We’re delighted to highlight the award of four new postdoctoral fellows and four new postdoctoral fellowships to start in 2023.  These fellowships are highly sought after and produce excellent research as well as providing an important contribution to research training.

Since the program’s inception in 1984, the LIRRF has supported 122 Fellowships totalling about $1.5 million.

We thank our donors for supporting these important Fellowships and the careers of the researchers.



Casey Bowden (James Cook University)
2023 Ian Potter Foundation Doctoral Fellowship

Water flow ecology: How reef structure and water flow shape the world of fishes

Water is the medium in which fishes move, feed, reproduce, and live their lives. Because it is all around them, it must play a critical role in shaping how fishes live. On coral reefs, we know that fishes are important for the health of the reef. But may we be overlooking a critical aspect of their interaction with their environment – water.

Most studies that measure water and its flow patterns, do so on global, continental, or regional scales; not at the fish-sized scale of metres to centimetres. However, it is these small on-reef scales that are relevant to fishes. Reefs are complex, jagged places. As such, water flow is constantly modified by the 3-dimensional shape of the reef. Therefore, it is critical to consider this complex shape and the flow of water together. How do they create the environment in which fishes live?

To understand how fishes use different flow conditions within their environment, we first need to understand what these conditions are and where they are likely to occur. Casey’s research will study and measure how water flow is affected by the 3-dimensional structure of coral reefs. She will then use these results to assess if and how fish behaviour is influenced by the range of flow speeds in their habitat. Her research will gather three sets of data: fish behaviour, coral reef structure, and water flow at a fish-sized scale, which will provide a detailed view of how fishes use their whole environment including the medium in they live, water.


Abigail Shaughnessy (University of Queensland)
2023 Gough Family Doctoral Fellowship

Colour vision plasticity of coral reef fish in a changing world

The visual environment underwater is far more variable than on land. For instance, as one dives deeper, you will notice that colours such as red begin to disappear. Fish living on coral reefs experience frequent changes to their light environment as conditions change naturally over different seasons and depth, or due to human influences such as sediment run-off. With environmental disturbances increasing, it is important to understand the extent and limits of visual plasticity of fishes under natural and disturbed conditions.

Abigail’s research will be the first of its kind to reveal in detail how the molecular plasticity of the visual system functions in coral reef fish. Specifically, her project aims to determine (1) the extent of plasticity in colour vision systems of some reef fishes when exposed to natural environmental changes i.e., seasons; (2) the limitations of their colour vision plasticity when experiencing anthropogenic changes i.e., high turbidity events; and (3) whether changes at a molecular level have a functional impact on the behavioural response of reef fishes.

Outcomes of this project will expand our understanding of the visual capabilities of coral reef fish and the specific strategies they have evolved to survive. Investigating short-term plasticity in reef fishes will provide insight into their adaptive scope and whether they may be able to mitigate the impacts of increasing environmental change. This knowledge can then inform management strategies, for example, reef restoration efforts may profit from taking the sensory ecology of its inhabitants into consideration.


Juan Carlos Azofeifa Solano (Curtin University, WA)
2023 Purves Foundation Doctoral Fellowship

Decoding coral reef soundscapes of Lizard Island

The use of reef soundscape is emerging as a mean of studying and restoring coral reefs, with the advantage of it being non-invasive, cost-effective, and automatable. Coral reefs are noisy environments, and their “song” is comprised by a cacophony of sounds including waves, wind, fishes, snapping shrimps, and other marine species. Listening to the reef’s song provides clues on population and ecological dynamics, and usually reflect the reef’s conditions, as healthy reefs produce louder and more diverse sounds than degraded reefs. Recently, the playback of healthy reef songs is being used to enhance the attraction of fish and invertebrate larvae to appropriate habitats in coral reef restoration projects.

