Charles Sturt University
Charles Sturt University

Dr Melanie Massaro

Dr Melanie Massaro

Dr Melanie Massaro

BSc (1996) Ernst-Moritz-Arndt University, Germany

MSc (2000) Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada

PhD (2004) University of Otago, New Zealand

Member of ILWS

Melanie is an evolutionary and behavioural ecologist with an interest in a broad range of topics, including life-history evolution, contemporary adaptation, consequences of population bottlenecks, interactions between native and exotic species and conservation physiology (for more details, please refer to her research page). Melanie joined Charles Sturt University after completing two postdoctoral fellowships in New Zealand.

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Melanie currently teaches Conservation Biology (BIO216 and BIO416). Conservation biology is the scientific study of the earth's biodiversity with the aim of protecting species, their habitats and ecosystems. In this subject , students build on their understanding of ecology to learn about the origins and scope of conservation biology as a scientific discipline, patterns and values of biodiversity, threats to biodiversity (extinction rates and processes, habitat destruction, climate change, overexploitation and invasive species), conservation at the genetic, species and ecosystem level and national and international conservation policy and management.

She also teaches Avian Systematics (BIO431) and Ornithological Methods (BIO433) for the Graduate Diploma in Ornithology (

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Melanie's research interests span the fields of integrative conservation biology, and behavioural and evolutionary ecology. Specifically, she is interested in understanding contemporary adaptation and responses in bird species facing new environmental conditions. In line with these interests, Melanie has been active in four main research areas:

1. Evolutionary changes in life-history traits in endemic island birds

Aorangi IslandThe introduction of mammalian predators to oceanic islands has caused the extinction of many island birds, and exotic predators continue to threaten the survival of 25% of endangered bird species worldwide. We investigate whether the novel predation risk imposed by introduced mammalian predators has altered parental behaviour and life-history traits of endemic New Zealand songbirds by comparing populations in sites that differ in predation risk with those of closely-related species in Australia that evolved with native nest predators. This research is aimed at understanding to what extent and how rapidly these behavioural and life-history traits can change due to the selective pressure of mammalian predation and, ultimately, at integrating evolutionary concepts into management and conservation efforts. The first results of this project have been published (Massaro et al. 2008. Plos One; Starling- Windhof, Massaro & Briskie. 2011. Biological Invasions) and research is ongoing.

2. Consequences of population bottlenecks

Black RobinEven if intensive conservation measures are successful in reversing population bottlenecks and averting extinction, passing through severe bottlenecks continues to affect the long-term viability of post-bottlenecked populations. The Chatham Island black robin (Petroica traversi) passed through a severe bottleneck in 1980 declining to five individuals, including only a single fertile female. Conservation measures rescued the species from the brink of extinction. However, 30 years after the species passed through this severe bottleneck, maladaptive behaviours and deformities have emerged in the population. Melanie's research team ( collected detailed morphological, behavioural and genetic data to understand consequences of severe bottlenecks.

3. Effects of climate change on the Antarctic Adélie penguin

Adelie PenguinTop predators in polar ecosystems are facing profound climate-induced changes to their environment. Severe predator population declines can threaten the stability of ecological communities leading to ecosystem collapse. Melanie is part of a joint US-New Zealand project ( that studies the effects of climate variability on Adélie penguins, a marine top predator in Antarctica, and thus, an ideal sentinel species for ecosystem health. Within the framework of this broader, collaborative study, Melanie focuses on the eco-physiology of Adélie penguins, whereby she investigates condition-related physiological measures in response to different competitive, parental and environmental challenges.

