Doctor Fiona Backhouse


Graduated PhD 2023

Thesis title

Explaining geographic variation in the elaborate vocal display of the male Albert's lyrebird Menura alberti

Research Project

Conservation has traditionally focussed on preserving genetic differences between species or populations, but recently there has been a shift to also include diversity and the conservation of cultural traits, such as vocal dialects. Communication signals such as bird song or dynamic visual display (“dance”) often vary through space, and this can have important implications for interactions between individuals or populations. Despite the importance of including these behavioural traits in discussions of conservation, much is still unknown about the patterns and drivers of cultural diversity in many species. In addition to this, much of the research on geographic variation has focussed on species-specific song, ignoring potential causes and ramifications of variation in other signals such as mimicry or dance.

My research explores methods of geographic variation in acoustic and visual signals and possible implications for conservation in the near threatened Albert’s lyrebird (Menura alberti). These large and mostly solitary song birds are famous for their mimicry of other species, as well as their own unique songs and accompanying visual displays. They have endured a long history of habitat degradation and fragmentation that has restricted them to the remaining rainforests and wet sclerophyll forests of north-eastern New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland. Reports of population-level differences in song are unsurprising given the sedentary nature of lyrebirds and the patchiness of their habitat.

During my candidature I aim to quantify the extent of variation in all vocalisation types and in the full displays between populations of Albert’s lyrebirds. I will then explore possible causes of variation including habitat differences, and genetic and cultural flow. Finally, I will compare the displays between Albert’s lyrebirds and their sister species, the superb lyrebird, to better understand the displays of the Menuridae.

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Backhouse F, Dalziell AH, Magrath RD, Welbergen JA, (2022) 'Higher-order sequences of vocal mimicry performed by male Albert's lyrebirds are socially transmitted and enhance acoustic contrast', Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol.289, no.1970, Article no.20212498

Backhouse F, Dalziell AH, Magrath RD, Rice AN, Crisologo TL, Welbergen JA, (2021) 'Differential geographic patterns in song components of male Albert’s lyrebirds', Ecology and Evolution, vol.11, no.6, pp 2701-2716


Dr Justin Welbergen, Dr Anastasia Dalziell, Prof Robert Magrath (ANU)