Fieldwork, Groote Eylandt, NT

Leaving Darwin, the propellers outside hummed loudly (reassuringly). We pressed our noses to the windows, looked out on the wild top coast of Australia. The fires lit by thousands of years of tradition. And then, we were there. Over the mines, into the red dirt.

the GEMCO manganese mine

the GEMCO manganese mine

On the deck with Jennifer and her niece; with Chopper; with MacBook Pro

We drove east to Umbakumba then headed into the bush on sandy tracks. We set up tents on top of a berm, feeling {relatively} safe from water-borne crocs and collected firewood from the beach. We watched a heavy moon pull itself up into the sky.

Picnic Beach, Groote Eylandt | Jaime and Eddie set out, bait, and mark quoll traps

Under Jaime's guidance, we set out traps for quolls, hoping to catch at least a few to obtain measurements and hair samples.

We caught 4. Plus a few bandicoots. It was good enough for Jaime to get her samples, and good enough for me - these were the first wild quolls I'd seen.


It was only a week ago we got back from Groote Eylandt. What a special place. Wild, and raw, and special. An island of contrasts, between a traditional culture and a modern mining industry. An island with a lot of crocodiles.

It was my first trip up, and Nelle came along. We met the Rangers and friends and family and Gavin and Kerry and the rest of the team and Alex-from-Stanford. We drank tea on the deck at the Ranger station, and packed up everything {but petrol} for a quoll-catching venture to the east side of the island. {Former labmate} Billy was appointed Ranger Coordinator. We learned our first Anindilyakwan words. We entertained Nelle, and learned the value of ABC for Kids downloads {and PhD students}.

A quoll curled up in its very own, custom-made pillowcase | fishing for dinner

We were almost as successful catching fish ... the ocean here teems with them {apparently} but we didn't have much luck. Three fish only made it into our bellies.

That's ok. We had plenty of patience ... and potatoes. 

- written byAmanda Niehaus

Bigger *is* Better: Phallus size and male physical performance across temperatures

The second presentation we'll discuss is Robbie's. Robbie's talk - though sadly fraught with technological difficulties - conveyed to the audience the answer to that age-old question:
does a bigger phallus actually mean the male is better?

I won't give away the ending just yet, (or maybe I will ... ) - in mosquitofish, anyway - the answer seems to be yes.

Bigger is Better in all environments: temperature-induced variation in phallus size is a reliable indicator of male physical performance and gamete quality

Males of many organisms possess elaborated structures that are used to engage in fights with other males and/or to attract females during courtship. The size and elaboration of these secondary sexual traits can be affected by the environment via its influence on the condition of an individual male. This link between male condition and the elaboration of male sexual signals is one of the most important mechanisms maintaining the reliability of these traits as signals of male quality.

male elk use extravagant antlers to battle for females

The role temperature plays in mediating the condition of individual males and the size and elaboration of their sexually selected traits is currently unknown. Males of the eastern mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki) possess a modified anal-fin phallus (gonopodium) that is used as both a signal of dominance and a stabbing weapon during male-male competitive bouts {as well as to fertilise females}.


{Robbie} examined the effect of temperature on the size of this putative sexual signal (phallus size) by chronically exposing males to either 20° or 30°C for four weeks. {He} also tested the influence of these thermal environments on various measures of male quality; including male territorial performance, swim speed and gamete function.

Males chronically exposed to 30°C possessed longer phalluses, greater ejaculate sizes, larger testes and faster sperm swimming speeds than those exposed to 20°C. This is the first study to show that environmental variation in phallus size can be a reliable indicator of male physical performance and gamete quality.

{And what does this mean, and why does it matter? Well, it means that mosquitofish may have higher reproductive outputs in warmer environments, and might do even better than they currently do when climates warm further. In Australia, mosquitofish are invasive and by out-competing and eating eggs and young of natives, they are aiding the decline of native fish populations.}

Not good. Who knew that global warming would increase phallus sizes ...

Tackling the Problem of Diving in Football

Some consider it an art form, others cheating. Whatever your thoughts, diving by soccer players is one of the most controversial and despised actions in sport. Diving represents a deliberate attempt to deceive the referee, with players falling – even rolling around - to suggest they’ve been illegally fouled. Diving has long been a source of embarrassment for the world’s most popular sport, yet even football’s governing body (FIFA) has had little success at stamping out this behaviour.

University of Queensland PhD student Gwendolyn David, along with her supervisor Dr Robbie Wilson and other UQ colleagues have taken a fresh look at diving behaviour in an attempt to identify the mechanisms that can be used to control it.

In a study published this week in the prestigious open-access journal, PLOS One [] these researchers explored the behaviour of soccer players and referees in the context of animal signalling theory.
“Theory predicts that deceptive behaviour should occur only when the prospective benefits outweigh the costs and when the risk of detection is low,” says Ms David. “So we expected that deception would be driven by the potential payoffs and would be limited by punishment.”

David undertook a play-by-play examination of 60 matches across six high-profile professional leagues to see when and where players faked fouls, and when they were likely to get away with it (or not). She found that – as predicted - diving occurred most often when the potential payoff was greater: namely, in the offensive side of the field and when the two teams had tied scores.

But the most exciting result came from looking between the leagues. “We found that players dived more often in leagues where referees were more likely to reward dives with a free-kick or penalty,” says Dr Wilson.

This means that when referees don’t detect or punish diving then dives are more common. “The most effective means of controlling deception, whether it’s a footballer or an animal, is via punishment. But, of the more than 2800 falls we observed and the 169 dives, we never once saw a diving player punished,” says David.

