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Success and the city: how bats adapt to the pressures of urban environments


The rapid expansion of cities worldwide is introducing unprecedented environmental conditions, forcing species to adjust or go locally extinct. Insectivorous bats are one group of mammals persisting in cities, however the behaviours or adaptations that allow some species to succeed whilst others don’t are unknown. This project will examine this issue by comparing populations of bats living in urban Sydney to those in more natural areas, unpacking the success of some species by examining their ecology, reproductive success and stress response to city living.


Dr Caragh Threlfall, Professor Dieter Hochuli.

Research location

School of Life and Environmental Sciences

Program type



Organisms can display both evolutionary and non-evolutionary changes in response to urban conditions, for example via altered calling behaviour, diet, and timing of reproduction. Despite increased interest, current literature presents conflicting patterns in the suite of traits reported as being associated with urbanisation and is almost exclusively based on the study of conspicuous, diurnal species (e.g. birds).

This project will use insectivorous bats (Chiroptera) as a model taxon because they are taxonomically, phylogenetically and functionally diverse, and are the most diverse globally distributed urban mammals. As bioindicators, bats respond to aspects of urban habitat in a similar way to other vertebrates and invertebrates, making them an ideal candidate to track the impact of and response to urban stressors.

Using field-based approaches, this project will focus on the following questions: What is the cost of urban living? Does increased reproduction come at the cost of reduced condition or health in urban animals versus and non-urban animals? Via examining bats living in urban and non-urban bushland, this project will assess differences in key animal traits in response to urban conditions, potentially including reproductive output, survival and stress as assed via conducting a wing banding study, and via various biomarkers such as ectoparasites and neutrophil to lymphocyte ratios (assessed via taking a blood smear). These data will contribute to our understand of how species become urban ‘winners’ and can assist in the development of evidence informed guidelines for biodiversity friendly cities.

Key methodologies proposed for consideration include wing banding, assessment of nest box occupancy and breeding success, acoustic methods of bat call identification (via AudioMoth), GIS, mark-recapture analysis, blood pathology, hair or scat analysis and data analysis in R.

Additional information

- This project is part of a larger Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) awarded to Caragh Threlfall

- Animal handling is required, and the successful candidate would need a Lyssa virus vaccination for animal handling

Potential sites include those with bat nesting boxes, where the candidate would be required to complete working at heights training (~ 5 m).

- A current driving licence is required

- The project will be co-supervised by Prof Dieter Hochuli and Dr Bradley Law (NSW DPIE)

- Project to commence ideally in Jan or March 2021. Applications close on 4th Dec for domestic students, or 4th Dec for International students but with a later start date in 2021

- Candidate required to apply for an Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) scholarship (details below).

Please contact Caragh Threlfall directly to discuss prior to starting an applicaiont.

HDR Inherent Requirements

In addition to the academic requirements set out in the Science Postgraduate Handbook, you may be required to satisfy a number of inherent requirements to complete this degree. Example of inherent requirement may include:

- Confidential disclosure and registration of a disability that may hinder your performance in your degree;
- Confidential disclosure of a pre-existing or current medical condition that may hinder your performance in your degree (e.g. heart disease, pace-maker, significant immune suppression, diabetes, vertigo, etc.);
- Ability to perform independently and/or with minimal supervision;
- Ability to undertake certain physical tasks (e.g. heavy lifting);
- Ability to undertake observatory, sensory and communication tasks;
- Ability to spend time at remote sites (e.g. One Tree Island, Narrabri and Camden);
- Ability to work in confined spaces or at heights;
- Ability to operate heavy machinery (e.g. farming equipment);
- Hold or acquire an Australian driver’s licence;
- Hold a current scuba diving license;
- Hold a current Working with Children Check;
- Meet initial and ongoing immunisation requirements (e.g. Q-Fever, Vaccinia virus, Hepatitis, etc.)

You must consult with your nominated supervisor regarding any identified inherent requirements before completing your application.

Want to find out more?

Opportunity ID

The opportunity ID for this research opportunity is 2884