This year, the Foundation and its supporters are funding six new fellowships for research starting in 2024: three to PhD students and three to people who obtained their PhDs in the past five years. This includes the award of a new doctoral fellowship jointly funded by the Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation and Minderoo Foundation. The recipient (Melman Neill, see below) will conduct research both at LIRS and at the Minderoo Exmouth Research Laboratory on the Ningaloo Reef.

The Fellowships program has been running since 1984 and 139 Fellowships have been awarded to date. They are highly sought after, offering valuable opportunities for both early career and PhD candidates to develop their research skills, build their careers, and in many cases develop valuable collaborations with other scientists.

2024 DOCTORAL FELLOWS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cher Chow

St Andrew’s University, Scotland, 2024 Ian Potter Foundation Doctoral Fellow
Biodiversity and productivity in coral reef ecosystems

Coral reefs are among the most productive and biodiverse marine ecosystems but are undergoing high rates of diversity change. Decline in biodiversity following disturbances has been linked with cascading compositional change, reduced reef calcification, and reduced fish productivity. These things suggest that that the theory of a positive relationship between biodiversity and productivity applies to coral reefs. However, some studies have found that the abundance of certain key species is more important. Coral reef research currently suffers from a paucity of direct investigations into the functional impacts of biodiversity change. Cher is addressing this knowledge gap with a process-based approach to clarify the consequences of biodiversity trajectories on the functioning of coral reefs, and of similarly complex ecosystems that are under threat.

Cher will build upon on a long-term data set established by her supervisor, Prof Maria Dornelas (University of St Andrews, University of Lisbon) and Prof Joshua Madin (Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, University of Hawaii at Manoa). Her research focuses on quantifying the productivity of reef-building corals and fishes across a biodiversity gradient and then modelling the relationship between productivity with biodiversity. The objectives of the project are to: 1) Measure coral and reef fish productivity, 2) Quantify the relationship between biodiversity and productivity through time; and 3) Identify key species to reef productivity.

This project will be one of the first attempts to directly quantify reef growth and link it back to the coral species generating that growth. Clarifying the role of biodiversity in the functioning of an ecosystem will have important implications in how coral reefs and other similarly complex biomes are managed and utilised.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kyra Jean Cipolla

University of Texas at Austin), 2024 Lizard Island Doctoral Fellow
Scaling-up estimates of cryptobenthic fish communities using structure-from-motion and remote sensing

Coral reefs are one of the most structurally complex and biodiverse ecosystems in the marine environment. However, human impacts have shifted reefs toward less complex ecosystems, which may drastically change reef fish communities. One important yet overlooked group is cryptobenthic reef fishes (CRFs). CRFs are tiny fishes (up to 5 cm long) that live their relatively short lives close to the reef, hiding from predators in holes, and feeding on a range of sources on the reef. In turn, CRFs supply energy to consumers higher on the reef food web. Although there is a lot of ecological research on the links between the reef benthos and larger fish species, the effects of reef shape on small reef-dwellers are poorly known despite their dependence on many benthic habitats and structures. Kyra Jean’s research will examine how variations in habitat shape, reef type, and benthic structure affect fish community structure.

Recent advances in underwater technology allow scientists to quantify reef geometry using photogrammetry, which is high-resolution, non-invasive, and feasible to implement in the field even in relatively rough conditions. It is very difficult to examine habitat shape of an entire reef. However, aerial imagery from unmanned aerial vehicles offers an exciting, low-cost, remote-sensing platform that provides invaluable monitoring power for reefs at large spatial scales. Kyra-Jean plans to combine reef geometry, CRF collections, and aerial imagery of shallow reef areas (<10m deep) to examine how changes in habitat shape will affect reef ecosystem functioning. Kyra Jean’s project will enable determination of the community composition of functionally important CRFs and project the habitat architecture of the entire reef system by measuring a fraction of the total area.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Melman Neill

University of Texas at Austin), 2024 Joint Minderoo Foundation and Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation Doctoral Fellow
Physiology, life history, and the pace of life: understanding the role of cryptobenthic fishes in coral reef ecosystems

Cryptobenthic reef fishes (CRFs) are a group of tiny species that are easy to ignore as they measure less than 5 centimetres and spend much of their time flitting between crevices and hiding from predators. Nonetheless, CRFs are a major conduit of energy on reefs. They grow rapidly and are consumed by predators at very high rates, channelling considerable amounts of energy from their planktonic food to larger predators.

Melman’s research aims to investigate how CRF metabolic rates relate to their community structure and growth. First, he plans to survey CRF communities at sites surrounding Lizard Island with varying levels of wave exposure using a specialized net structure. Second, he will use respirometry to understand how metabolic rates differ between CRF species. Respirometry involves placing live fishes inside specialized chambers where their respiration is quantified by precisely measuring the oxygen concentration. Oxygen consumption rate is a proxy for metabolic rate, which may vary significantly between species. Finally, he will collect otoliths, or ear stones, from CRFs to determine their growth rates. From this data he will obtain a more holistic understanding of CRF communities.