4. Beak and Feather Disease Virus

BellbirdPsittacine Beak and Feather Disease Virus (PBFDV) is the causative agent for a common and often fatal disease affecting captive and wild populations of parrots and cockatoos worldwide. Given the recombinant nature of ssDNA viruses, this virus can easily move across hosts and thus, spread among different species of birds. Additionally, with ongoing issues with illegal trafficking of parrots and non-monitored bird breeding programmes, PBFDV can become a serious threat to endangered parrot species. Hence, Melanie worked in collaboration with Dr. Arvind Varsani (University of Canterbury, New Zealand) and many others on a project aimed at testing populations of threatened and endangered parrots in New Zealand (e.g. kakapo Strigops habroptilus) as well as exotic parrot species from Australia for PBFDV (e.g. Eastern rosella Platycercus eximius, sulphur-crested cockatoo Cacatua galerita). Characterisation of full virus genomes allowed us to assess whether native New Zealand parrots have been infected by feral populations of introduced Australian parrots. An understanding of disease transmission among parrots has implications for the management of this emerging, infectious disease (Massaro et al. 2012. Archives of Virology).

If you have similar research interests than Melanie and you are contemplating a higher research degree (Honours, MSc or PhD), please contact Melanie over email.

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Please email Melanie for reprints.

Updated September 2015

Cubrinovska, I., M. Massaro, and M.L. Hale. 2015. Assessment of hybridisation between the endangered Chatham Island black robin (Petroica traversi) and the Chatham Island tomtit (Petroica macrocephala chathamensis). Conservation Genetics.

Moodley, Y., J.F. Masello, T.L. Cole, L. Calderon, G.K. Munimanda, M.R. Thali, R. Alderman, R.J. Cuthbert, M. Marin, M. Massaro, J. Navarro, R.A. Phillips, P.G. Ryan, C.G. Suazo, Y. Cherel, H. Weimerskirch, P. Quillfeldt. Evolutionary factors affecting the cross-species utility of newly developed microsatellite markers in seabirds. Molecular Ecology Resources 15: 1046-1058.

Varsani, A., E.L. Porzig, S. Jennings, S. Kraberger, K. Farkas, L. Julian, M. Massaro, G. Ballard and D.G. Ainley. 2015. Identification of an avian polyomavirus associated with Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae). Journal of General Virology 96: 851-857.

Grimaldi, W.G., R.J. Hall, D.J. White, J. Wang, M. Massaro, and D.M. Tompkins. 2015. First report of feather loss condition in Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) on Ross Island, Antarctica, and a preliminary investigation into its cause. Emu 115: 185-189.

Heinemann, J.A., M. Massaro, D. Coray, and S.Z. Agapito-Tenfen 2014. Reply to comment on sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 12: 387–390.

Briskie, J.V., L. Shorey, M. Massaro 2014. Nest-boxes increase fledging success in the declining rifleman Acanthisitta chloris, New Zealand. Conservation Evidence 11: 12-15.

Varsani, A., S. Kraberger, S. Jennings, E.L. Porzig, L. Julian, M. Massaro, A. Pollard, G. Ballard and D.G. Ainley. 2014. A novel papillomavirus in Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) faeces sampled at the Cape Crozier colony, Antarctica. Journal of General Virology 95: 1352-1365.

Massaro, M., R. Sainudiin, D. Merton, J.V. Briskie, A.M. Poole and M.L. Hale. 2013. Human-assisted spread of maladaptive behavior in a critically endangered bird. PLoS ONE 8(12): e79066.

Sikorski, A., M. Massaro, S. Kraberger, L.M. Young, D. Smalley, D.P. Martin and A. Varsani. 2013. Novel myco-like DNA viruses discovered in the faecal matter of various animals. Virus Research 177: 209-216.

Heinemann, J.A., M. Massaro, D. Coray, S.Z. Agapito-Tenfen and J.D. Wen. 2013. Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 12: 71-88.

Massaro, M., M. Stanbury and J.V. Briskie. 2013. Nesting habitat choice of endangered black robins increases vulnerability to predation by an invasive bird. Animal Conservation 16: 404-411.

Massaro, M., L. Ortiz-catedral, L. Julian, J.A. Galbraith, B. Kurenbach, J. Kearvall, J. Kemp, J. van Hal, S. Elkington, G. Taylor, T. Greene, J. van de Wetering, M. van de Wetering, M. Pryde, P. Dilks, S. Heber, T. Steeves, M. Walters, S. Shaw, J. Potter, M. Farrant, D.H. Brunton, M. Hauber, B. Jackson, P. Bell, R. Moorhouse, K. McInnes and A. Varsani. 2012. Molecular characterisation of Beak and feather disease virus (BFDV) in New Zealand and its implications for managing an infectious disease. Archives of Virology 157: 1651-1663.

