants to apply for additional grants for their project costs as part of their training.

Grant writing, project management, and scientific writing are desirable but extensive experience is not essential. Desirable but not essential experience includes animal trapping and handling, radiotracking and GIS spatial analysis.

Project 1: Managing feral cats at threshold densities to enable recovery of native species

Feral cats are a serious predator of arid zone species. Recent research suggests that native species may be able to coexist with feral cats if: 1) cat densities are maintained at levels below a threshold; 2) ‘problem’ cats are identified and targeted; and 3) predator awareness of native species is enhanced. However, the effect of contributing factors (e.g. alternate prey densities, vegetation cover), and how to efficiently manage feral cat densities below thresholds, requires further development at a landscape scale. The Wild Deserts Wild Training Zone is a 100 km2 area in which we aim to manage feral cat densities. The area is bordered on two sides by the semi-permeable dog fence and on two sides by a feral proof fence. It is expected that there will be movement of feral cats in and out of the area. This PhD project will focus on using GPS satellite collars to understand movements of individual feral cats within and in/out of the Wild Training Zone, to identify high use sites and interactions with fences, efficacy of audio lures and interactions with rabbits and their warrens. Analysis of the spatial movement patterns will be used to optimise layout of track transects, spotlighting transects and camera traps to maximise detection of changes in feral cat densities. A range of tools, including automated Felixer traps will be assessed for their efficacy in controlling feral cats. The project will determine how quickly and effectively different control mechanisms can be implemented to change feral cat population densities and composition and investigate the interactions of cat densities with other ecological variables.

Project 2: Do fenced reserves benefit resident arid microbat species?

Fenced reserves are known to benefit a wide range of terrestrial mammal species as well as some birds and reptiles. Threatened mammals such as bilbies, bettongs and bandicoots have been reintroduced to fenced reserves and thrived. However, the benefits or potential negative impacts of fenced reserves to microbats has not been studied despite the fact that microbats can comprise up to 40% of the local mammal population. Fenced reserves may provide significant benefits to microbat species by improving vegetation structure, increasing invertebrate abundance, increasing the quantity and quality of roost sites and reducing predator impacts. They may also provide flight barriers which could impact foraging success. This PhD project will use radiotracking and ultrasonic surveys to determine whether fenced reserves benefit microbat species. The project will determine the important habitat features used by microbats in desert environments including roosting sites and feeding grounds and how bats use the fenced reserves in comparison to outside areas. The project will be able to use long term ultrasonic monitoring sites established inside and outside the fenced reserves to compare changes in bat activity and species composition. Invertebrate traps will be used to understand how fenced reserves influence food abundance for microbat species.

Please send a CV and a cover letter outlining your interest and suitability in the role to Dr Rebecca West ( by 22 October 2021.

Pedler, R. D., West, R. S., Read, J. L., Moseby, K. E., Letnic, M., Keith, D. A., & Kingsford, R. T. (2018). Conservation challenges and benefits of multispecies reintroductions to a national park–a case study from New South Wales, Australia. Pacific Conservation Biology.

Kingsford R.T., West R.S., Pedler R.D., Keith D.A., Moseby K.E., Read J.L., Letnic M., Leggett K.E., Ryall S.R. (2020) Strategic adaptive management planning—Restoring a desert ecosystem by managing introduced species and native herbivores and reintroducing mammals. Conservation Science and Practice.