Lucile Lévêque


Tasmanian native-hens on Maria Island. ©Cyril Scomparin


I joined the DEEP group in 2017 to pursue my interests in ecology and understanding mechanisms of wildlife extinctions. I am particularly interested in the variation of organisms’ responses to threats and identifying the drivers leading to vulnerability. This applies to many aspects of evolutionary and conservation biology, including biogeography and ecological dynamics of populations. For my PhD in the DEEP group, I am looking at the determinants of extinction risk in rails (a family of ground-dwelling birds), focussing on how we can explain the past and current patterns of vulnerability to forecast, protect and prevent biodiversity loss. My projects are using modelling techniques based on fieldwork experiments to assess and predict extinction risk.

PhD Research within D.E.E.P:

PhD title: “Determinants of extinction risk in rails”

The Pacific avian extinction is the greatest vertebrate Holocene mass extinction on record, and more than 90% of rails (Rallidae) went extinct during the initial human colonisation of the region (over 1,000 flightless rails), reducing by 20% of global avian biodiversity. A further 26 species were lost after contact with European settlers, including half of the remaining flightless species. Today, there are 31 species of rails that are threatened, with a vast majority of island-endemic and flightless species. The rails are a cosmopolitan and ecologically diverse family but they are also emblematic in the context of extinction processes; however, their current patterns of threats have never been systematically examined. By quantitatively analysing rails’ vulnerability, and using detailed case studies of extant and extinct representatives, I aim to provide insights about the roles of different attributes in threatening processes.

My PhD is organised around 3 main projects:

  1. Global analysis of factors influencing extinction risk in rails, assessing the role of various biological and biogeographic attributes in interaction with different threat types, and developing aspects of policy making for conservation.
  2. Long-term sustainability and resistance to extrinsic factors of a persisting flightless rail (the Tasmanian native-hen, Tribonyx mortierii), including climate and land-use changes, invasive predators risk, and genetic stochasticity.
  3. Feasibility of a rail species re-wilding to a former stronghold on a sub-Antarctic island (Macquarie Island), using population and habitat viability analysis to consider the implications for ecosystem restoration.

Outside the D.E.E.P lab:

Before starting my PhD, I completed my Bachelor and Masters degrees at the University of Burgundy (France) in Ecology and Conservation biology. For my Masters, orientated to both professional and research aspects, I undertook three diversified projects about:

-the behaviour of black howler monkeys (Alouatta pigra) in fragmented forests of Mexico, where I looked at movement pattern within trees in response to climatic variables. Aside this research project undertaken at the Instituto de Ecología (Inecol), I joined my research team in projects of reforestation and outreach communication in schools located by the forest fragments.

-the socio-environmental assessment of grey wolves’ (Canis lupus) return to France. As wolf populations have been naturally recolonising the French countryside after their intentional eradication in the 1930s, concern about the cohabitation with shepherds’ activities was growing. This project was commissioned by the association of the Nature Reserves of France (RNF) to evaluate to which extent reserves were prepared to host wolves’ populations on their lands and had prepared means to help shepherds to live alongside wolves.

-the evaluation of population viability for the critically endangered Tahiti flycatcher (Pomarea nigra), project undertook at the Mediterranean Institute of Biodiversity and Ecology (IMBE) with Dr. Alexandre Millon and Nicolas Lieury. This endemic bird was one of the rarest birds on Earth at the time I started the project, and with the support of the local association in place on Tahiti (SOP-Manu), I was able to forecast the outcomes of different conservation programs, including the viability of an assisted colonisation on a predator-free island.

This last project ignited my passion for endangered island birds and I left France after graduating to spend almost a year travelling and working in New Zealand to immerse myself in these environments and their battles to save their unique wildlife. There, I came across the fascinating pūkeko, weka, takahē and many more, relics of this glorious time when rails were flourishing this side of the globe. The contrast between them and the thriving Tasmanian native-hen was so striking that it hooked my curiosity, and I am working now on what makes this flightless rail so unique and resistant to anthropogenic changes compared to its threatened counterparts!

(last update: 04/04/18)