Honours Project Opportunities in Fish Population Ecology

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Lab Members

Interested students should contact Dr. Will Figueira via email at

Research on fish population ecology

Research on fish population ecology

As the name implies, the majority of research projects in this area focus on the population ecology of fishes. This includes studies of how the behaviour of individuals and groups affects survival, growth and reproduction, how environmental and physiological conditions interact with this, and what this all means for the population dynamics of fishes. This research uses basic field techniques including individual marking of fishes, behavioural monitoring and fish censuses as well as lab work to age fish and assess their biochemical condition. We work in both temperate regions around Sydney as well as tropical ones on the Great Barrier Reef. There is also a strong modeling component to the work in the lab with projects looking at the large scale connectivity of marine fish populations using simulated larval transport models (Lagrangian biophysical models) as well as local dynamics using matrix population models.

Mentoring philosophy

Mentoring philosophy

For many, honours is the beginning of a path to post-graduate work (MSc or PhD) and thus you will be treated as such. You will be given access to all the resources the lab has to offer (see below) including all the wonderful and helpful people, and encouraged to develop your project in your own image. You will be given all the tools to learn to conduct sound research and ample opportunity to develop your ideas in a supportive environment. You will interact as equals with other staff and students (honours and post-graduate) and will be encouraged to use their feedback to help disseminate your work in the from of presentations and publications. There is also some support for attending conferences to present your work and you will be encouraged to do that.

Lab Location

We are situated within the Marine Ecology Labs of the Centre for Research on the Ecological Impacts of Coastal Cites (EICC) located in the Edgeworth David Geology Building (A11).

Lab facilities

The Fish Population Ecology Lab and the EICC in combination have a range of facilities to service all areas of research on coastal marine organism. We have field gear stores as well as a workshop and assembly areas for preparation of experimental apparatus. There are also dry labs equipped with dissecting and compound microscopes as well as computer imaging facilities for otolith analysis. There is also a standard complement of laboratory equipment (centrifuges, heating blocks, water baths, etc...) for conducting assays to measure things such as lipid content of organisms. Lastly we have diving support in the form of tanks and BCs as well as lab vehicles to get to and from work sites.

Projects available for 2010

Honours opportunities are not limited to the list provided below. If you have an idea that falls within the research areas of the lab, please arrange to come and speak with us.

1. Evaluating the role of seal predation on fishes in and outside of marine reserves

Co-supervised by:

  • Dr. Brendan Kelaher, NSW Marine Parks
  • Dr. Melinda Coleman, NSW Marine Parks
Evaluating the role of seal predation on fishes in and outside of marine reserves

The recently created Batemans Bay Marine Park (NSW) contains zones which allow for multiple levels of protection from anthropogenic impacts associated with recreational and commercial use of the aquatic resources within them. There is an expectation that areas protected from fishing will, over time, contain a higher biomass of fish when compared to areas in which fishing is allowed. However humans are not the only top predators in this system and the degree to which these effects are realized may depend upon the impact of the large population of fur seals which inhabit some areas of the park. This project will look at the impact of fur seal feeding on fish populations inside and outside of no-fishing zones around iconic Montague Island which is home to a large colony of New Zealand fur seals and along adjacent stretches of coast where fur seals are less common. Impact will be assessed primarily via the deployment of baited remote underwater video (BRUV) devices and subsequent analysis of recorded images but may also include behavioral observations of seal feeding.

Evaluating the role of seal predation on fishes in and outside of marine reserves

The student involved with this project will spend 1-2 weeks down at Bateman's bay during the summer and possibly again during the winter helping the marine park personnel to deploy and retrieve the BRUVs from small boats. They will learn to identify the local fish species during these trips and will then analyze the video to quantify the fish communities in different areas. The student will also work on techniques to observe and quantify seal feeding and will spend time along the coast and possibly on Montague Island conducting observations. This field work will involve living and operating in remote locations (including camping out) and work aboard small water craft.

2. Understanding linkages between environment and growth in settlement stage fishes

Understanding linkages between environment and growth in settlement stage fishes

Most benthic fishes have a larval stage during which individuals float or swim in an open water environment and eventually settle to benthic habitat. The ability of fish to survive the array of competitors and predators experienced after settlement will depend in part upon the quality of the environment encountered during the larval phase. Primary indicators of quality are the availability of food and the appropriateness of the water temperatures encountered for optimal growth. Understanding how these factors affect larval and subsequent post-settlement survival is difficult due to the inability to track larval fishes in the pelagic environment. Recent dispersal modeling techniques have allowed us to estimate possible dispersal pathways however narrowing down these possibilities is still required. One technique that will allow this requires that we understand exactly how variations in water temperature and food availability affect the growth of fish. Fortunately fish have earstones called otoliths in which daily rings are laid down and the thickness of these rings directly relates to the amount of growth during the day it was laid down. This gives us the opportunity to manipulate environmental factors and study to what degree and how quickly these changes are reflected in the otoliths. The student undertaking this project will spend time learning about the pre and post-settlement biology of many of our coastal fishes and will spend time collecting fish from various habitats either on snorkel or from the surface with nets. These fish will be transported to our marine lab facilities at the Sydney Institute of Marine Sciences (SIMS) for controlled lab studies. The student will also learn all about otolith analysis using light microscopy and image analysis.

3. Understanding the processes of seasonal persistence of tropical marine fishes which recruit to temperate latitudes


Every summer tropical reef fishes settle to habitats all along the coast of NSW but typically fail to survive the winter where water temperatures get much colder than in their normal range on the reef. However as water temperatures increase due to climate change, the possibility for year round residence of these fish is becoming more likely. While we understand the physiological limits of many of these fishes, we know little of the ecological interactions that ultimately determine their ability to survive the winter. This project will combine field and lab work to look at the survival and health of cohorts of settling tropical reef fish in Sydney that arrive at different times during the season. It will allow us to understand if the health of larval tropical fishes differs depending upon when they arrive and how this affects their survival after they settle. Survival of cohorts will be assessed by closely monitoring arriving cohorts of tropical fish via regular snorkel surveys at Shelly Beach in Manly throughout the summer (Dec - May). The student will also collect a sample of fish from each cohort (from nearby sites) at several times during the summer in order to look at their growth rates and body condition. By comparing results from different times the student will be able to track the progression of selective mortality based upon these traits of fish health for cohorts which arrive at different times during the season (and are therefore in slightly different thermal environments). In combination this information will inform research into the processes occurring that may allow range expansions of these tropical fishes under climate change.