Massaro, M., K. Yogeeswaran, A. Black 2012. Trapped in the postdoctoral void – the lack of postdoctoral opportunities in New Zealand forces emerging scientists to exit science or seek employment overseas. New Zealand Science Review 69: 30-39.

Ainley, D.G., C.M. Brooks, J.T. Eastman and M. Massaro. 2012. Unnatural selection of Antarctic Toothfish in the Ross Sea, Antarctica. In: Protection of the Three Poles (Ed. F. Huettmann), Springer, Tokyo, Japan.

Starling-Windhof, A., M. Massaro and J.V. Briskie. 2011. Differential effects of exotic-predator control on nest success of native and introduced birds in New Zealand. Biological Invasions 13: 1021-1028.

Blight, L.K., D.G. Ainley, S.F. Ackley, G. Ballard, T. Ballerini, R.L. Brownell Jr., C.-H.C. Cheng, M. Chiantore, D. Costa, M.C. Coulter, P. Dayton, A.L. DeVries, R. Dunbar, S. Earle, J.T. Eastman, S.D. Emslie, C.W. Evans, R.A. Garrott, S. Kim, G. Kooyman, A. Lescroël, M. Lizotte, M. Massaro, S. Olmastroni, P.J. Ponganis, J. Russell, D. B. Siniff, W.O. Smith Jr., B.S. Stewart, I. Stirling, J. Willis, P. Wilson and E.J. Woehler. 2010. Fishing for data in the Ross Sea. Science 330: 1316.

Ortiz-Catedral, L., B. Kurenbach, M. Massaro, K. McInnes, D.H. Brunton, M.E. Hauber, D.P. Martin and A. Varsani. 2010. A new strain of beak and feather disease virus isolated from wild red-fronted parakeets (Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae) in New Zealand. Archives of Virology 155: 613-620.

McGraw, K.J., Massaro, M., Rivers, T.J. and T. Mattern. 2009. Annual, sexual, size- and condition-related variation in the colour and fluorescent pigment content of yellow crest feathers in Snares Penguins (Eudyptes robustus). Emu 109: 93-99.

Massaro, M., A. Starling-Windhof, J.V. Briskie and T.E. Martin. 2008. Introduced mammalian predators induce behavioural changes in parental care in an endemic New Zealand bird. PLoS ONE 3(6): e2331.

McGraw, K.J., M.B. Toomey, P.M. Nolan, N.I. Morehouse, M. Massaro, and P. Jouventin. 2007. A description of unique fluorescent yellow pigments in the feathers of penguins (Aves: Sphenisciformes). Pigment Cell Research 20: 301-304.

Massaro, M., A.N. Setiawan and L.S. Davis. 2007. Effects of artificial eggs on prolactin secretion, steroid levels, brood patch development, incubation onset and clutch size in the yellow-eyed penguin. General and Comparative Endocrinology 151: 220-229.

Massaro, M., L.S. Davis and R.S. Davidson. 2006. Plasticity of brood patch development and its influence on incubation periods in the Yellow-eyed Penguin: an experimental approach. Journal of Avian Biology37: 497-506.

Setiawan, A.N., M. Massaro, J.T. Darby and L.S. Davis. 2005. Mate and territory fidelity in Yellow-eyed Penguins. Condor 107: 703-709.

Massaro, M. and L.S. Davis. 2005. Differences in egg size, shell thickness, pore density, pore diameter and water vapour conductance between first and second eggs of Snares Penguins Eudyptes robustus and their influence on hatching asynchrony. Ibis147: 251-258.

Massaro, M. and L.S. Davis. 2004. Preferential incubation positions for different sized eggs and their influence on incubation period and hatching asynchrony in Snares crested (Eudyptes robustus) and yellow-eyed penguins (Megadyptes antipodes). Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 56: 426-434.

Massaro, M. and L.S. Davis. 2004. The influence of laying date and maternal age on eggshell thickness and pore density in Yellow-eyed Penguins Megadyptes antipodes. Condor106: 496-505.

