Eureka! UNSW statistician, Jakub Stoklosa, shortlisted for prestigious environment prize

Dr Jakub Stoklosa (UNSW Mathematics and Statistics) has been shortlisted for a 2018 Australian Museum Eureka Prize, a prestigious acknowledgment of his work applying statistics in the environmental sciences.

Jakub and his colleagues have been nominated in the Environmental Research category of the award, for their work on a long-term project which looked at the genetic rescue and translocation of Mountain Pygmy Possums in Mount Buller, Victoria. Dr Stoklosa’s role as a statistician was to provide reliable and accurate estimates of Mountain Pygmy Possum abundances using statistical methods (known as capture-recapture methods) and recapture data collected over 20 years.

The Eureka Prize for Environmental Research, sponsored by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, is awarded for an outstanding research project in any field of the biological, physical, mathematical or biomedical sciences leading to the resolution of an environmental problem, including a challenge posed by climate change, or the management or protection of Australia’s environment.

Dr Stoklosa’s collaborators for the Mountain Pygmy Possums project were Andrew Weeks (team leader; University of Melbourne), Dean Heinze (La Trobe), Louise Perrin (Mt Stirling Resort Management, Mt Buller), Ary A. Hoffmann (UMelb), Anthony van Rooyen (cesar Australia), Tom Kelly (Mt Stirling Resort Management, Mt Buller) and Ian Mansergh (La Trobe).

Dr Stoklosa is one of five staff members within UNSW Science (and ten University-wide) who were nominated for Eureka Prizes in this round. Of their nominations, Dean of Science Emma Johnston said, “Looking at the categories that Science finalists are in the running for, two themes stand out to me: environmental research and innovation. Our academics are constantly exploring new ways to solve the challenges that today’s society faces, and that’s why they’re seen as leaders in innovative science. I congratulate all finalists on being recognised in Australia’s leading science awards and wish them the best of luck.”

Winners of the Eureka Prizes will be announced on 29 August. We wish Dr Stoklosa and his team a very warm congratulations and the very best of luck!

About the project

The Mountain Pygmy Possum (Burramys parvus) is one of Australia’s most threatened marsupials, located in only three main regions of Australia. A small population of possums located in Mount Buller, Victoria have been in sharp decline since 1996 due to various reasons, such as depletion of genetic variation, climate change and human disturbances. To conserve and increase the population size, habitat restoration, environmental protection and a genetic recovery program were implemented in the last decade. The genetic recovery program involved the translocation of a small number of male possums (originally from Mt Hotham, Victoria) to mix in with the Mount Buller population.

After the successful translocation of possums to Mt Buller, a rapid recovery in the target population translated to population growth, healthy breeding and improved survival rates over the last seven years. The adult population is now 68% larger than when this population was first discovered in 1996. Very few studies around the world have been able to achieve this with threatened species and reproduce such successful results.

The project has attracted funding via the Australian Research Council Discovery grant scheme, Mt Buller Mt Stirling Resort Management Board, FAME Ltd, and the Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) Victoria.

Their work also led to a Nature Communications paper published in late 2017.

Dr Jakub Stoklosa, School of Mathematics and Statistics, UNSW Science. In collaboration with researchers from the University of Melbourne; La Trobe University and Mount Buller Mount Stirling Resort Management – NSW Office of Environment and Heritage Eureka Prize for Environmental Research

The unique Mountain Pygmy Possum population of Mt Buller had been isolated for 20,000 years but was facing imminent extinction just ten years after it was discovered. Through a program of cross breeding isolated populations of the threatened species, the Burramys Genetic Rescue Team was able to boost genetic variation, translating to population growth, healthy breeding and improved survival rates. Australia’s first genetic rescue has become a template for saving other species under threat.

Dr Stoklosa’s role as a statistician was to provide reliable and accurate estimates of mountain pygmy possums abundances using statistical methods and recapture data collected over 20 years.

After the successful translocation of possums to Mt Buller, a rapid recovery in the target population translated to population growth, healthy breeding and improved survival rates over the last seven years. In fact, the adult population is now 68% larger than when this population was first discovered in 1996. Very few studies around the world have been able to achieve this with threatened species and reproduce such successful results. A paper about the project has been published in Nature Communications.

This post is a modified version of this article by Susannah Waters (UNSW).

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