Girl Power!! The Ladies of the Fish Systematics and Biodiversity Lab Receive Funding for their Research

The start of 2018 has been busy, but also productive, for the members of the Fish Systematics and Biodiversity Lab. While Luke enjoyed teaching Biology of Fishes solo for the first time,  his students cashed-in on some big grants and scholarships. The following is what lab members Dara Yui (senior undergrad), Marta Gómez-Buckley (Ph.D. student), and myself, Sarah Yerrace (junior undergrad) have spent the last several months working on.

Dara received the Mary Gates Research Scholarship in the fall of 2017. She was awarded $5,000 to support her genetic research on the dwarfgoby genus Eviota. Thanks to wide-spread use of DNA sequencing and molecular phylogenetic analyses in coral-reef fish taxonomy over the last decade, the description of new Eviotaspecies has exploded in recent years. The genus now comprises 113 species - an almost 500% increase from the 19 species that had been described before the 1970’s. Dara will be focusing on the Eviota atriventrisspecies complexPreliminary analyses show that within this species there are two different lineages showing subtly different color morphs from Cenderawasih Bay (Indonesia) and Milne Bay (Papua New Guinea). To clarify the taxonomy of the two lineages, Dara has been sequencing mitochondrial and nuclear genes for all available specimens as well as examining morphology. Her research will provide insights on the mechanisms of speciation in this rapidly diverging group of fishes. 

Eviota atriventris , photo by Jack Randall. 

Eviota atriventris, photo by Jack Randall. 

Marta received $6000 from the Hall Conservation Genetics Research Fund. As the name suggests, this fund is specifically for graduate students working on conservation genetics. Combining systematics, phylogenetics, conservation genetics, and community ecology, Marta will be evaluating the dynamics of coral reef ecosystems. She will do this by focusing on cryptobenthic reef fishes, as they contribute disproportionately to the overall diversity and energy transfer on a reef. 

Marta will be comparing environmental DNA (eDNA) and cryptobenthic reef-fish surveys to see if eDNA can accurately inform us about the diversity and community composition of cryptobenthic fishes. If eDNA can be used to monitor ecologically sensitive cryptobenthic communities, it would be a good indicator for reef degradation and habitat loss. This method could be more cost- and time-effective than surveying populations through destructive sampling.

Cryptobenthic reef fishes of Tonga, collected and photographed by Marta Gómez-Buckley.

Cryptobenthic reef fishes of Tonga, collected and photographed by Marta Gómez-Buckley.

Like Dara, I also received $5,000 from the Mary Gates Endowment. My research is also focusing on a small goby, Risor ruber. The common name for this fish, the tusked goby, comes from the two to four outward-facing canines on the upper and lower jaws of the fish. Preliminary genetic data indicates that there are eight different genetic lineages and ecological data shows that these lineages have species-specific commensal relationships with different sponge hosts. Host specialization could be the mechanism for the reproductive isolation causing genetic divergence, and ultimately speciation. I will be using a combination of fresh and preserved photos, cleared and stained specimens, and CT scans to analyze geometric morphometrics and meristic differences between lineages, and ultimately determine whether there are morphological differences that correspond to the genetic and ecological data within this group. 

Risor ruber , the Tusked Goby.  Photo by Carole C. Baldwin. 

Risor ruber, the Tusked Goby.  Photo by Carole C. Baldwin. 

Finally, in other Girl-Power related news, the Fish Systematics and Biodiversity lab was part of another female-led collaboration that also recently received research funding. The Deep Reef Observation Project, or DROP, is a program that is leading the way in exploring deep-reefs of the Caribbean. Carole Baldwin, Curator of Fishes at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and Director of DROP, teamed up with Luke and Ross Robertson (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute) to acquire funding to help establish a new base of operations for DROP in Roatan, Honduras.  The team will conduct 20 submersible dives on the Idabelmanned submersible over the next two years, collecting samples that will help us understand the evolution and connectivity of deep-reef fish communities.

Idabel  submersible, located at Roatan, Honduras. 

Idabel submersible, located at Roatan, Honduras. 

Stay tuned for more updates from the members of the Fish Systematics and Biodiversity lab! 2018 is shaping up to be a big year full of discoveries.