Professor Robert Heinsohn

Professor, Fenner School of Environment and Society
College of Science

Areas of expertise

  • Conservation And Biodiversity 050202
  • Behavioural Ecology 060201
  • Evolutionary Impacts Of Climate Change 060306
  • Terrestrial Ecology 060208

Research interests

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 broad 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.

The ANU’s Fenner School is unique in Australia for its broad inter-disciplinary approach to environmental problems and creates many opportunities for exciting, novel perspectives that might not be possible in purely disciplinary departments. My research program takes advantage of the proximity of researchers across diverse disciplinary perspectives including, anthropology, ecology, paleobiology, and environmental history to explore the conservation issues faced by our unique wildlife. An example of the success of this approach was our book “Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country” (Robin, Heinsohn, Joseph, 2009, CSIRO Press) which explored the adaptations of Australian birds to erratic weather across historic, pre-historic and geological time frames. It won Australia’s most prestigious award for zoological publications, the 2009 Whitley Medal (Royal Zoological Society, NSW) for its landmark contribution to zoological knowledge.

For further details of the activities of my group see

Current major research projects:

1.      The endangered swift parrot as a model for managing small migratory birds (ARC Linkage Project 2012-15)

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.       Evolutonary and conservation implications of extreme predation on  female endangered swift parrots (ARC Discovery Project 2014-2016)

3.      Conservation biology of endangered swift parrots and regent honeyeaters (Ravensworth Mine Offset grant 2014-2018)

4.      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.

5.      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.

Current student projects

My post-graduate students work in a variety of areas including behavioural ecology, conservation biology and community ecology and often across broad disciplinary boundaries. Much of the research is carried out in remote regions such as Papua New Guinea, Cape York Peninsula, the Australian arid zone, southern Africa and South America. Topics include bird migration, cooperative breeding and mating systems, animal personalities, biology of endangered species, human-wildlife conflict, and landscape ecology.

  1. Georgia Troup is studying the nutritional drivers of crop raiding in elephants at Tasavo National Park, Kenya

  2. Rachael Lowe is studying the dritsribution of elephants across Africa, the importance of small populations, and the impact of drought 

  3. Giselle Owens is studying the community ecology and broad sacle impact of introduced predators in Tasmania.

  4. Fernanda Alves is studing the conservation biology of forty spotted pardalotes in Tasmania.

  5. Nicole Gill is working on the use of sniffer dogs to find rare bird species.

  6. Adam Cisterne is studying conservation biology of masked owls in Tasmania.

  7. Daniel Appleby is researrching the fitness of captive regnet honeyeaters bred fro release.

  8. Laura Bussolini is studying the fitness implications of captivity of orange-bellied parrots in Tasmania.

  9. Daniel Gautschi is studying the conservation biology of Norfolk Island green parrots.


Projects and Grants

Grants information is drawn from ARIES. To add or update Projects or Grants information please contact your College Research Office.

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Updated:  27 May 2022 / Responsible Officer:  Director (Research Services Division) / Page Contact:  Researchers