PhD students are a valuable part of the fiddler crab research group. Both Australian and international students can get scholarships to undertake a PhD at the ANU. Australian students can apply for an APA (Australian Postgraduate Award) that covers fees and living expenses. These are competative scholarships and to be in the running, you need my strong support (this can usually be bought with chocolates) and a first class Honours mark. Applications are due at the end of October.

International students can apply for an IPRS (International Postgraduate Reseach Scholarship) which pays their fees, airfare and medical insurance. They also need to apply for an ANU PhD Scholarship that pays their living expenses. IPRS scholarships are extremely competative. Applications are due at the end of August. See the ANU Scholarships page for more information.

PhD SUPERVISION: I have a very strong commitment to the success of my PhD students. For fiddler crab PhD's, the most sensible structure is for the thesis to be based on a set of 4-6 papers. In the first year, I work closely with the student, giving them the ideas and supporting them throughout the process of data collection. After the first fieldseason, the student will continue to work closely with me in the writing of the papers. For the second fieldseason, the student will play a greater role in the entire process. They will provide some of the ideas, will have greater responsibility in experimental design, analysis and writing. By the third fieldseason, the student will be working more-or-less independently, but discussing their ideas and methods with me.
I expect students to write up their papers after each fieldseason. This means that there is no stressful rush to write a thesis in the last six months of the PhD. I see a PhD as a slow and steady progression towards independent research.

Some potential areas of research are listed below but there are many more options.

Population variation in a Fiddler Crab
Populations of fiddler crabs occur can in very different ecological settings. Within a single species, some populations live on vast, open mudflats that get inundated by every high tide while other populations live further away from the sea edge, on higher, drier sediments that get covered by high tides only very occasionally. These different ecological conditions are likely to have profound effects on many aspects of the crab's lives. High tides are required to replenish the crab's food, and to facilitate mating and larval release. This project will look at the many ways in which ecological differences affect population structure and behaviour.

Multiple Mating in a Fiddler Crab
There are two distinct types of mating systems in fiddler crabs: burrow mating and surface mating. In burrow mating, males wave their enlarged claw to attract females into their burrows for mating. Females visit several waving males before choosing a mate. In surface mating, males do not wave. Instead they approach females at the female's burrow entrance and harass her into mating with him. There appears to be little opportunity for female mate choice in surface mating. This PhD project will examine several aspects of the mating system: Do surface mated females actually use the sperm from the surface mated male? Do surface mated females go on to burrow mate after surface mating? Do larger males surface mate more? Do females store sperm from pervious matings?

Mate Choice in a Fiddler Crab
In many animal species it has been shown that females have strong, inherent mating preferences. These can be demonstrated by giving females a simple choice between alternative signals under controlled laboratory conditions. Under natural conditions, however, mate choice is far more complex. There are many constraints that could prohibit females from expressing their preferences: temporal or energetic constraints; predation risk or the variation in resource quality; male-male competition and variation in the operational sex ratio. The focus of this PhD project will be the many biotic and abiotic factors that influence a female's ability to express her underlying preferences.


I take one or two Honours students a year. Because the fieldseason runs from September to January each year, mid-year enrolment is essential. Below are some of the Honours projects available, but there are plenty more. If you have a particular idea for a project, come and chat to me.

In many sports, like boxing and tennis, left-handed competitors have an advantage because
they are rare. All contestants (left and right handed) have plenty of experience in facing
right-handed opponents, but only left-handers are on familiar ground when the fight is between
opposite-handed males. In these fights, the right-hander is faced with an unfamiliar opponent
with a slightly different style, giving them an advantage.
In most fiddler crab species, males can have their enlarged claw on the left or the right side,
and usually it is 50:50 in the population. In a couple of species, however, males are predominantly
right handed, with as few as 1% of the population being left handed. Uca vomeris is one such species.
This project looks at whether the left handed males are at a fighting advantage and whether this
translates into a possible mating advantage too.

There are two distinct types of mating in fiddler crabs: burrow and surface mating.
In burrow mating, males wave their large claw to attract females, who are very
selective in their mate choice. In surface mating, males do not wave, instead, they
leave their burrows and seek out females and harass them until they eventually
mate, leaving little opportunity for female choice. It is not known how these two
mating tactics affect females. Do surface mated females actually use the
sperm from the surface mating? Do some females burrow and surface mate? Is
there sperm mixing in the spermatheca, and therefore possibly sperm competition?
How long are stored sperm viable? Do females surface mate with more than one
male? Are larger females more likely to surface (or burrow) mate? Do larger males
surface mate more often? Do different males try to surface mate with the same
female? This is an unexplored area of fiddler crab biology.

