Working in the wild with whales and dolphins

A childhood dream to study marine mammals has taken wildlife ecologist
Dr Katharina J Peters (BSc(MarineBiol)(Hons) ’10, PhD(Biol) ’16) to remote locations around the world – from Australia to the Galápagos Islands and New Zealand, as her international research career takes flight.

It has been an incredible journey for the German-born ecologist, whose desire to study marine mammals made her pursue an Honours degree in Marine Biology at Flinders University in 2010. She gained First-Class Honours as well as a Chancellor’s Letter of Commendation for her Honours research on dolphin behaviour that advised South Australian Government regulations for tourist interactions with dolphins and other marine wildlife.

Curiously, her following doctoral research wasn’t on marine biology but on the effect of an invasive parasite on Darwin’s finches, located on the remote Galápagos Islands.

“I wanted to gain experience in other research areas, rather than becoming too focused on one specific field early on in my career. My PhD supervisor Professor Sonia Kleindorfer explained to me that a PhD is like a toolbox, and I wanted to gather an many tools as I could,” says Dr Peters.

“Working with Darwin’s finches on the Galápagos widened my horizon, both scientifically and personally. It was also refreshing to study very tame birds you can actually catch, instead of elusive dolphins that spend most of their life below the ocean surface”

Her thesis highlighted the conservation needs of these iconic birds, which led to more opportunities to apply her research using multidisciplinary approaches. But eventually, she found her way back to marine mammals.

Since completing her PhD, Dr Peters has obtained significant external research funding, including a prestigious Australia Awards Endeavour Postdoctoral Research Fellowship to research the foraging ecology of whales and dolphins at Massey University, New Zealand, using the largest respective tissue archive in the Southern Hemisphere.

She currently holds a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, to study intersexual differences in reproductive success of Shark Bay Indo-pacific bottlenose dolphins using epigenetic methods. The position allows her to draw on the Swiss university’s unparalleled 30-years of research data of this dolphin population.

“It’s why getting out of your comfort zone is so crucial – to learn new methods, develop new international collaborations and create opportunities that will help understand the bigger picture,” says Dr Peters.

Dr Katharina J Peters received a 2021 Early Career Alumni Award for her significant contribution to wildlife ecology and conservation, and for taking a mentoring role in developing other early career researchers. Read more on the Flinders University Alumni Awards

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