Dr Nicky Nelson
Senior Lecturer, Programme Manager Conservation Biology
My research interests encompass the fields of ecophysiology, sex determination in reptiles, population ecology, and herpetology. All my research has application to conservation management. I have students working on wildlife disease, molecular aspects of sex determination and community interactions. I’m particularly interested in how incubation conditions affect sex determination and fitness of egg-laying reptiles, how climate change will affect distribution and survival of reptiles, and testing techniques for the conservation of reptile populations.
My role at Victoria University of Wellington has led me into some very rewarding areas of work with New Zealand reptiles, particularly tuatara. Research on tuatara often requires field work on protected islands - places that are wonderful to visit not only because of the tuatara, but also many other plants and animals that are now either rare or extinct on mainland New Zealand. Much of the knowledge gained from the research is used to assist with management and conservation of tuatara - for example, incubating and hatching eggs from rare populations to boost numbers.
Translocating tuatara to mammal-free islands is another technique used in the effort to return tuatara to the places they once inhabited prior to humans and predatory mammals arriving in New Zealand. Victoria University of Wellington has a small captive colony of tuatara on public display which are able to be used for advocacy, including presentations on tuatara research and conservation to schools and public groups.
The ecology of Salmonella
I am investigating the spatial and temporal distribution of a known pathogen, Salmonella, within native wildlife and am targeting one species, tuatara, for in depth immunological analyses. The specific questions I am investigating include: What is the spatial and temporal distribution of Salmonella within native wildlife? Are tuatara innately resistant to Salmonella and what is their immunological response to this pathogen? And; how has Salmonella evolved in the unique island environment of New Zealand?
The molecular basis of temperature-dependent sex determination in tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus).
Sex determination is a biological process intrinsically important in governing both the sex of individuals and in establishing sex ratios in natural populations. The three main aims of my research are to firstly, determine the morphological changes during the sex determining period; secondly, investigate regions of proliferating cells in the gonads during the thermosensitive period; and thirdly, to characterise and quantify expression of candidate sex determining genes in tuatara.
Sharing a burrow and its impacts on tuatara and seabirds
The association between tuatara and seabirds has been known about for a long time but there has been no focused study till now. The aim of my research is to investigate the relationship between tuatara and fairy prions on Stephens Island and to try and determine whether tuatara obtain thermal benefits when occupying burrows with nesting seabirds. I am looking at the implications this could have for tuatara in terms of fitness. Specific aspects I am investigating include: the environmental variables influencing tuatara body temperature, the factors influencing burrow selection in tuatara, and the effect tuatara have on fairy prion breeding behaviour.
Investigating immunity in the North Brother Island tuatara
I am researching how the relative proportions of different leukocyte types are affected by season, sex and body condition, as well as how these proportions have changed over the last twenty years. In addition, I am interested in how this population's lack of genetic diversity has altered these leukocyte proportions and/or is adversely affecting immunity.
My research will also seek to determine whether any individuals in this population are infected with a known tuatara intracellular parasite, thought to be transmitted by ticks which are not present on North Brother Island. In addition, I will investigate whether increased resource availability leads to increased immune function by comparing the immune response of individuals from North Brother Island with individuals translocated in 1998 from North Brother to Matiu/Somes Island.
Dr Hilary Miller
Research Fellow, Allan Wilson Centre for Molecular Ecology and Evolution
I have been a postdoctoral researcher at Victoria University since 2003, working on aspects of tuatara evolutionary genetics. I completed a BSc in Biochemistry and Physiology and an MSc studying a marker of environmental pollution in an Antarctic fish at the University of Auckland. My PhD research was based at Massey University where I investigated evolutionary genetics and the major histocompatibility complex of New Zealand robins. Between my MSc and PhD research I worked in molecular pharmacology at the Auckland School of Medicine and did contract work for the NZ Dept. of Conservation on genetic variation of Kakapo, an endangered nocturnal parrot.
My research interests encompass the fields of evolutionary genetics, immunogenetics, genomics, and conservation genetics. I am particularly interested in the relationship between genotype and phenotype, and in the evolution of genes that underlie traits of ecological importance, such as immunity, olfaction and sex determination. My current research projects are:
1. Evolution of the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) region in reptiles.
2. Immune system diversity in tuatara: how do mate choice, pathogens and population size influence MHC variation?
3.The molecular basis of temperature-dependent sex determination in tuatara.