My research is both field- and laboratory-based, covering the broad areas of evolution and ecology, with a focus on animal adaptation, natural and sexual selection, and speciation.

In particular, I am interested in how new species arise, and how species interactions and selection on mate choice may contribute. Who animals choose to mate with is a central feature of what defines a species, so any changes in mate choice can potentially result in speciation. If species interactions cause the interacting parties to change who they chose as mates this can result in the formation of new species.

I have potential Honours, Masters, and PhD research projects on a broad range of evolutionary-based questions in the general areas of speciation, selection (natural, sexual, or artificial), mating behaviour, and species interactions. I also strongly encourage potential DECRA applicants to get in touch if you are interested in similar research questions and/or biological systems. Please see 'Interests' below for the biological systems I am currently researching.

  • BS2470: Evolution (Level 2; CNS & TSV)
  • BS5470: Evolution (Level 5; CNS & TSV)
  • BZ3450: Ecological and Conservation Genetics (Level 3; TSV)
  • BZ5450: Ecological and Conservation Genetics (Level 5; TSV)
  • BZ5940: Evolutionary Adaptation in a Changing World (Level 5; CNS & TSV)
  • Reproductive isolation in the Green-eyed Tree frog complex: Two deeply-divergent genetic lineages of Green-eyed tree frog meet in two places in the Wet Tropics behind Cairns. At one contact there has been rapid and strong evolution of prezygotic isolation between the two lineages. One question we are answering is - what were the genomic changes that allowed the rapid evolution of prezygotic isolation at this contact? On the other, at the other contact the two lineages still mate freely, with no hint of prezygotic isolation between the lineages. However, these hybrid matings leave almost no offspring - so why doesn't prezygotic isolation evolve? This is another of the questions we are working on in this system.
  • Evolution of female preference and male mating signals (pheromones) due to species interactions in a native rainforest Drosophila community: Along the east coast of Australia is a species of fly, Drosophila serrata, which overlaps over some of its geographic distribution with the closely-related species D. birchii and D. bunnanda. We have direct experimental evidence that co-existence with D. birchii causes the evolution of D. serrata male mating signals (pheromones). There is also some evidence that co-existence with D. birchii causes the evolution of female preferences. This makes the D. serrata species complex perfectly placed to study how male signals and female preferences are expressed and evolve in the presence of closely-related species. To do this, the following questions will be answered in the D. serrata system: Does co-existence with other species change the phenotypic expression and evolution of male mating pheromones? Does co-existence with other species cause evolution of female preferences for male pheromones? Are female preferences expressed differently depending on presence/absence of other species? To answer these questions we are using a combination of wild flies and lab-based experimental evolution to measure the evolution of male pheromones and female preferences for those pheromones in different combinations of Drosophila communities.
  • Species interactions between Frog-biting flies and their frog hosts: In humans and birds, the major vectors of disease-causing parasites are blood-feeding flies; therefore it stands to reason that these may also be a major vector of parasites in frogs. Australian frogs are known to host a diversity of blood parasites, including protozoans, nematodes, and trematodes. However, the diversity of species and habits of frog-biting flies in the tropical rainforest of north Queensland, which has had major declines in frog populations in the recent past, is poorly known. We have recently carried out surveys of stream frogs of the Wet Tropics and found a diverse community of at least 12 species of frog-biting flies. We are currently investigating the host specificity of these frog-biting flies, and whether they are vectors for protozoan (e.g., Trypanosomes), nematode, and trematode parasites in Wet Tropics frog communities.
  • Pheromones as a mating trait in cryptic skinks and geckos: Australia has a number of lizard groups in which genetics shows there is high cryptic diversity. Traditional morphology (body size, shape, and colour) cannot distinguish these groups, and we do not yet know their mating traits (e.g., male mating calls in frogs). The mating traits in these cryptic lizard groups are likely to be pheromones. We are focussing on two cryptic lizard groups in north-eastern Queensland: Lampropholis skinks and Heteronotia geckoes. In both these lizard groups genetics has revealed many highly divergent genetic lineages (often species level divergence). These lineages appear morphologically indistinguishable, but in the few cases where hybrid zones are known, there appears to be little interbreeding. Finding and characterizing these pheromones will help us understand the evolution of these groups and resolve their taxonomy.
  • 2011 to present - Lecturer, James Cook University (Townsville)
  • 2013 to 2016 - ARC DECRA Fellow, James Cook University (Townsville)
  • 2011 to 2012 - ARC Australian Postdoctoral (APD) Fellow, James Cook University (Townsville)
  • 2009 to 2011 - ARC Australian Postdoctoral (APD) Fellow, The Australian National University (Canberra, Australia)
Research Disciplines
Socio-Economic Objectives
  • 2020 - James Cook University Inclusive Practice Award
  • 2012 - Young Tall Poppy Science Award (Queensland)
  • 2009 - R. A. Fisher Award (Society for the Study of Evolution)
  • 2013 to 2016 - ARC DECRA Research Fellowship
  • 2009 to 2012 - ARC Australian Postdoctoral (APD) Research Fellowship
  • 2003 to 2022 - American Society of Naturalists
  • 2003 to 2022 - Society for the Study of Evolution
  • 2001 to 2022 - Australasian Evolution Society
  • 2009 to 2022 - OzReader / Reviewer - Australian Research Council
  • 2012 to 2014 - Reviewing Editor - Journal of Evolutionary Biology
  • 2011 to 2013 - Vice-President - Australasian Evolution Society
  • 2009 to 2011 - Treasurer - Australasian Evolution Society