Melman is the inaugural recipient of the Joint Minderoo Foundation and the Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation Doctoral Fellowship. Consequently, he will conduct his research both at Lizard Island and at Ningaloo Reef. Quantifying CRF functioning at both sites will reveal ecological trends important to future reef conservation efforts.

 

2024 POSTDOCTORAL FELLOWS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr Michalis Mihalitsis

University of California, Davis), 2024 Isobel Bennett Marine Biology Fellow
Feeding kinematics reveal novel axes of niche partitioning in herbivorous coral reef fishes

Herbivores (plant eaters) are widely known for their crucial roles on coral reefs such as removing significant amounts of algal material from reefs. However, little is known about the morphological and/or behavioural adaptations required by them to bite algae off the sea floor, in an almost weightless environment where gravity cannot be taken advantage of. Biting as a feeding mode is functionally demanding, requiring a high degree of morphological specialisation. Many herbivorous species conduct an abrupt sideways head-flick to detach filamentous algae, while others use a ventral pulling motion.

Michalis’ project aims to investigate the feeding kinematics (e.g., reliance on a sideways head flick) of surgeonfish species at different reef habitats, that are also exposed to different current strengths. He will film surgeonfishes feeding in different flow regimes across Lizard Island, with two synchronised cameras from two different planes of view. This method will enable him to capture the motion of feeding from multiple planes of view, and with the help of computer software, capture it in 3D. By establishing links between morphology, behaviour, and the influence of environmental factors (i.e., current flow), we can better understand how future reef configurations (i.e., increase in algal turfs), may shape the functional delivery by herbivorous fishes on coral reefs in the Anthropocene.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr Mike McWilliam

James Cook University), 2024 Maple-Brown Family Foundation Fellow
The importance of habitat geometry for coral reef productivity

Shallow-water coral reefs are among the most productive of all ecosystems. High rates of productivity can be partly attributed to climatic factors but they can also be enhanced by ‘habitat geometry,’ including benthic morphology and ecosystem topography. Three-dimensional (3D) habitat complexity is essential for coral reef biodiversity and stability. However, the structural attributes of reef habitats are changing rapidly under human pressures, especially global warming.

Habitat structure can influence reef productivity because of scaling relationships linking organism size, geometry, and metabolism. Early reports attributed high reef productivity to elevated structures and extensive substrate that allow photosynthetic coral and algae to settle and grow. Dense coral thickets can provide highly effective 3D light-traps and act as ‘energy generators’ for reefs. Changes to habitat geometry under increasing disturbances can theoretically modify the productivity and energy-use of reefs, ultimately affecting biomass accumulation and carbonate accretion.

The main objective of Mike’s study is to study the relationship between habitat complexity and primary productivity, and test whether reef patches with a more intricate habitat structure have a higher Gross Primary Productivity (total carbon fixed) and a higher Net Community Production (carbon remaining after the respiration costs of plants, heterotrophs, and decomposers are met). His study will use in situ metabolic chambers and state-of-the-art 3D mapping technology to quantify the predictive role of habitat geometry for carbon fixation across a range of locations and scales.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr Sterling Tebbett

James Cook University), 2024 John and Laurine Proud Postdoctoral Fellow
The boom-and-bust future of coral reefs in the Anthropocene

Climate change is restructuring the world’s coral reefs, with more frequent and severe mass coral bleaching events resulting in widespread coral death. While in some cases coral cover can recover in a matter of years after these disturbances, thanks to fast-growing corals, this recovery is likely to be short-lived. This is because climate change has shortened the amount of time between disturbance events on reefs, and these fast-growing corals are highly sensitive to disturbances, such as coral bleaching. As a result, some reefs may be entering a period of boom-and-bust coral dynamics. Unfortunately, our understanding of what these boom-and-bust cycles mean for the functioning of coral reefs is currently limited. Sterling’s research will examine the nature of boom-and-bust coral cover dynamics at Lizard Island, while also examining other key reef organisms, namely algae, that dominate coral reefs during periods of low coral cover.

To explore boom-and-bust coral cover dynamics, he will utilise a dataset of high-definition photographs spread across Lizard Island. These locations were initially photographed immediately prior to the 2016 bleaching event and have been photographed regularly since to track coral loss and recovery. Sterling will continue this sampling to track coral dynamics in high definition around Lizard Island and document any busts in corals that may occur because of the coral bleaching events that appear set to disturb Lizard Island in the future. To offer broader insights into how coral reefs may function during these boom-and-bust coral dynamics, he will also undertake detailed surveys of the short algae that are widespread, but often overlooked, on reefs around Lizard Island during periods of low coral cover. Understanding the composition of these algae, the rate at which they grow, and the factors which shape this growth, is important as some of these algae can play critical roles in the construction of coral reefs.