New research project: diversity in Wallacea

A few weeks ago I wrote about starting an exciting new project at the University of Leeds. At the time I didn’t go into details, but now that I’m a few months in and I am starting to understand what is going, so it’s time to enlighten you as well.

Leaf scorpionfish

Coral reef critter research coming up!

For the next two years I’m part of a team that will study marine biodiversity on coral reefs in central Indonesia. The overarching goal of of the project is to improve the management and conservation of coral reefs by discovering how impacts such as pollution or overfishing change the way coral reefs function. After all, the best way to start solving a problem is by properly understanding it.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to it than the lofty big goal as the title of the project indicates: “Gradients of marine biodiversity and linkages with eDNA across the Wallacea Region”. There are two components to the project: traditional visual surveys and environmental DNA (“eDNA”) surveys. We will use both methods to create ecological networks and see how they differ when they are threatened by different impacts.

At this point you might be asking a few (logical) questions:

  • Where is the Wallacea region and why do you go there?
  • What is eDNA?
  • What is an ecological network?
  • Why should I care? I came to this site to read about critters!

The Wallacea region is the central part of Indonesia, from Lombok eastward almost all the way to Papua, and up all the way to Halmahera (check out the map below). It was named after Alfred Russel Wallace, the scientist who, together with Darwin, developed the theory of evolution. The region represents an interesting boundary area where fauna and flora from the Asian and Australian continents meet. So it is home to some amazing wildlife, but also to a large human population that depends on natural resources to survive. The marine diversity in the region has not been studied very well (except for a few local exceptions), so finding out how healthy the marine ecosystems are is quite important.

Central Indo

The Wallacea Region

Environmental DNA (eDNA for short), is a relatively new method to detect species. I have written about it extensively here if you want a long explanation and background. The method detects tiny fragments of DNA in the water column that are shed through poop, mucus, etc. By filtering and analysing a scoop of water, we can tell what animals (and plants, microbes, etc) live in the water nearby. It’s pretty powerful and very exciting, but still needs a lot of additional testing to know just how precise it is compared to other survey methods.

I will then build ecological network models with all the data we collect. The easiest way to imagine what those are, is to see them as a different kind of food web. Where food webs focus on who eats who, we are more interested in who lives close to who, and who interacts with who. In the ideal situation I will include all the information on fish, corals, algae, invertebrates (crabs, sea stars, etc.) in one big model which will show how they rely on each other. More importantly, it will also show what happens with the networks if sites are overfished or polluted and how that differs from untouched sites.

Species-interaction-networks-at-Norwood-Farm-Somerset-UK-revised-from-Pocock-et-al

Example of an interaction network on land, figure by Bohal et al. 2013. Source here.

So yes, my job for the next few years is less critter-focused than before, but it doesn’t mean I will be ignoring them! Besides the obvious fact that there’s a lot of cool critters to be found on the coral reefs I’ll be visiting, I am still involved in a few very cool projects on the side. It’s too early to go into details, but more seahorse and seadragon work is coming up, and even some exciting pygmy seahorse news as well! I’ll regularly be posting updates on the Wallacea project, as well as more critter features, so stay tuned 🙂

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Musings on the 4th Asia-Pacific Coral Reef Symposium

downloadI am writing this blog while in transit in Kuala Lumpur, traveling from Cebu (the Philippines) to Perth. I was in Cebu to attend the Asia-Pacific Coral Reef Symposium (APCRS 2018). In the past I have written about the reasons why as a scientist I like visiting conferences, such as IPFC or ICRS. Those reasons have not changed: hearing about new research, meeting up with colleagues and friends, discussing new collaborations, and sharing my own research with people working on similar topics.

What was different atthis conference, is that it was my first international conference after submitting my PhD thesis. This was also the first time that I was invited as a  keynote speaker (for a mini-symposium that was part of the bigger conference). The conference had a strong regional focus, so many of the people attending conduct their research in the same region as I do. So there were a lot more opportunities for developing new collaborative projects than on larger conferences.

APCRS
Presenting my first keynote on the Sustainable Coral Reef mini-Symposium parallel to APCRS 2018 (Photo credit: Sugbu Turismo)

Here are some of my impressions while the last days are still fresh in mind….kind of fresh at least, the conference organisation was very generous in the amount of free San Miguel beer provided at the dinner last night 😉

More than other conferences I attended, APCRS 2018 had a strong management and practical feel to it. Many conversations I had and most of the presentations I heard had a strong underlying theme of developing solutions that could actually be used for managing reefs. What really made it interesting was that not only scientists, but also some managers and conservation organisations were presenting their work. I might be a bit too optimistic, but I feel that in the last years, many of the idealistic, but completely unrealistic ideas are being replaced by a more realistic approach that does not turn a blind eye to the real problems.

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Presenters of the Sustainable Coral Reef Tourism session (Photo credit: Sugbu Turismo)

Talking about how to use research results for management with the people working for organisations like Reefcheck, GreenFins, or CMAS was sometimes confronting, but also a great way to start having an impact beyond mere suggestions in scientific papers. Besides discussing future projects that will result in helping management, I also had some very inspiring talks with other researchers. If all goes well, the end of 2018 could become even more fun than I already expected. Hopefully more on that later!

There was another interesting theme that kept on coming back through many of the conversation I had: “What are we trying to achieve as scientists?” Or even more fundamental: “Why are we REALLY doing what we do”? It might seem obvious; most scientific papers will state that one way or another they want to understand the world better, and usually that they want to make a positive difference. But it can be interesting to ask if that’s what we are really doing? To what extent are we actually making a difference, or just following our curiosity? Are we willing to do the extra effort that is needed to truly have a positive impact? Or are we sometimes forgetting about the world beyond academia and writing papers because that is what you do when you want a career in science?

There is no judgement in any of these motivations, most of the scenarios are equally valuable. But realising why you do the research that you do, might help you to be more focused and get the results you aim for. At least it does for me…

This conference was probably one of the most productive and inspirational conferences I have attended since I started my PhD in 2014. I am very much looking forward to the next one in Singapore in 2022, and the new projects that I’ll be working on in between!

APCRS_Crowd
Audience at the sustainable tourism session – APCRS 2018 (Photo credit: Sugbu Turismo)