These are the most recent publications associated with this author. To see a detailed profile of all publications stored at JCU, visit ResearchOnline@JCU. Hover over Altmetrics badges to see social impact.

Journal Articles

ResearchOnline@JCU stores 26+ research outputs authored by Dr Megan Higgie from 2000 onwards.

Current Funding

Current and recent Research Funding to JCU is shown by funding source and project.

Natural Environment Research Council - Standard Research Grant

The ecological and evolutionary legacy of extreme climatic events for food web resilience

Indicative Funding
$137,293 over 3 years (administered by University of Oxford)
There is growing evidence that extreme events such as heatwaves will have the most immediate and harmful effects on plants and animals as the climate changes. This is particularly true for species-rich tropical ecosystems, where recent heatwaves have already caused severe population crashes for some species. We therefore need to understand what happens when whole communities of interacting species are subjected to a heatwave or other extreme climatic event. To understand fully how and why ecological communities are altered by extreme events, we need to carry out experiments simulating extreme conditions and follow the consequences over multiple generations. In most contexts such experiments would be practically or ethically impossible. However, we can design experiments that do exactly this by focusing on a special study system: food webs of Drosophila fruit flies and the parasitic wasps that consume them in the rainforests of tropical Queensland.
Owen Lewis, Jon Bridle, Megan Higgie and Jinlin Chen (University of Oxford, University College London and College of Science & Engineering)
Biodiversity; Trophic structures; Climate change adaptation; Ecological communities; Heat waves; Tropical forests

Australian Research Council - Discovery - Projects

Predicting genetic exchange between species under climate change

Indicative Funding
$73,912 over 3 years (administered by ANU)
This project aims to resolve the factors that lead to the mixing of species? gene pools, with a focus on whether climate change will increase such mixing, possibly leading to extinction by genetic swamping. The significance is that the project would improve our understanding of speciation and species? vulnerability to rapid climate change through genetic mixing; a largely overlooked process. Key outcomes would be to generate new knowledge of a fundamental evolutionary process and extend the toolbox of biodiversity managers facing rapid environmental change. The project would benefit Australia by highlighting our unique biodiversity and scientific capability, and by training early career researchers in advanced evolutionary biology.
Craig Moritz, Megan Higgie, Conrad Hoskin and Stephen Zozaya (Australian National University and College of Science & Engineering)
Climate Change; Introgression; Genetic swamping; Pheromones; Heteronotia geckos (Family Gekkonidae); Gehyra geckos (Family Gekkonidae)