Fiddlers are deposit feeders, sifting the organic matter out of the surface sediment
with complex mouthparts. The food is replenished with each new high tide. Since
fiddlers live in extremely high densities (up to 50 individuals/m2), they compete
vigorously for feeding space. Both sexes fight off neighbours that try to feed in their
territories. Food availability and the distribution of food resources can have
enormous implications for the social and mating systems of these crabs. Food
distribution may affect female and/or male distributions, which could influence mate
searching, courting and predation patterns for the entire population. There are
several aspects of food distribution and feeding behaviour that need attention. In
particular, the gender differences in feeding efficiency (males have a single feeding
claw while females have two) may affect energetically demanding behaviours such
as mate searching and courtship waving. Since females lack the large claw, they
are less able to fight off invading crabs that forage in their territories. Does this
result in males preferentially selecting to have female neighbours? How do feeding
time budgets differ between gender and size classes of fiddler crabs?

The School of Botany and Zoology has one scholarship that is suitable for Fiddler Crab students. It is calleld the Anjeli Nathan Scholarship: http://www.anu.edu.au/BoZo/anjeli/scholarship.html

Special Topics courses are individually designed undergraduate courses that are available to second and third year students in the School of Botany and Zoology. They take place of conventional lecture courses and count towards the various majors offered by Botany and Zoology.  They allow high performing students to undertake supervised study. Because they are designed for the individual student, they can take many forms. I offer two types of Special Topics courses: theory and research. The theory course runs through one ANU semester and involves guided reading and essay writing in an area of interest to both me and the student. The research course involves hands-on training in fieldwork. This course runs after the end of second semester (mid-November to mid-December) and the students go up to Darwin and either run their own research project of work on a project being run by me or a PhD student.

Each year I take one or two Special Topics students to Darwin. I cover the cost of their airfare, accommodation and research. They pay for their food. I give them a project to do and teach them how to catch, mark, measure and watch fiddler crabs. They then spend three weeks collecting data under the supervision of the entire crab group. They analyse and write up the data in the week before leaving Darwin.


Students love the experience of working with fiddler crabs, and they love Darwin, and they love me.
OK, I admit that if they didn't say they loved me, I would kick them out of the program.

From the following quotes, you can see that the courses (PhD, Honours and Special Topics)
are very popular and the students genuinely enjoy the work and the close-knit lab atmosphere.

Working with Pat and her students in Darwin was a fantastic experience. Everyone was so welcoming and really helped me to
understand the work I was doing. I learned a lot about experimental design, fieldwork and data analysis, which gave me a real
feel for what honours might be like. The work was rewarding and definitely assured me that zoology was my area of interest.
As well as having the opportunity to do some great research with fantastic people, I also got to go to places I had never been to
before. We conquered mountains in Kakadu, swam with alligators in Litchfield, fed sunfish on the wharf, danced all night on
tabletops in Darwin city and sunbaked with frilled-neck lizards by the pool in our own backyard. I had such a wonderful time,
it was the best class I have ever done. For anyone that wants to find out more about research, gain hands-on experience, work
with brilliant minds, see the top end and get a great tan, I highly recommend it… and the crabs are pretty cute too.


Are you looking for a PhD, but not sure what to do? Do you live for field  work 
in the tropics? Want to work on a really charismatic animal but don't want the
biggest milestones to be when you're lucky enough to actually find one of them?
Does the thought of waking up at 4am or working in the rain fill you with dread?
Like the idea of a supervisor that's easy to talk to and supportive? If you
answered yes to any of these questions I suggest you have a chat with Pat about
doing your PhD on fiddler crabs in Darwin.




As an international PhD student, I found BoZo a very fun and accommodating department to come into. Both the people and the research are vibrate and dynamic, making it a very stimulating working environment. I found it very easy to settle in. I also had immense fun doing a PhD under Pat Backwell. Working with the fiddler crabs in Darwin was incredibly enjoyable and provided me with so much canvas for field research. My enthusiasm and confidence for behavioural research has tripled during my time here!



They are the best little animals in the world. You can always find them (unlike reptiles); they are easy to see (unlike birds); they won't kill you (unlike snakes); they are not at all creepy (unlike insects); they are beautiful (unlike spiders) and they are not all hairy and smelly (unlike mammals). You can study them in their natural habitat, so the data is more meaningful than most laboratory studies. The basic system is already well studied and the facilities and methods are all sorted out and trouble-shot. You can hit the ground running.

We are a very succesful school with a definate strength in behavioural ecology. Michael Jennions, Andrew Cockburn, Rob Magrath and I are all in this school, so you will have the input and support from some leading behavioural ecologists. We have a very strong focus on research teaching and take our Honours and PhD degrees very seriously. You will get a world-class education here. But more importantly, we are a cohesive, friendly school with no infighting or bitching. We all get along well and collaborate rather than compete with each other. This is incredibly important for graduate students because you can approach anyone in the department for help and advice. If you need some genetic analyses done, there are people you can collaborate with. If you need to learn how to build a phylogeny, there are people willing and able to help you. This is a very supportive environment and you will immediately feel part of the school.

We are the most research-intensive Australian university. We are ranked as the top Australian university and in the top 50 universities world-wide. If you want an excellent graduate training, this is the place to be.
The student body is small (13 500 students) but very diverse (94 countries).