15 December 2009

UQ PhD student Lenore Litherland has entered the habitat of some of the world’s most feared marine predators and yet, she couldn’t be more at home.

Since completing a Bachelor of Science (Zoology) at UQ, Dr Litherland has been conducting postgraduate research into the visual capabilities of sharks and will graduate tomorrow with a PhD in marine neuroscience from UQ’s School of Biomedical Sciences, at 2pm.

“People have mixed reactions when I tell them about my research,” she said.

“When you talk to them about their fear of sharks they begin to understand the significant importance of these animals.”

Her interest in a shark’s sensory organs has taken her to several far-flung destinations for fieldwork including the waters off Virginia and Hawaii in the USA and Coffs Harbour in Northern New South Wales.

Dr Litherland said although there had been widespread research on sharks, there are still questions to answer about the sensory abilities of many shark species.

“It’s about getting that bigger picture of how an animal perceives its surrounds and identifying how does vision function for species inhabiting different environments,” she said.

The PhD included studies on the neuroanatomy and physiology of the sharks sensory organs to understand the ontogenetic changes in visual capability.

Dr Litherland said research into a particular species of shark (Sandbar shark, Carcharhinus plumbeus) showed how the animal’s visual capabilities and threshold of visual function had adapted to an increasingly turbid environment.

“Collaborations with other researchers allowed us to use satellite tags which could tell us how the sharks were moving through the water column in the day and night,” she said.

“We looked at where the animal was in its environment and used anatomical features to model key parameters of visual function.”

A broad interest in how an animal adapts and interacts in their environment saw Dr Litherland complete a recreational dive with Great White sharks in South Africa.

“I was in awe…I was very interested to see these sharks in the wild,” she said.

“You see the images on television of Great Whites with the wide gapes and thrashing about but they seemed more curious and inquisitive…we all came off the boat saying wow!”

Dr Litherland’s research has been published in several peer-reviewed journals, and upon graduating she hopes to continue studies into marine ecology and neuroscience.

“Drawing on collaborations in Western Australia and Virginia, I want to look at the impacts of light pollution on the behaviour of urban fish populations as well as the implications of barotrauma and light exposure for by-catch survival,” she said.

Dr Litherland completed her PhD under the supervision of Dr Kerstin Fritsches and Professors Shaun Collin and Mike Bennett. Her research was funded by an APA and a CSIRO top-up scholarship.

Dr Litherlands’s graduation ceremony is one of two ceremonies to be held on Wednesday, December 16 at UQ's St Lucia campus, UQ Centre, for students graduating from the Faculty of Science.

The 2pm ceremony will feature students from the Schools of Biomedical Sciences; Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences; Mathematics and Physics; and students from UQ's Institute for Molecular Bioscience, Queensland Brain Institute and Diamantina Institute for Cancer, Immunology and Metabolic Medicine.

The 6pm ceremony will feature students from the Schools of Biological Sciences; Geography, Planning and Environmental Management; Earth Sciences; and students from the Centre for Marine Studies.

Professor John Rice, Executive Director, Australian Council of Deans of Science and Honorary Professor, Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Sydney, will be the guest speaker at the 2pm ceremony.

Ms Juniwati Rahmat Hussin, Vice-President, Education Division, Petronas (Malaysia) will be the guest speaker at the 6pm ceremony.

Friends and family of graduating students who can't make it to the UQ ceremonies will be able to watch them live on the web by clicking on either of the following links: Quicktime, or Windows Media Player.

Media: Eliza Plant at UQ Communications (07 3365 2619)