Ecological Society of Australia - Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment

Genetic `health? assessments and a decision-making framework for some of Australia?s most endangered frogs and reptiles

Indicative Funding
$5,335 over 1 year
According to expert assessment, more than half of Australia?s endangered and critically endangered frogs and reptiles are endemic to Queensland and at risk from imminent extinction. A major threat to threatened species like this is a loss of genetic diversity which leads to inbreeding depression, inability to adapt, and heightened extinction risk. This project aims to provide essential genetic assessment of five severely threatened study systems: Oedura lineata, Nangura spinosa, Litoria lorica, Phyllurus geckoes, and Cophixalus frogs. These species represent a range of threats and genetic scenarios. Through discussions with managers, results will be synthesised into a broader conservation framework.
Nicholas Bail, Megan Higgie and Conrad Hoskin (College of Science & Engineering)
Conservation genomics; Conservation Management; Extinction; Frogs; Reptiles; Queensland

Skyrail Rainforest Foundation - Research Funding

Conservation genomics of the Critically endangered Kuranda Treefrog

Indicative Funding
$5,000 over 1 year
This project aims to assess the conservation status of the Critically Endangered Kuranda Treefrog using a population genomics approach. The last sampling for this declining and localised species took place more than 10 years ago, and continuing declines have been detected in the field. It is unclear whether the population is retaining genetic diversity despite the small and declining population size or whether it is rapidly losing genetic diversity. Resolving this will be crucial for the management of this species. In this project I aim to assess genetic diversity, connectivity and population size of this Critically Endangered species using population genomics.
Lorenzo Bertola, Megan Higgie and Conrad Hoskin (College of Science & Engineering)
Litoria myola (Pelodryadidae); Critically Endangered; Management; Conservation; Genomics; Kuranda Treefrog

Skyrail Rainforest Foundation - Research Funding

Conservation Geonomics of Nursery Frogs

Indicative Funding
$5,000 over 1 year
Nursery Frogs of the Cophixalus genus make up 5 of 7 critically endangered vertebrate species. They are vulnerable to climate change and restricted to extremely small ranges on mountain-tops and boulder-fields. Without conservation action, they are predicted to go extinct within 20 years. A major threat to threatened species like this is a loss of genetic diversity which leads to inbreeding depression, inability to adapt, and heightened extinction risk. This project aims to provide essential genetic assessment of one widespread and three threatened Nursery Frogs. Managers will be engaged with directly to inform conservation decisions in wild and captive populations.
Nicholas Bail, Megan Higgie and Conrad Hoskin (College of Science & Engineering)
Conservation genomics; Conservation management; Nursery Frogs; Wet Tropics; Climate Change

Advisory Accreditation: I can be on your Advisory Panel as a Primary or Secondary Advisor.

These Higher Degree Research projects are either current or by students who have completed their studies within the past 5 years at JCU. Linked titles show theses available within ResearchOnline@JCU.

  • Understanding the determinants of fine-scale distribution in microhylid frogs, to better predict future change (PhD , Secondary Advisor)
  • Management of genetic diversity in Australian threatened species (PhD , Secondary Advisor)
  • Breeding Biology and Climate Change Resilience of Endangered Frog Species of the Wet Tropics Uplands (PhD , Secondary Advisor)
  • Patterns, drivers, and consequences of pheromone variation in Australian gecko radiations. (PhD , Primary Advisor/AM/Adv)
  • Characterizing the Genomic Signal of Speciation by Reinforcement (PhD , Primary Advisor)
  • The effect of the pasasite Waddycephalus on native reptile communities and the role of the invasive Asian House Gecko (Masters , Primary Advisor)

The map shows research collaborations by institution from the past 7 years.
Note: Map points are indicative of the countries or states that institutions are associated with.

  • 5+ collaborations
  • 4 collaborations
  • 3 collaborations
  • 2 collaborations
  • 1 collaboration
  • Indicates the Tropics (Torrid Zone)

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  • 142.204, The Science Place (Townsville campus)
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