Phoenix Group

Evolutionary Ecology & Genetics


I studied for Master 1 in Biology of Organisms and Ecology at Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium, and previously qualified with Bachelor in Biology and High School Diploma majoring in maths and science. I also graduated in 2017 from a complementary Master in Science and Environmental Management. My developing interests are in evolutionary ecology and I am keen to use modern tools to make a difference for biodiversity and the environment. In 2016 I was an intern with the Phoenix group exploring population genetics of brush tailed possums that are a mammal pest in New Zealand, introduced from Australia. I used microsatellite, mitochondrial and NGS genomic data to build a better picture of the origins and structure of introduced populations. I returned to New Zealand in 2018 to begin a PhD in the Phoenix group on the genetic basis for the convergent evolution of flightlessness in rails (Aves: Rallidae).

PhD research
Flight has a huge implication in the evolution of morphological and physiological characters in birds. Indeed this ability has a substantial cost in terms of energetic demands which leads to many constrains in terms of body size, weight, reproduction, shape etc. But what happens when birds stop to fly ? In my study I investigate the evolution of flightlessness within the Rallidae family. This group is a good model as it includes more than 130 recognised species of which 32 are flightless. The general methodology of this research is firstly to use morphological and phylogenetical data to compare species with and without the ability to fly. The objective is to determine the major phenotypic effects of the transition from flighted to flightless for the purpose of, thereafter, investigate the molecular basis of this. For this second stage I will be focusing on four species present in New Zealand, two flighted and two flightless (Pukeko Porphyrio porphyrio, Takahe Porphyrio hochstetteri, Weka Gallirallus australis and Banded Rail Gallirallus philippensis) using full genome data. By comparing those species I expect to determine genome regions involved in the evolution of flightlessness.

flightless/flying plot

(Left) Principal component analysis (PCA) plot showing the multivariate variation among 54 species of rails in terms of morphological traits. Vectors indicate the direction and strength of each trait to the overall distribution. Blue circles represent flightless species and yellow triangles are flighted species. (Right) Flying ability and distribution (Island or Continent) mapped on Maximum Likelihood phylogenetic tree of rails.