Exploration of tiny creatures leads to big 3MT Final win

At Western Sydney University's Three Minute Thesis (3MT) Final, the audience was taken on a compelling journey from the research lab to the forest floor – to explore the habitat of some of the world's smallest creatures.

Jonathan Finch, a PhD Candidate from the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, took out first place in the 3MT Final for his presentation 'Very Niche Ecology.'

In the allocated three minutes, Jonathan impressed the judges with his clear and concise explanation of the complex theories of competitive exclusion and niche partitioning.

Jonathan used the simple analogy of a pair of identical twins applying for the same job to explain his PhD – which examines the behaviours of two tiny, nocturnal insects that co-exist on one species of Australian plant (or the same 'ecological niche').

"Ecologists believe if two species share the same ecological niche, then one of two things will happen. Either one species will outcompete and exclude the other species, or one of the species will shift its niche," says Jonathan.

"The theory is that no two species can occupy the exact same ecological niche. However my research has identified these two species of moth that spend their entire lifecycle on a plant called Breynia oblongfolia – or the coffee bush."

Jonathan Finch 

To research the behaviours of these tiny creatures, Jonathan spends his nights in the bush opposite the University's Hawkesbury campus.

"The entire forest floor is covered with these coffee bush plants. If you know where to look, at this time of the year you can find the Larvae of the moth hidden way in the plants," says Jonathan.

"Over the next four weeks, as the weather gets warmer, I'll be out from dawn to midnight every night – monitoring the flowers of the plants as they fruit and recording the activities of the moth as they hatch and begin to lay eggs."

Jonathan hopes his research will generate real world evidence for theories that explain how competing species can coexist, that until recently were largely based in mathematics.

"I hope that by studying these small creatures I'll be able to answer big questions about the world around us," he says.

To prepare for the 3MT Final, Jonathan wrote a script of his presentation and practiced it over and over, on his own and via Skye to his family and friends, until it was committed to memory.

His hard work paid dividends, and now – as the University's 3MT Winner – he is heading to Queensland in September to participate in the Asia-Pacific Finals.

Watch all the winning 3MT presentations on our YouTube Playlist.(opens in a new window)