Honours Project Opportunities in Subtidal Marine Ecology

Back to Honours Projects

Lab Members

Will Figueira (Senior Lecturer)
Renata Ferrari (Post-doctoral fellow)
Bob Hunt (PG student)
Michael Carsley (PG student)

Interested students should contact Dr. Will Figueira via email at

Research on marine ecology

Research on fish population ecology

The focus of research within my lab tends to be on the population ecology of marine fishes but students and post-docs engage in research on a wide variety of projects in the broad area of subtidal marine ecology including fisheries management, deep sea research and biodiversity assessment using a variety of in-situ data collection techniques including automated underwater vehicles, baited remote underwater video and towed video. There is a strong quantitative component to the work in the lab with projects using a variety of modeling tools including biophysical transport modeling, matrix population modeling, trophic biomass modeling and habitat surrogacy modeling.

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 Biology Labs located in the Edgeworth David Geology Building (A11).

Lab facilities

The Fish Population Ecology Lab has 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. We have a recently renovated seawater lab with six independent recirculation systems as well as access to the flow-through seawater systems at the Sydney Institute of Marine Sciences. 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 2013

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. Applied Research for adaptive management of marine ecosystems: a case study at the Solitary Islands Marine Park

Supervisors: Will Figueira, Maria Byrne, Renata Ferrari


In marine ecosystems benthic dynamics often determine the health of a habitat, influencing the abundance and biodiversity of marine organisms and the local productivity of a particular site. One of the most common management strategies to improve and maintain the biodiversity of marine ecosystems is the implementation of marine reserves with Sanctuary Zones (SZ) and General Use Zones (GUZ). Once a marine reserve has been established it is crucial to keep track of the changes across time and space in order to assess and if necessary adapt the management interventions. This is commonly done through a stratified monitoring program that compares the health of sites across time and against sites under different management strategies. This process is targeted at identifying spatial and temporal trends in key variables of a habitat, such as benthic dynamics, fish abundance and diversity.

This project will identify differences in diversity and abundance of marine organisms between SZ and GUZ in the Solitary Islands Marine Park, in New South Wales and evaluate the influence of habitat complexity on any observed patterns. It is part of a larger project that is analyzing the effect of different management strategies along the NSW coast at multiple sites and aims to identify both spatial and temporal trends in benthic dynamics. Thus it has great potential to extend into a larger postgraduate project.


Benthic organisms in deep areas will be assessed primarily via the deployment of Automated Underwater Vehicles (AUV) equipped with multiple sensors including stereoscopic video cameras. The honors student will have the opportunity to participate in deployments. Data processing and analysis will be the student’s responsibility, and while he/she will be supervised and guided he/she is expected to learn advanced statistical analysis. Thus a strong background in statistics would be desired, but is not required. The work produced by this project will include state-of-the-art technology to obtain 3D models of underwater habitats and accurate measures of structural complexity. Thus has the potential for a great publication. The student will have the opportunity to be involved in applied science that is directly used in conservation and has implications in management decisions. The student will get the opportunity to work and learn directly from managers, government officials and researchers, gaining a wide multidisciplinary experience that will open many doors.

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

Supervisor: Will Figueira


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. You will look closely at the behavior of these fish as it affects daily survival and there may be an opportunity to conduct comparative work with fish from the southern Great Barrier Reef (at One Tree Island) and in Sydney.


This project 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 and what is the role of behavior in these processes. 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. Behavioural responses to competition and predation threats will be monitored in the lab and field and compared to fish from the Southern Great Barrier Reef. In combination this information will inform research into the processes occurring that may allow range expansions of these tropical fishes under climate change.

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

Supervisor: Will Figueira


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.

Understanding linkages between environment and growth in settlement stage fishes

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.