Rob Heinsohn`s Homepage

Fenner School of Environment and Society - The Australian National University

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Welcome to Rob Heinsohn's Homepage

Personal Details

Rob HeinsohnRob Heinsohn, PhD


Conservation biology, evolutionary ecology

Phone: +61 2 6125 52100

Fax: + 61 (0)2 6125 0746

E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


Research Interest

My primary research interests lie in conservation biology and evolutionary ecology of vertebrates, with a focus on birds. To date, I have completed four major ARC/NSF funded field projects, three on the behavioural ecology and conservation biology of birds (White-winged Choughs, 1985-1997, Eclectus Parrots, 1997-2007, waterfowl movements in northern Australia, 2007-2010) and the other on mammals (Serengeti lions, 1990-1995). I have also contributed to a variety of published collaborations on over 40 vertebrate species. Increasingly, I am directing my research at the landscape level as I seek to identify the broad-scale processes shaping conservation problems. The bird species I choose to work with are often large and wide-ranging, and make excellent tools for investigations of habitat use over large areas. I am also actively developing a research program on the conservation biology of parrots, the bird order with the highest proportion of endangered species. I find this research particularly stimulating because it combines my strong background in behavioural and evolutionary ecology with my more recent passion for conservation biology.

Current major research projects:

1.      The endangered swift parrot as a model for managing small migratory birds (ARC Linkage Project 2012-14)

This project aims to adapt cutting-edge technologies for aerial-tracking of small migratory birds across vast landscapes, and provide multi-scale insights into the conservation needs of endangered swift parrots. Conservation of migratory species requires knowledge of the species’ ecology at multiple sites and the links between phases of the migratory cycle. Austral (within southern hemisphere) migrants such as swift parrots can be challenging to conserve because variable climatic conditions cause great plasticity in their movements. Knowledge of habitat requirements, reproductive success, and mortality, including disease prevalence and return rates from migration, will enable optimal conservation strategies and effective land management.

2.      The impact of climate change on inter-specific interactions

(ARC Discovery Project with Drs Langmore (lead CI), Kilner, and Lacy 2011-16) An investigation of the phenological mismatch hypothesis for interactions between cuckoos, their hosts and their prey in south-eastern Australia
Amongst wildlife, the most commonly documented response to climate change involves alterations of species phenologies. For example, many species show an advance in the timing of breeding with increasing temperatures. However, phenological shifts are often unequal across different trophic levels and between different life history strategies, which can result in phenological mismatches between closely interacting species, such as predators and prey or parasites and hosts. We aim to test the phenological mismatch hypothesis for interactions between cuckoos, their hosts and their prey in south-eastern Australia.

3.      Tool use and conservation biology of palm cockatoos

(Hermon Slade Foundation grant with Dr Langmore 2012-14 )

Palm cockatoos are charismatic and emblematic of northern Australia yet our research suggests they are in steep decline. We aim to study the demography and dynamics of the meta-population on Cape York Peninsula and to find the cause of their decline. Palm cockatoos are possibly the only non-human species that manufacture and use a sound tool. They make drumsticks by breaking off a branch, stripping the foliage and trimming to appropriate length. They then grasp the drumstick in their foot and beat it against a hollow trunk. Our project also aims to explore the evolution of complex cognition through analysis of tool manufacture in palm cockatoos.





Academic Highlights

I completed my long term ARC-funded project on Cape York parrots in 2007 and commenced a new ARC Linkage project investigating the biological connections with our northern neighbours (PNG, Indonesia) brought about by migrating birds. The project entails fieldwork in PNG, Timor, and northern Australia to track migrating ducks using satellite telemetry and determine the connectedness of populations using genetic techniques. In 2007/2008 I have worked in collaboration with Libby Robin and Leo Joseph to run a workshop and edit an inter-disciplinary book titled "Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country". During this period I also authored another book on the wildlife of Cape York Peninsula. Six of my PhD students have completed their theses since 2006, and I am spending much of 2008 on sabbatical at UBC, Vancouver, collaborating on new projects concerning evolutionary biology and human-wildlife interactions.


Photo Gallery

Tree climbing  © R. Seitre   Driving the plane

White-winged Choughs  © Dejan Stojanovic  Lion  Lions

Lion male  Eclectus Parrots at the nest hollow  Eclectus Parrot chicks

Eclectus Parrots  Climbing the tree  Eclectus Parrot male

Photometry on the field  Research plane in Papua New Guinea  Eclectus Parrots  © M. Cermak

Headdress of Eclectus Parrot's feathers, Papua New Guinea  © Dejan Stojanovic  Eclectus Parrot male  © Dejan Stojanovic  Eclectus Parrot female  © Dejan Stojanovic