PeerJ Award Winners at Reef Conservation UK

by | Jan 9, 2024 | Award Winner Interviews

Reef Conservation UK (RCUK) is a networking group for reef scientists, conservationists and enthusiasts to discuss and collaborate on issues related to coral reef research and conservation. We hold an annual one-day conference with a great program of presentations, posters and networking opportunities for all career stages. While meetings are usually held at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the 26th RCUK conference in 2023 took place at Newcastle University for the first time and was a great success! On 9th December we hosted 140 reef researchers and enthusiasts, 26 presentations, 30 posters and 3 workshops for early career researchers. Notable traditions also included Christmas jumpers, mince pies and a drink reception in the Great North Museum.

Ines Lange, RCUK Committee Member.


Kirstin Gaffney PhD candidate at Newcastle University, UK. 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

I am first year PhD student at Newcastle University funded by an IAPETUS (NERC) studentship. My research interests are understanding the evolution of sociality and cognition using fishes as model organisms. I am working with Theresa Rueger’s research group ‘Behaviour, Ecology and Evolution of Fishes’ exploring the social functions of colour patterns in anemonefishes.

What first interested you in this field of research?

Studying ‘Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology’ as an undergraduate, I often explored whether certain behaviours were limited to humans. I found it incredible that animals were capable of so many sophisticated behaviours and I have since developed a strong interest in understanding the evolutionary drivers of complex animal societies and cognitive processes, particularly in fish which to this day are frequently considered less capable of more sophisticated cognition.

Can you briefly explain the research you presented at Reef Conservation UK 2023?

I thoroughly enjoyed learning about all the amazing coral-reef research being carried out in the UK and beyond at the Reef Conservation UK 2023 conference. Here, I presented a project that I carried out prior to starting my PhD investigating the pay-to-stay hypothesis in anemonefish (Amphiprion spp.) societies. The ‘pay-to-stay hypothesis’ aims to explain the evolution of cooperative societies, proposing that non-breeders cooperate to avoid being evicted from their territory by dominant breeders. We explored this through experimentally preventing non-breeders from cooperating and investigating whether they were then punished and if they then increased their cooperative effort thereafter to appease the dominants. We found evidence for both punishment and appeasement, supporting ‘pay-to-stay’ in anemonefish societies and providing insight into the evolution of sociality in marine fishes.

How will you continue to build on this research?

I aim to build on this research during my PhD through investigating how anemonefish social structures are influenced by their ability to recognise others. I will empirically test the function of colour patterns in social status signalling and individual recognition and explore differences in social structures and colour patterns between different anemonefish species to provide insight into the selective forces driving the evolution of both colour patterns and sociality in anemonefishes.


Julia Rodriguez Fillol PhD candidate at the University of Exeter, UK. 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

For me, it all began with a pair of goggles and an enthusiastic biologist dad who came from a family of fishermen. After school we would rush to the beach, swim out to a nearby rocky reef and observe the wonderful underwater spectacles. My dad, always full of excitement, would point out the local fauna and yell fish names so I could remember them. One in particular, “la vieja”, always captured our attention, both because of its mesmerising appearance and social behaviour. Female “viejas”, which means old lady in Spanish, are particularly eye-catching. They are bright red with yellow markings on the body and have a prominent beak-like mouth which makes them look like they’re perpetually smiling. This parrotfish species, Sparisoma cretense, is abundant in the subtropical waters of the Canary Islands where I was raised and one of the most iconic fish species in our culture, as well as a commercially important and nutritious food resource. I spent countless hours observing “viejas”, exploring below the surface and learning to be comfortable at sea which nurtured a strong love and respect for the force of our planet. At the time, I never imagined that this captivating group of fish would become one of the principal subjects of my research, nor that our beach routine taught me skills that I now apply in my job.

What are you main research interests?

Although currently much of my research focuses on the feeding behaviour and ecology of tropical parrotfish, I am more broadly interested in nutrient dynamics on coral reef ecosystems. Unlike the Canary Islands, where abundant nutrients are supplied via cold and upwelling currents which fuel coastal productivity, tropical coral reefs can thrive in areas of scarce ambient nutrients. Because nutrients provide the building-blocks of all living organisms, for decades scientists have been investigating the mechanisms which have allowed coral reef ecosystems to sustain remarkable levels of primary productivity in nutrient limited conditions. Nowadays, our knowledge of nutrient cycling in coral reefs has made important advances. We now better understand some of the sophisticated adaptations of organisms, such as corals, to survive in these environments and how bio-physical processes enhance nutrient levels around tropical islands, as for example consumer-mediated nutrients or internal waves. However, we still have much to learn about the effects of both natural and anthropogenic nutrient inputs on coral reefs, especially on species physiology, trophic interactions and ecological functioning.

Through being part of a research group at the University of Exeter, with my supervisors Prof. Chris Perry and Dr. Ines Lange, who are a huge inspiration and have extensive knowledge on coral reefs, I have developed an interest for the links between ecology and geomorphology. It is fascinating that the biological action of coral reef organisms is responsible for both the creation and breakdown of reefs. On one hand, corals and other calcium carbonate accumulating organisms build complex 3D- structures, and on the other, forces of erosion, such as parrotfish grazing and boring by microorganisms remove calcium carbonate. This net balance between reef growth and erosion can be quantified using the ReefBudget method which helps us further understand the ability of reefs to support critical services and functions such as structural complexity and coastal protection.

Can you briefly explain the research you presented at Reef Conservation UK 2023?

Often overlooked, photosynthesizing microorganisms, such as microalgae and cyanobacteria, inhabit every surface and matrix of carbonate substrates on coral reefs. They act as agents of bioerosion and make important contributions to reef primary productivity. New evidence indicates that these microscopic phototrophs, particularly protein-rich cyanobacteria, are the key components of parrotfish diets. Because these microorganisms can respond to nutrient inputs, our research explores whether seabird-mediated nutrients affect microscopic communities and, hence, influence the availability and quality of food resources for parrotfish, their foraging behaviour and related geo-ecological functions. This project is part of a wider collaboration with researchers from Lancaster and Oxford universities, as well as international partners, which aims to study the ecological connections between seabirds, tropical islands, and coral reefs. Findings from this group have highlighted the importance of seabirds in nutrient cycling which can benefit both terrestrial and marine ecosystems, further emphasising the need to conserve and restore seabird populations.

My poster at RCUK summarised main concepts and preliminary results which are beginning to emerge after many hours following parrotfish and even more peering through a microscope. Reef Conservation UK is an incredible opportunity to learn, share and connect, I would highly recommend anyone passionate about coral reefs to attend!


How will you continue to build on this research?

As the first part of my PhD comes to an end, I plan to move onto the analysis of parrotfish behavioural data that I collected this year in the Chagos Archipelago. Here, we explored the foraging patterns of parrotfish in reefs around islands with and without seabird colonies. I will also further investigate changes in epilithic and endolithic microscopic assemblages from coral blocks deployed across these sites with contrasting levels of seabird nutrient subsidies.

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