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190118_Yellow-lippedSeaKrait_LaticaudaCo

Dr Christina N. Zdenek, BSc., MPhil, PhD

Ecologist  |  Herpetologist

Yellow-lipped Sea Krait (Laticauda colubrina), 
found and photographed by CNZ in Indonesia.
210829_CNZwithSnakes_PicByNickHamilton_98_small.jpg

About Me

I am currently a postdoctoral researcher for the Celine Frere Research Group at The University of Queensland. Our lab collaborates with governments and industry to deliver cost-effective wildlife monitoring services (using airborne eDNA!), novel gut microbiome analyses, and important wildlife conservation outcomes. Personally, with more than 16 years in field-based roles and 8 years in lab-based roles, my inter-disciplinary research interests have traversed parrot vocalisations to animal cognition, snake venom activity, antivenom efficacy, snake ecology, snake behaviour, and the human-snake conflict. My vision is to use science to promote a better relationship between humans and wildlife. I also have a passion for science communication (e.g. I was ABC's Top Five Scientist in 2021; am 1 of 3 Inspiring Australia's ambassadors for Qld in 2024) and have devoted 15 years to working with Indigenous groups on Cape York Peninsula to save Australia’s only tool-using parrot, the Palm Cockatoo, whereby Prof. Rob Heinsohn and I successfully raised its conservation status twice.

 

My fieldwork experience extends across various taxa: Macaws in the Peruvian Amazon, Little Penguins in Victoria, Palm Cockatoos on Cape York Peninsula, Death Adders on Magnetic Island, koalas in Brisbane, and sea snakes in far north Queensland and in the Philippines.

 

My work on the human-snake conflict began in 2010 and has ranged from public education (e.g. travelling snake shows) to scientific fieldwork and pre-clinical antivenom testing. From 2009–2014 I was the seasonal Team Leader for The #PalmCockatooProject with Professor Rob Heinsohn at The Australian National University. From 2010-2016, I seasonally worked as a venomous-snake education demonstrator, educating the Australian public on best practices, identification, and first aid regarding snakes. I am now running the world's largest human-wildlife conflict survey, spanning 47 countries. My ultimate purpose is to use science to promote a better world, for humans and for wildlife. 

 

I'm currently an expert member of IUCN's Snake Specialist Group (by invitation only) and an Advisory Member for https://savethesnakes.org/. I am the co-owner and instructor for the Australian Reptile Academy (#OzReptileAcademy), where I train people on the safe and ethical handling of venomous snakes.

 

Some projects I have run:

#PalmCockatooProject (palmy conservation), 

#CockyCognition Project (bird vocalisations, bird cognition),

#DeathAdderProject (Death Adder ecology), and 

#SoundGardenProject ('How do snakes respond to airborne sound?')

Publications and awards:

I have published 54 scientific publications (as of Jan. 2024), am a Fulbright Fellow alumna, a National Geographic Young Explorer (2018), an #ABCTop5 Science recipient (2021), 1 of 3 Queenslanders chosen as Inspiring Australia's ambassador for STEM education, with my work regularly appearing in the media.

Research Impacts:

Having conferred my PhD in May 2020, I have published 54 papers (as of 4Jan'24) across various disciplines (e.g. toxinology, animal behaviour, ecology), making significant impact in each field. Some examples: Toxinology: I tested a new snakebite therapeutic drug, with 6 of my papers used as supporting evidence in the successful application to the US FDA to progress the drug to phase II human clinical trials (pers. comm., Dr Lewin, Ophirex). We (Jackson et al 2016) revealed the world’s first example of ontogenetic venom change in an elapid (Family Elapidae) snake species, subsequently garnering 65 citations, illustrating its significant advancement of this field. Animal behaviour: my Zdenek et al 2023 paper demonstrated that snakes alter their behaviour in response to airborne sounds, questioning the long-standing misconception that snakes are deaf. Impacts of this paper are ongoing due to it being so new, but so far the Altimetrics score is 1122 (top 5%), and the paper has been viewed 8,234 times. It is a perfect precursor to subsequent research quantifying snake behaviour in response to snake ‘deterrents.' Re parrots, we (Heinsohn, Zdenek et al, 2017) identified the first known non-human animal to create a rhythmic beat, informing theories of the evolution of human rhythm cognition and rhythmic behaviours (Altmetric 744 (top 5%); 69 cit.). We (Heinsohn et al 2023) later showed individualistic patterns of rare sound tool design in a parrot, providing unique insights into animal behaviour and intelligence. Ecology: Dr Youngentob and I produced a ‘game-changer’ method for collecting leaves (or any sample) from the tops of trees. This enabled quantification of forage quality for koalas and informed conservation decisions in the Gold Coast and ACT regions. A co-authored paper of mine brought world attention to the rare behaviour (‘drumming’- beating a fashioned stick on a tree to make rhythm) of probably Australia's most difficult bird to study (pers. comm, Prof Rob Heinsoh, Difficult Bird Research Group), the Palm Cockatoo. This paper led to the species being featured in a blue-chip (highest possible quality) nature documentary by the BBC. Overall, 29.4% of my publications are in the top 10% most cited worldwide.

 

Research Impact Outside of Academia:

In 2015 and 2021, colleagues and I succeeded in nominating the increase of the conservation status of Palm Cockatoos twice under the Australian government’s EPBC Act. This Endangered-level status, in combination with my 2022 first-author paper (in Australian Field Ornithology) on the gold standard of Palm Cockatoo nest surveys, have resulted in the rejection of an unsatisfactory EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) for a large mine on Cape York (pers. anonymous employee at Dept. of Environment and Science). This paper, produced in collaboration with Rio Tinto (Australia’s 3rd largest materials company (ASX)), is now used for all of Rio Tinto’s ‘pre-clear’ (before land-clearing) ecological surveys for Palm Cockatoos during their mining operations on Cape York Peninsula, Qld. Moreover, I am a national leader in science communication, with up to 50 radio interviews and 12 TV interviews annually (reaching 4.1 billion people worldwide in 2023 alone), plus many long-standing, frequent and professional STEM education endeavours. I was also the 8th most read author in The Conversation from UQ (Sept. 2021 – Sept. 2022, The Conversation dashboard). My appointment in 2022–present as the Communications Officer for IUCN’s Snake Specialist Group increases the benefit of my snake-related expertise internationally.

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