LIRS has a history of supporting soundscape research and Juan’s research will add to this significant body of research. As part of his research, Juan plans to build a series of coral rubble patches in the middle of shallow sandy lagoons at Lizard Island where fishes’ calls will be isolated from other reef noises enabling good-quality recordings of calls which can be linked to species and behaviours. He will explore the production of distress calls in reef fish that are in the presence of an artificial model predator. In addition, he will explore the sound production of planktivorous nocturnal and diurnal fishes around Lizard Island as they are abundant and major contributors to reef soundscapes. Results from his research will contribute to a better understanding of the significance of the coral reef soundscapes.


Devynn Wulstein (University of Hawaii at Manoa)
2023 Lizard Island Doctoral Fellowship

Self thinning in coral assemblages as they recover from disturbance

Corals are susceptible to disturbances like thermal bleaching and cyclones that change population size structure. During recovery, population densities and mean individual size increases. In terrestrial systems, a scaling-law relationship has been shown where population density decreases as mean individual size increases, termed “self-thinning.” Self-thinning becomes prevalent as sessile organisms become more crowded, directly impacting the survival of individuals within the population. As disturbances are likely to become more frequent and severe, and active restoration approaches more common, understanding the dynamics between coral population density and mortality as communities recover becomes increasingly essential for maintaining coral reef functions.

This project utilizes twenty-one long-term coral monitoring sites encircling Lizard Island that were established by Profs Dornelas and Madin (recipients of a 3 year 2020 grant for coral communities research) and which have been tracked and annotated to species level each year since 2016. Devynn plans to investigate the role coral on coral competition has in reef recovery dynamics. Competition between corals is only evident during periods of high coral cover or high population density where individuals are close enough to one another and resources become limited. Specifically, she will study the relationship between the average size of coral colonies and the number of colonies on the reefs (the self-thinning theory) and quantify the dynamics of pair-wise coral competition interactions to better define the succession and recovery stages of these 21 reefs. Results from her work will help inform future restoration efforts and increase our understanding of the dynamics that drive coral reef recovery.

Example of coral-on-coral competition with clear signs of scarring with the two species meet in the middle of the image. Photo by Devynn Wulstein




Dr Michelle Achlatis (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands)
2023 Maple-Brown Family Foundation Fellowship

Nutrient sharing between photosynthetic symbionts and their sponge host: implications for coral reef productivity across oceans

Life on Earth has evolved ingenious ways to satisfy its daily nutritional needs. Often, these require macro- and micro-organisms to team up, forming intimate collaborations that are very successful in nutrient-poor environments, like coral reefs. Photosymbiosis, a partnership between animal hosts and microbes fueled by sunlight, is famous in corals, but it is even more diverse and complex in sponges.

Inside sponges, symbiotic microbes harvest sunlight and produce sugars but how much sugar do they share with their host sponge? Michelle’s research in the Caribbean illustrated how symbiont and sponge cells communicate, how much nutrition they exchanged, and why the resulting productivity matters for the complex food webs that sustain tropical coral reefs. Funding from the Maple-Brown Family Foundation Fellowship will enable Michelle to study nutritional sharing in a foliose sponge (Phyllospongia foliascens) that is abundant at Lizard Island. Specifically, results from her research will determine whether the photosynthetic sugars are used to build sponge biomass, which can then be consumed by other members of the coral reef food web.

Phyllospongia foliascens


Dr Amanda Pettersen (The University of Sydney)
2023 John and Laurine Proud Fellowship

Investigating the metabolic ecology of CoTS larvae

Anthropogenic activity is causing unprecedented environmental change, and organisms are developing in environments which may be very different to those in which they evolved. The effects of warming waters and increased nutrient availability from major flood and runoff events are exposing organisms inhabiting coral reefs to novel selection pressures. One potential “winner” from this environmental change is the crown-of-thorns seastar (CoTS), Acanthaster cf solarisi. This species currently poses a significant threat to the resilience of coral reefs to climate change, with a high proportion of recent coral loss attributable to outbreaks of CoTS larvae. Irruptions in CoTS larvae have been linked to elevated nutrients while warmer temperatures are expected to increase developmental rates.

