The student comparing fox skulls all around Australia

Story by Matt Starr, Dharawal, Journalist. Bachelor of Journalism UOW Alumni

UOW PhD student Ryan Dallas is hoping his research into foxes will help contribute to the conservation of Australia’s native species

Ryan Dallas is a Wiradjuri man and PhD student researching the possible evolution of foxes throughout Australia’s different climates since their introduction to the country in the 1800s. Ryan’s work aims to discover if evolution has occurred on any level, which could account for the invasive species’ success in becoming such a widespread threat to local ecosystems.

“Basically, I’m going to be looking at a lot of fox skulls to determine any differences between them. I’ll compare the skulls from different regions in Australia as well as historical samples to see if there’s any small-time evolution or changes over the couple hundred years they’ve been in this country,” Ryan said.

“I’m going to be 3D scanning a lot of the skulls, and once they’re scanned then little markers will be put on the skulls and morphometrics will be done. Once you’ve done enough samples you can compare these metrics across skulls and that’ll tell you if there’s a difference in shape or size of the varying features.”

For Ryan, the decision to pursue foxes as a subject of study comes from a desire to protect Australia’s native species to whom the red fox has become a predator.

“One of the biggest threatening processes towards native species in Australia is the introduction of the red fox. I want to try to figure out why the animal’s so successful in so many different climates and hopefully find a way, or contribute to finding ways, to control and curb fox populations and conserve a lot of the native species.”

Ryan’s PhD will follow on from his previous work undertaken during his Master of Research, where he tracked the activity patterns of foxes for a year, comparing them to the patterns of their prey species throughout all seasons.

“I had 15 camera traps spread out from the escarpment in Berry down to Seven Mile Beach. I’d have the camera facing what you’d call a bait tube – just a tube with some stinky old chicken in it – and every few weeks I’d go out on my trail bike, ride through the bush, replenish the baits, and change the memory sticks out of the cameras. I did that for an entire year and got some really fun results. It was a really cool experience.”

“It’s one of the reasons I chose this degree. There’s a lot of getting out of the office and seeing the land. Even just for that master’s I got to see a lot of landscapes, even just in the Illawarra.”

Self-direction and breaking away from the traditional classroom experience is an approach to learning that’s informed the path of a lot of Ryan’s tertiary education, leading him to a PhD where he hopes to continue working outdoors.

“When I did the master’s I enjoyed the more research style of learning compared to classes, exams, classes, assignments, classes, exams. The research component behind it gives you your own direction, and your own way to build your work up.

“The plan may change, but I’d like to get samples from all the different climate types in the country. So coastal regions like the Illawarra and South Coast area, more arid regions, so I’ll go out west. Then also up into the tropics as well and maybe further south to colder regions. Get that broad spread of climates to hopefully see different results.”

Ryan’s also a recipient of the Top Up scholarship for students completing their PhD, some assistance that Ryan is relieved will alleviate some of the financial concerns of pursuing postgraduate education.

“It helps take the edge off. That little bit of extra money takes the stress away so I can spend more time focused on the study and the research instead of wondering where I’m going to get money from.”

He also credits the strong support of his supervisors Dr Katarina Mikac and Associate Professor Sibylle Schwab for allowing him to get into postgraduate study from his undergraduate degree.

“[Dr Katarina Mikac] took me on when I started the Bachelor of Research, basically took a chance on me, and she’s been an absolutely supportive and fantastic mentor. We’ve meshed really well with our interests in ecology.

“When it came to doing the PhD I met Sibylle through Katarina. She’s big into the genetic side of stuff, so she’s going to be a good mentor towards the more genetic side of my research.”