Massaro, M., L.S. Davis, J.T. Darby, G.J. Robertson and A.N. Setiawan. 2004. Intraspecies variation in incubation periods in Yellow-eyed Penguins Megadyptes antipodes: testing the influence of age, laying date and egg size. Ibis 146: 526-530.

McClung, M.R., P.J. Seddon, M. Massaro and A.N. Setiawan. 2004. Nature-based tourism impacts on yellow-eyed penguins Megadyptes antipodes: Does unregulated visitor access affect fledging weight and juvenile survival? Biological Conservation 119: 279-285.

Massaro, M., L.S. Davis and J.T. Darby. 2003. Carotenoid-derived ornaments reflect parental quality in male and female yellow-eyed penguins (Megadyptes antipodes)? Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 55: 169-175.

Massaro, M. and D. Blair. 2003. Comparison of population numbers of yellow-eyed penguins, Megadyptes antipodes, on Stewart Island and on adjacent cat-free islands. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 27: 107-113.

Massaro, M., J.T. Darby, L.S. Davis, K-A. Edge and M.J. Hazel. 2002. Investigation of interacting effects of female age, laying dates and egg size in Yellow-eyed Penguins (Megadyptes antipodes). Auk 119: 1137-1141.[1137:IOIEOF]2.0.CO;2

Robertson, G.J., D. Fifield, M. Massaro and J.W. Chardine. 2001. Changes in nesting habitat use of large gulls breeding in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. Canadian Journal of Zoology 79: 2159-2167.

Massaro, M., J.W. Chardine and I.L. Jones. 2001. Relationships between Black-legged Kittiwake nest-site characteristics and the susceptibility to predation by large gulls. Condor 103: 793-801.

Massaro, M., J.W. Chardine, I.L. Jones and G.J. Robertson. 2000. Delayed capelin (Mallotus villosus) availability influences predatory behaviour of large gulls on black-legged kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), causing a reduction in kittiwake breeding success. Canadian Journal of Zoology 78: 1588-1596.

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Higher Degree Research and Honours Students supervised by Melanie

PhD candidates

Clare Lawrence studies the Life history correlates of nest predation in island and continental passerines. She investigates avian life history traits of songbirds (robins, fantails and thornbills) in Tasmania that evolved with native mammalian predators and compares their traits to those of closely related species in New Zealand. New Zealand birds evolved without mammalian predators, but have now co-existed with exotic predators since human settlement (~ 700 years). If some native birds are capable of adapting to introduced predators, then exposing bird populations to low/controlled number of predators would allow threatened birds to develop predator-avoidance strategies for the coexistence with exotic predators in the long term.

The research of Dena Paris focuses on Estimating carrying capacity through habitat preferences
of an island endemic songbird. The reintroduction and recovery of the Chatham Island black robin (Petroica traversi) has been considered one of the most remarkable success stories in conservation management. This small, endemic, insectivorous passerine once inhabited all forested areas in the Chatham Islands (~800 km east of New Zealand) until the introduction of exotic mammalian predators and habitat clearance for agriculture reduced its range. Today this species only survives on two small predator-free islands, Mangere and Rangatira Island. A long-term aim for the recovery of this species is to re-establish a third population of black robins on one of the two main Chatham islands (Chatham and Pitt Islands), but a previous reintroduction attempt to Pitt Island failed. While Mangere and Rangatira provide protection from mammalian predators, other aspects of the habitat, such as availability of prey and suitable microclimate, may be lacking. Identifying such environmental limitations will not only help with the management of these populations in situ, but assist with identifying areas for the future reintroduction of black robins.

Students who completed their studies


Dena Paris (2014): Sex-biased dispersal in the Chatham Island Black Robin (1st class Honours).

Kelly Hunt (2013): Differences in species and functional diversity of bird communities in different land-use types (1st class Honours).

Masters of Science

Ilina Cubrinovska (2014): Hybridisation and genetic diversity of the black robin (Petroica traversi) and the Chatham Island tomtit (Petroica macrocephala chathamensis). Main supervisor was Dr. Marie Hale at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch.

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