Ruling the roost

An expert in predator response and adaptive learning in both animals and humans, Dr Andrea Griffin is building new knowledge on the behaviour and biology of invasive species and the reasons behind their ecological success.

Above: Dr Andrea Griffin with a radio-tracking antenna, used to track radio-tagged common Mynas.

A behavioural ecologist and Senior Lecturer in UON’s School of Psychology, Andrea’s work sits at the junction of psychology, zoology, and biology.

She is currently investigating the impact of the Common Myna in Australia.

In a unique combination of captive and field methodologies, she is focussing on species interactions in the range expansion of Mynas, identifying the historical patterns of the species' Australian range expansion, and measuring their learning and problem solving capacities.

“Only by better understanding the factors facilitating and inhibiting the spread of Mynas, and knowing more about their interactions with natives, will we be equipped to manage the species.”

Her research has already provided first-time demonstrations of place avoidance learning, predator avoidance learning and solving of novel foraging problems amongst introduced Mynas.

Recognised as an international leader in this field, Andrea has authored 46 journal articles and invited book chapters in her field, presented her work at 45 national and international conferences, and delivered 15 national and international guest lectures.

Of her publications, 90 per cent are in top-tier Q1 journals in her field and 70 per cent are first-authored.

About the Myna

The Common Myna, better known as the Indian Myna, is an introduced species, with a black head, chocolate brown body and yellow legs, beak and eye patch.

The Myna is a member of the starling family and not phylogenetically related to the Native Honeyeater, known as the Noisy Miner, despite their similar sounding names and comparable size.

The Myna is the most common bird in many of Australia’s Eastern coast cities. In fact, the myna is one of the most successful bird species in the world. Introduced to six of seven continents worldwide, the Myna has been successful on all of them.

The Myna adapts particularly well to urbanised areas, where they nest in houses, scavenge for food in outdoor eating areas and soil public facilities. They also gather in large roosts, creating deafening noise and health concerns.

In remnant areas of bushland, the Myna inhibits the success of native species due to competition over nesting cavities. On islands where it has been introduced, the Myna is known to predate on native chicks and eggs.

The Myna has certainly adapted with remarkable mastery to many different types of environment across its worldwide range. But there are also areas in Australia where, despite climatic conditions being favourable, it has not adapted so well. Andrea wants to know why.

“If we know where and why Mynas are not spreading, then we can find the Myna’s Achilles’ heel” says Griffin.

Multiple invasion fronts

With support from the Australian Research Council (ARC), Andrea is conducting collaborative research with Associate Professor Salit Kark from the University of Queensland.

In a large-scale interstate, nest box study, the role of species interactions in the range expansion of Mynas is being investigated.

This study will address a major gap in our scientific understanding of invasions by undertaking the first large-scale examination of the role of interactions between species in determining the success, dynamics, and rate of biological invasions.

Breeding and the competition around nesting resources, and the impact on native species in specific habitats, is a main area of interest.

Initially released as a means of controlling insects, several further separate Myna introductions occurred along the east coast of Australia until the 1950s.

“That makes for a very interesting system because we have got replicated invasion fronts that we can study,” Andrea explains.

Identifying the historical patterns of the species' Australian range expansion is the focus of collaboration with Dr Richard Major, an ornithologist from the Australian Museum and the Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics.

“We are doing a study of genetics to look at how populations are actually connected across Australia,” Andrea says.

Novelty and danger

Another ongoing project for Andrea, with funding from the New South Wales Environmental Trust, is the development of a species-specific oral contraceptive that would make Myna eggs infertile.

This humane culling technique would see adult birds live a normal life but eventually die out, along with the species, due to their inability to reproduce.

Another management option that Andrea is interested in exploring further is a deterrent that impels the Myna population to permanently move away from a particular roosting area.

“We were watching a roost, not far from here actually,” Andrea recalls.

“Every evening we had seen an aggregation of Myna birds there. Until it was visited by a Collared Sparrow hawk for a couple of mornings in a row, then the roost was completely cleared, with not a bird in sight.”

“Maybe if we could just facilitate the native raptors being in town?” Andrea says, laughing.

Identifying an inhibition to range expansion is one thing, designing a way to replicate a deterrent into a long-term management strategy is another.

“That is one of the great capacities of an invasive species, they are cautious around novelty but they also work out pretty quickly when something is not dangerous.”

Evolution of behaviour

A biologist by training, Andrea completed her Masters of Science at Lausanne University in Switzerland.

Family ties then brought her to Australia, where she was awarded a Vice-Chancellor's Commendation for Outstanding PhD at Macquarie University.

Working with Tammar wallabies, Andrea’s doctoral study was focused on training captive-bred or trans located animals to avoid predators, an important survival skill when endangered animals are reintroduced to the wild.

Canada was next, where Andrea switched to birds, investigating the benefits of mixed species aggregation between Zenaida Doves and Carib Grackles.

In 2006, Andrea was awarded an ARC Postdoctoral Fellowship and began her work on predator avoidance and social learning in the Myna.

Andrea has not dedicated her research exclusively to animals.

“I have worked with social psychologists because I am interested in predator response learning,” Andrea says.

“We are talking about the evolution of behaviour, and humans fall under that umbrella as well, our behaviour also evolves in a certain context.”

“Humans also learn about, and assess, people that are different to them, and may be seen as a threat for whatever reason.”

Shared marvels

Management techniques are being sought to pre-emptively restrict their further spread, but it is the Myna’s ultimate defeat and possible return of displaced native birds that Andrea is most looking forward to.

The depth of her fascination and width of her knowledge makes anything Andrea speaks of infinitely interesting, and she thoroughly enjoys interacting with students.

Her skill and passion for teaching have been recognised by a Vice-Chancellor's Citation for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning.

Andrea currently teaches animal behaviour to psychology and environmental science students, and advanced learning to psychology students. She is supervising several post-grad students.

“I am an animal ecologist because I find non-humans just absolutely fascinating”, she says.

“The variety of their behaviours and the capacity to adapt and adjust and to learn new things is amazing.”

“The greatest sensation for me is when I can communicate that, arouse people's curiosity, and enjoy a kind of shared marvel at the natural world that fascinates me so much.”

The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.