Burrowing into bilby conservation, behavioural ecologist Kate Cornelsen is a PhD-candidate at the University of New South Wales. Kate looks at how we can improve conservation efforts for the threatened Greater Bilby by advancing knowledge on bilby behaviour, such as the fitness consequences of sociality. Her work is providing a unique insight into the fine-scale interactions between bilbies in a semi-wild sanctuary which could have massive implications for the success of conservation translocations and for continued management of populations.
Kate shares her journey in ecology as well as some exciting results from her project and career advice for anyone looking to do something similar.
Kate’s PhD project is focused around the ecology and behaviour of the threatened Greater Bilby in a 110-hectare fenced semi-wild sanctuary. The sanctuary was established by the Taronga Conservation Society Australia, and is situated in Dubbo, New South Wales. The main purpose of the sanctuary is to provide a source of behaviourally robust semi-wild bilbies for release, ultimately increasing bilby numbers and enhancing the conservation of this species.
The bilby is an unusual looking animal, somewhere between a rabbit and a bandicoot with a distinct white-tipped black tail. They are nocturnal, burrowing, marsupials, classified as nationally vulnerable, mostly because of predation by feral cats and foxes.
Kate has the rare opportunity to study these threatened animals before they are released, looking at many different aspects of bilby behaviour and ecology from broad-scale habitat selection, all the way down to the fine-scale interactions between individuals. She hopes her work will provide useful tools for conservation managers on the ground, particularly in the context of planning conservation translocations. Although the focus is on fenced sanctuaries, Kate aims to provide the building blocks to eventually transition beyond the fences.
To touch on one aspect of her thesis, Kate is looking at the social networks of bilbies, understanding how often individuals associate with the conspecifics in their network and whether this has consequences for their survival and reproductive success. Kate says:
“You could look at it like creating a Facebook profile for each bilby to determine who’s friends with who”
And so far, Kate’s initial results suggest that bilbies who associate more often with conspecifics within their social network may have higher breeding success – so there are massive conservation implications for this!
While this is interesting within the confines of the sanctuary in Dubbo where Kate is carrying out her observations, it has massive implications for understanding bilby behaviour and the drivers for population growth within fenced areas and ultimately beyond the fence.
Fenced sanctuaries are necessary for many native Australian animals, especially those that fall within the critical weight range – the ideal prey size of feral cat and foxes that run rampant on mainland Australia – and consequently, some species are only surviving on islands and inside fenced sanctuaries without this threat of predation.
While these fenced areas are important for providing insurance against extinction, moving beyond the fence is the ultimate goal. While it’s not possible to take this step until introduced predators are under control in Australia, building a detailed understanding of the behaviour and ecology of our threatened species is an important step to take towards this goal.
“I think there’s some really great research happening in this space at the moment – for example, training native animals to build up skills like predator avoidance over multiple generations. Great examples of this are the projects lead by Arid Recovery and Wild Deserts – this keeps me hopeful for the future”
Straight out of high school, Kate enrolled in animal science although it turned out to be more agriculturally-focused rather than wild-life focused. She decided she wanted to focus more on wildlife conservation and research, and so accepted an Honours project focusing on the reintroduction of Common Brushtail Possums to the Flinders Ranges or Ikara National Park, South Australia.
“I did a lot of nocturnal radio-tracking of possums through the bush which was a really great experience and a great way to build skills”
Following Honours, Kate did a lot of different things – volunteering on various biodiversity projects with Arid Recovery and Australian Wildlife Conservancy before she got work tour guiding with Seal Bay on Kangaroo Island followed by an internship with the Kangaroo Island Landscape Board, doing feral cat management, mainly for the purpose of protecting the endemic Kangaroo Island Dunnart – a threatened species vulnerable to cat predation. From her internship, Kate moved to Dubbo to start her PhD project. Kate says:
“Starting out, I didn’t think I’d do a PhD, I guess I fell into it in an intentional way… taking the time to understand what I liked and didn’t like through volunteer work and my internship led me towards research.”
For Kate, research is all about exploring and she loves the aspect of satisfying her curiosity by working to solve problems and answer questions. She says:
“I think that’s what guided me into the role… I’m fascinated by animal behavior and all the little bits about species that make them who they are”
For people looking to work in wildlife research or conservation, Kate has some great advice from her experience. Here are her 3 top tips:
- Volunteering and internships
Volunteer work and internships are really important for getting more exposure, especially if you’re just starting out, and to build your skills and work in different environments as well, including remotely.
“For me, spending time living and working remotely as a volunteer helped me build my experience and skills like four-wheel driving and changing tyres – this built a good skill base to move on to something like a PhD or a job”
- Being flexible and mobile, especially early on in your career can definitely open you up to more opportunities. Kate says:
“I feel like jobs where you stay in one place are actually quite rare… I think you’re quite lucky if you do get that sort of position”
- Things to consider BEFORE starting a PhD…
“A PhD is a three-and-a-half-year commitment (or more!) – so take the time to figure out what you’re passionate about and whether you’re prepared for the lifestyle change that comes with a PhD as it is pretty full on!”
Keep in touch
You can follow Kate on both Instagram @kate_cornelsen, Twitter @kate_cornelsen and Linked In. AND the first part of Kate’s PhD project has already been published – you can read it here. You can also find out more about the Taronga Conservation Society Australia here and their current research.
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Kate’s PhD project is supported by the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales, the Taronga Conservation Society Australia, and Australian Wildlife Society. Kate is also supported by an amazing team of animal keepers and her PhD supervisors: Neil Jordan, Andrew Elphinstone, and Richard Kingsford.
Kate would also like to thank and acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which her PhD research is based – on Wiradjuri Country – and is grateful for the opportunity to work on country to help conserve the bilby.
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