To Brisbane, the long way around: Profile of Dr Lily Bentley

Philopatry is the tendency of an animal to stay in, or ultimately return to, the area where it was born. After fledging, albatrosses spend up to a decade at sea before returning to the same island where their parents nested. Loggerhead turtle hatchlings ride ocean currents across the Pacific from Australia to South America, then return to nest some 30 years later – often on the very beach where they hatched.

I grew up in Brisbane and, though no-one in my family was a biologist, I did spend most school holidays traipsing barefoot across campgrounds in sclerophyll forest and on beaches. After a gap year and two miserable years of a law degree (we all make mistakes!) I started a Bachelor of Science/Arts at The University of Queensland. Research was not yet on the agenda – just enjoying what I studied was enough for me over the first two years.

Cape York to Kampala

Following a conversation in a third-year practical class, I decided to undertake an undergraduate project in the lab of Professor Craig Franklin, which led to an Honours year. My project investigated tracking data from estuarine crocodiles in the Wenlock River. I learned a lot of things that year – from doing fieldwork in remote Cape York to handling a nine million row dataset – but most of all I learned the value of a supervisory team who have your back. I also became interested in trying to understand where highly mobile animals go, and why, especially under increasing anthropogenic pressure.

There’s often a sense of career inevitability that emerges in retrospect, but when I finished my Honours I had no idea what I wanted to do, aside from “a PhD overseas”. So, I moved to Uganda, where my partner was working, to submit applications, do Skype interviews and hope for the best. The R skills I developed during my Honours year led to a fellowship in data science at a solar power start-up. We sold small home solar kits to the ~80% of Ugandans living without grid power, to keep their lights on at night, charge mobile phones and run small appliances using renewable energy. In this role, I worked with some brilliant women, who provided critical context for customer data to codesign a model that would support their work in the field.

I was lucky enough to then find out I’d been awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship to start my PhD in the UK. I was jumping from tropical reptiles to Antarctic seabirds – but continuing to work with animal tracking data to understand the behaviour of predators in the wild. It was September 2017.

It takes a village

The five years from the start to the end of my PhD were not as I expected them to be. It’s always tempting to gloss over these things, but I believe it does all of us a disservice to pretend our career journeys are independent of our personal lives. Between losing a parent, becoming a parent and the COVID-19 pandemic, I spent more time away from Cambridge than in it during my PhD.

My partner and I made a snap decision in March 2020 to come back to Australia before the borders closed. It was June 2022 before we returned to the UK, and as a family of three. Without the unshakable confidence of my supervisor that I was, somehow, going to finish my thesis – through time off, time down, remote work, and maternity leave – I honestly don’t believe I would have done so.

Writing up with an eight-month-old was a task made possible by a strong community of support. My husband had good parental leave and could cycle our son into my office to breastfeed. My officemate played games with the baby on the floor while I had Zoom meetings. We celebrated his first birthday two days after I handed in my thesis, in October 2022. Serendipitous timing, and a job advert spotted by a friend while on my own thesis-induced social-media ban, meant that the next time we returned to Brisbane was on our own terms.

From theory to practice

Over a lifetime of pole-to-pole migrations the average Arctic tern travels the distance to the moon and back, three times. Bar-headed geese fly up to 8,000 metres high as they cross the Himalayas on their annual migration. The more we research, the more we find that animals travel farther and endure conditions more extreme than we ever expected.

Coming back to UQ and joining CBCS as a postdoc has been an opportunity I am incredibly grateful for. I am constantly inspired by the applied work of CBCS members – I am now shifting my focus from pure evolutionary ecology to engage more with conservation policy. Migratory species are notoriously difficult to protect because they face multiple, changing threats on their journeys between countries and habitats. I hope to help develop better conservation and management interventions for highly mobile species, so that they can continue to make their incredible migrations for generations to come.


Image above: Heading home after a race. Taking up rowing during my PhD provided a good dose of the camaraderie needed to get through the academic year. Photo: Giorgio Divitini

Project members

Dr Lily Bentley

Postdoctoral Research Fellow
School of the Environment
Applied Marine Biogeography Lab
ECR Representative – Education
Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science