Assessing the fitness consequences of parasites in Tiger snakes

Parasitism can impair the host’s ability to function (and ultimately its fitness) in a number of ways, ranging from alteration of behaviour, ecology & physiology through to morphology and development. However, the alleged link between parasitism, primary host fitness and the ecological and evolutionary significance of this relationship is not well known for many kinds of reptiles, especially snakes. Very little is known on gut and lung parasites despite them being the most significant in sheer volume of the host’s body.

Tiger snakes (Notechis scutatus) are commonly encountered near water in Perth and principally feed on frogs, a group of animals that are notorious as intermediate parasite hosts for snakes. Tiger snakes with large cysts and bulges containing internal parasites are regularly encountered in the wild, but it is not known whether and to what extent this affects the fitness of those individuals. Parasitic nematodes can affect just about any organ in Tiger snakes including the lung, stomach, muscles, heart as well as embryos.
This project will combine field surveys, laboratory trials and museum-based work to investigate the putative link between parasite load (mainly gut and lung content, but also within the blood) and host’s fitness. We will assess body condition, feeding rate in captivity, anti-predator behaviour and locomotor performance of a number of healthy versus infected snakes. It will also investigate the condition of the habitat to understand the interplay between geographic (including degree of urbanisation) and environmental factors and host biology. For example, prevalence and intensity of parasitic infections may be less among individuals in resource-rich habitats that those in more degraded ones. This project would involve field work at lakes in around Perth, taking samples from snakes in the lab and conducting trials in the laboratory. It will also involve dissecting museum specimens and preparing parasite samples for identification.

Requirements:Prospective candidates should ideally have demonstrated skills in handling and working with venomous snakes.  Students will need to successfully obtain admission to Curtin University’s postgraduate program, and it is expected that they will also apply for an Australian Postgraduate Award (APA) and/or a Curtin University Postgraduate Scholarship (CUPS). Applications close October 2015. Please see the Curtin Website for more information about admission and scholarships

Benefits: Curtin University provides a generous top-up to the standard APA/UPA funding of $24,653 pa, so that the total value of an APA is $32,500 pa and a CUPA $27,500 pa. Students in the Department of Environment and Agriculture also receive a laptop for the duration of their candidature.

Contact: Dr Bill Bateman