Despite increased knowledge of the distribution and abundance of adult CoTS, questions regarding the mechanisms by which temperature and food availability affect recruitment and survival remain to be addressed. The aim of Amanda’s project is to measure the relative rates of energy acquisition (feeding), energy expenditure (metabolism), and energy allocation towards fitness-enhancing processes of development and growth. Investigating the metabolic ecology of larval CoTS will improve our understanding of the interplay between food availability and temperature on their survival, and therefore the demography of CoTS in response to future environmental change. An understanding of the mechanisms by which larval stages of CoTS can grow and survive under environmental change will i) Identify potential vulnerabilities to target, and ii) predict its future abundance and distribution in coral reefs under different management strategies.

Life cycle of CoTS (Acanthaster cf solarisi). The amount of energy gain from the environment via feeding (green arrows) relative to loss via metabolic processes (yellow arrows) throughout early stages of development (bipinnaria – brachiolaria) can have important fitness consequences, affecting recruitment and patterns of outbreaks in coral reefs.


Nina Schiettekatte (University of Hawaii at Manoa)
2023 Isobel Bennett Marine Biology Fellowship

Linking structural complexity with biodiversity and ecosystem functions

Coral reefs increasingly experience events of mass coral mortality, triggering a transition into modern reefs characterized by a decreased diversity and structural complexity. The physical habitat structure of a coral reef provides the possibility for species to accumulate and interact. Corals help construct the 3D profile of the reef. Mobile animals such as fish and invertebrates use the 3D environment to hide and search for food. More complex reefs provide a larger area for mobile animals to occupy. Moreover, the shape of a reef profile may affect the types of species that can live there. For example, a large bommie with an overhang provides the ideal resting spot in the shade for a nocturnal fish (picture below, left), while a branching coral with many small nooks may be ideal for smaller species to aggregate in case a predator comes by (picture below, right).

Coral reef fishes play a crucial role in mediating key ecosystem functions such as nutrient cycling, biomass production, and herbivory. As coral reef habitats become less complex, we expect fish communities to shift. The challenge is to understand how exactly the changing structural complexity of coral reefs affects the diversity and functioning of these fish communities.

Nina will use existing reef sites (~64m²) around Lizard Island, part of a long-term monitoring program established by Profs Dornelas and Madin, to link structural complexity, biodiversity, and fish-mediated functions. The 3D profiles of reef plots will allow for the estimation of structural complexity measures such as fractal dimension and rugosity.  She will combine these measurements with fish observations and bioenergetic modelling to directly link structural complexity, biodiversity, and fish-mediated functions.


Alexandre Siqueira (James Cook University)
2023 Chris Joscelyne Postdoctoral Fellowship

The evolution of a critical ecosystem function for the future of coral reefs

Coral reefs are highly productive ecosystems at the forefront of anthropogenic impacts. This productivity is underpinned by one of the major components of coral reef ecosystems: fishes. Modern coral-dominated reef systems are largely a product of the last 60 million years, when fishes and corals displayed marked functional changes. Among these changes, the rise of herbivorous fishes is arguably one of the most important in shaping modern-day productivity patterns. Specifically, herbivorous fishes play essential roles on coral reefs – mediating the competitive balance between corals and algae – and they act as key agents in ecosystem processes like sediment dynamics that are critical for reef recovery after disturbance.

Surgeonfishes (family Acanthuridae) have recently been demonstrated to play a central role in the removal of sediments on coral reefs. Degraded reefs are predicted to accumulate more sediments into the future, which may hinder their potential for natural recovery. Surgeonfishes may be one of the key fish groups needed for reef recovery through their enhanced capacity for removing sediments bound within algal turfs.

Alejandre’s project will take advantage of the vast diversity of surgeonfish species that occur at Lizard Island. A main goal is to quantify the process of sediment removal and transportation across functional groups of surgeonfishes. This project will provide 1) novel information about the functional roles of surgeonfishes on coral reefs, especially related to reef recovery; and 2) fundamental knowledge about surgeonfish evolution and ecosystem functions. By revealing the functions of surgeonfishes, this project will provide better insights into processes that shaped coral reefs over evolutionary time and it will contribute knowledge for understanding how they can best recover from impacts in the future.

Surgeon fish (Acanthurus xanthopterus) feeding (Photo by Francois Libert).