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Investigating the interplay between behavioural plasticity and ecophysiology of coral reef fish to environmental change

Zoe Storm

Research Areas

Ecology, Marine Biology, Physiology, Behavioural Ecology

Project Brief

Zoe’s project will combine complimentary laboratory and field-based studies to examine the interplay of behaviour, physiology, and ecology to determine the holistic response of coral reef fish species to environmental change, focusing on ocean temperature. Critical to understanding how species will respond to shifts in environmental temperature is knowledge on their thermal sensitivity and performance across the temperature range naturally experienced and expected with climate change. Thermal preference is believed to indicate the holistic optimum temperature for an individual and includes the thermal performance of various traits which may not have the same thermal optimum (e.g., growth vs reproduction). However, little is known about how most species’ optimal thermal range relates to this breadth and variation in the thermal environmental conditions experienced.

Zoe’s research will start by determining the thermal preference and physiological sensitivity of a range of site-attached reef fish species that are often associated with coral and anemone hosts (e.g., anemonefish, damselfish, cardinalfish, hawkfish). In addition, a detailed survey of the environmental conditions within and around an individual’s habitat, allowing mapping of the thermal micro-climates at a relevant scale. It is expected that different habitat types will create various thermal micro-climates, even if located adjacent on the reef since structural complexity may differ. However, this is yet to be explored. Field-based tagging investigations will determine to what extent fish can use behaviour to maintain body temperatures within or closer to their optimal range. Comparison of species living in the same and distinct reef areas will be conducted to test whether species living in similar conditions with similar ecology will have similar thermal preference, or whether taxonomy and physiological differences between species drives thermal preference. Additionally, this project will test whether degraded versus healthy coral cover reef sites have differing ability to provide thermal micro-climates.

We expect that due to developmental plasticity and adaptation, thermal preferences of species will relate to the thermal conditions experienced (range, average, most frequent temperatures) at sites. By combining in situ behavioural and physiological data (metabolic rates), the real current days costs of daily life considering the realised benefits of behavioural thermoregulation can be determined, as well as the expected future metabolic costs under various projected warming scenarios.