“Our results clearly show that reducing deception in sports like soccer is largely up to the referee and governing bodies. Players will try to deceive referees when the benefits are high, but better detection and administration of punishment may help reduce its prevalence” says Dr Wilson.
“Some progressive professional leagues, such as the Australian A-League and American MLS, have already started handing down punishments for players found guilty of diving. This is the best way to decrease the incentive for diving,” said Dr Robbie Wilson.
For more information on the study or for interviews, please contact Dr Robbie Wilson (Senior Researcher) at +61 458204962 or For other information on this research group’s work see the lab soccer website:

Sabbatical is Not Just One Big Holiday ...

Robbie's currently on sabbatical - or long study leave. But what is it? And what exactly is Robbie meant to be accomplishing on all these trips to the US and Europe and Sydney and Groote Eylandt?

Well, according to Wikipedia a sabbatical is:
'a ceasing [of] work, or hiatus.' 
But it also says - hidden a paragraph or two later - that in modern times a sabbatical is:
'any extended absence in the career of someone in order to achieve something.'
Uh oh. So there are expectations.

At UQ, a sabbatical is granted every 3 to 5 years - and gives academics 6 months off from administrative and teaching duties. There is an expectation that the academic will use this time wisely - to collaborate with researchers overseas, or undertake extended field trips, or write a book, or punch out half a dozen publications or so. Basically, it's time to catch up on all those things that an academic is supposed to be doing (in between teaching and supervising and sitting on committees).

The academic-on-sabbatical doesn't actually have to leave home - but getting out of town does make it easier to leave office stresses behind and focus.

On his sabbatical, Robbie will attend two overseas conferences; collaborate with researchers in Sydney and France and Phoenix; finish up those 20 or so papers that currently hang in various states of completion/submission/revision; begin writing a book on maximising soccer performance; make two jaunts field trips to Groote Eylandt; and various other duties that will enhance his career and make his life easier when he returns to full-on duties in February.

So there you have it: what a sabbatical is, where you can still get one, and what you might like to do while you're on it. Not bad, hey?

Studying Mosquitofish from the South of France is Not as Glamorous as It Sounds, Part 3

The fish have been collected, the experimental plans organised, and now ... it's time to watch and swim and measure fish.

Robbie and Frank split up the work associated with their experiment - Robbie observed the females' behaviour and Frank measured metabolic rates.  

Here's the behavioural set-up:

And the metabolic set-up:

Frank swam fish in a little glass jar to ramp up their metabolic rates, so he and Robbie could calculate the metabolic scope.

That's all we can say for now, as the data haven't been analysed and the paper has yet to be written. But we wanted to give you some insight into what an eco-physiological experiment entails. It may not be as glamorous as it sounds, but the excitement of discovery and exploring new ideas is what keeps scientists going. The development of an experiment like this one was a lot of fun!

Studying Mosquitofish from the South of France is Not as Glamourous As It Sounds, Part 2

We now return to our story of mosquitofish from murky waters in southern France ... gallantly collected and brought back to the lab, where they were used to address a very important question:
How expensive is pregnancy?
Now, having been pregnant once before, I was willing to share my own experiences with expense in pregnancy: the financial costs associated with becoming addicted to eBay; the social costs of inexplicable moodiness; the energetic costs of lumbering to and from the bathroom; the mental costs manifested in an inability to concentrate/find keys/remember things.

But, apparently fish are different.

Mosquitofish, in fact, are live-bearers that can produce 20 to 70 young in a pregnancy - young that altogether can weigh up to 30-40% of the female's own body weight.

This extra mass and the energy required to produce all these baby fish can substantially increase a female's metabolism - even when she's resting. A higher resting (or basal) metabolism would be expected to limit a female's metabolic scope.

What's metabolic scope? It's the difference between resting and maximum metabolic rates - or the amount by which the body can increase metabolism to deal with high levels of physical activity or stresses. Because maximum metabolic rates are limited by the body's capacity to uptake oxygen and eliminate cell waste, they don't change much. So we expect the metabolic scope of a pregnant mosquitofish to diminish as her resting metabolic rate increases.


That's not all.

Temperature also increases the resting metabolic rate of fish: higher temperatures mean higher resting metabolic rates.

So that's what Robbie and Frank and their French collaborators were keen to look at - how temperature affects the metabolic scope of pregnant mosquitofish.

(to be continued ...)

Studying Mosquitofish from the South of France is Not as Glamourous As It Sounds, Part 1

Recently, Robbie was invited to collaborate with scientists at France's prolific CNRS (Centre National de la Resherche Scientifique). These researchers included Head of the CNRS's Ariege unit, Prof Jean Clobert; and Marie Curie Fellow, Dr Camille Bonneaud. Robbie joined his long-time Australian collaborator and friend - A/Prof Frank Seebacher - in the idyllic location of Moulis* to study the behaviour, physiology, and performance of the invasive mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki) relative to their state of pregnancy.

*Let me assure you, that for all the un-glamourousness of the fish- and data-collection, the research station was spectacularly situated.

Imagine working in a well-funded research program in a quaint French village, in a building that adjoins a rushing brook amidst the green-capped mountains of the Pyrenees.
Mag. nif. ique.

But, alas, mosquitofish don't like pristine, bubbling streams. They prefer dank, stagnant places. So when Robbie and Frank took a drive toward the Mediterranean coast, it was looking for swamps. And though there are no pictures to document the collection of the fish, it allegedly involved:
1) wading through reeking swamp mud
2) numerous biting insects
3) a decomposing, floating, probable-mammal the size of a beaver
4) a swift change of clothes before returning to the hire car
And a pink net.

Some hearty beef stew and a few beers upon returning home didn't hurt, either.

Then it was off to the lab to set up the experiments ... (to be continued) ...