2011 marked the year that New Zealand national Dr. Bridie Allan moved to Australia to begin her PhD in Marine Biology at James Cook University under the supervision of Prof. Mark McCormick and Prof. Phillip Munday. After graduating in March, Bridie’s currently collaborating on a study being conducted at the Australian Museum’s Lizard Island Research Station, to investigate ‘how the warming event the reef experienced this summer has affected a whole suite of physiological and molecular attributes in reef fish’. Covering nine species and two families, this research is taking a multi-faceted approach to explain the changes that may have occurred in the fish as a result of the event. Contributors and collaborators of the work are researchers from the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies including: Jodie Rummer, Heather Veilleux, Tracy Ainsworth and Phillip Munday.
Bridie’s PhD research investigated how climate change may change predator-prey interactions in coral reef fish, in particular the kinematics that form the basis of these fundamental relationships. Predation is one of the key processes structuring communities in ecological and evolutionary time. Despite the ecological and evolutionary importance of predation, it is one of the most poorly understood processes in one of our world’s most biologically diverse and threatened ecosystems, coral reefs. Assessing how predator-prey interactions will change in future marine environments is vitally important. During the course of Bridie’s research, she found that there changes in the locomotory ability of both predators and prey following exposure to high CO2 and high temperatures with these changes leading to a significant increase in prey mortality. However, there is some good news, Bridie showed that the escape performance of juvenile fish could actually be improved in a high CO2 world if the parents and their offspring experienced the same CO2 history. This provided the first evidence of transgenerational acclimation acting upon and improving a behaviourial trait. By creating future marine environments, predictions can be made on how ecosystem dynamics and communities may respond to climate change.
The next step for this research and many other climate change based experiments is to begin to use many other species and predator-prey pairs as well as looking at long, multigenerational times to really get at the acclimatory capacity of marine organsims. Bridie’s research focussed on using damselfish as the prey and dottybacks as the predator. “Damselfish are a terrific model organism to use as they are very species diverse family and make up a large portion of the fish you see on a coral reef and changes in their population dynamics could alter food webs on the reef”.
Bridie has been interested in marine life ever since she was a child in New Plymouth in New Zealand, scrambling about rock pools. As she got older, she wanted to know what things were occurring beneath the water, particularly within the context of fish behaviour. “Understanding why specific behaviours may be occurring and importantly being able to describe them in a scientifically robust way, that’s what I love about science, plus being to conduct field work in a place like Lizard Island at such a terrific and well run field station, well that’s a privilege. I think it is really important to share the important work we are doing in a way that is easy and digestible for everyone to understand. That’s how you inspire people and get them enthused about science”.