Graduate seeks out secret life of shy seabird - University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Graduate seeks out secret life of shy seabird

11 May 2020

New USC Fraser Coast Animal Ecology graduate Zerra Egerton has taken up the challenge of researching one of the world’s most elusive seabirds.

The 33-year-old hopes to help stop the decline of the vulnerable Red-tailed Tropicbird (Phaethon rubricauda) as part of a USC Honours research project focused on a breeding colony on Lady Elliot Island.

The striking white and red seabird struggles to walk or stand on the ground so spends most of its life at sea, but the fact that it rarely ventures near land has not deterred Zerra.

“This vulnerable species breeds on only two islands in the Great Barrier Reef, Raine Island in the north and Lady Elliot Island, the reef’s southernmost island,” she said.

“It’s crucial that we investigate as many aspects of the Lady Elliot Island colony’s terrestrial and marine ecology as possible so that we can sustain the species in the region.”

The former Sunshine Coast resident always had a passion for wildlife conservation, but it was not until a lightbulb moment while volunteering on a bird count with an ecology society in Canada, that she realised she could turn her interest in the natural world into a career.

“I have always really loved nature and animals, but I knew that working with animals in a zoo or vet environment was not for me. With ecology you can work for animals, which is what I discovered I wanted to do.”

“So after having spent most of my 20s working and travelling overseas, I decided to return to Australia, move to Hervey Bay and enrol in Animal Ecology at USC Fraser Coast,” she said.

Zerra was among the first group of students to recently graduate from the three-year Animal Ecology degree, which has been offered at the Fraser Coast campus since 2017.

“The highlight of my degree was learning from people who are so incredibly intelligent and passionate about ecology,” she said.

“I wanted to study in this field to channel the concerns that I felt about the state of the natural world into work that could help repair it in small ways.

“It’s been very therapeutic and inspiring to be surrounded by people who are committed to protecting the environment.”

Encouraged by Senior Lecturer in Animal Ecology Dr Kathy Townsend, a world-renowned marine biologist, Zerra decided to advance her academic qualifications after completing the undergraduate degree.

“I was excited to be afforded the opportunity to complete an Honours project and would like to continue with a PhD on the genetics of the Red-tailed Tropicbird,” she said.

Zerra’s current project involves working alongside supervisor Dr Townsend to trap and tag the birds with GPS transmitters to track their offshore activities.

“This allows us to identify the areas where they are foraging and any disruption in prey abundance in these areas, which can greatly affect the reproductive success of the colony,” Zerra said.

“Disruption could come from climate change variables, such as rising sea surface temperatures, or the effects of El Niño–Southern Oscillation events.”

The project is also surveying seabird abundance and distribution in relation to key native plant species on the island.

“Investigating how all seabirds are interacting with the vegetation will help guide the future of restoration measures on Lady Elliot Island,” she said.

QTAC applications are open to study at USC in Semester 2 this year.

— Clare McKay

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