Coral Reef Ecology Laboratory - Professor Mark Ian McCormick

Mark McCormack Reef Fish Ecology

Present students



Mitchell Baskys -  The influence of parental predator exposure on offspring performance and risk assessment

Co-supervisor: Jen Atherton (JCU)

Research suggests that embryos are able to learn about predatory threats while still in the egg, which combined with the knowledge they may also receive from their parents through maternal effects, can increase their chance of survival. There is an increasing amount of interest being shown in this field of research, and yet to date there is no known research on the prevalence of these phenomena in coral reef ecosystems. Damselfish species (Family: Pomacentridae) provide an excellent opportunity to study embryonic effects and transgenerational processes on coral reefs, as there are a number of species which will breed in laboratory aquaria and their offspring can be reared due to short larval durations.  This research aimed to: determine the influence of parental predator exposure on the behaviour of offspring; explore whether parental predator exposure affects escape performance of offspring.





Brittany Arvizu - Influence of predator risk on prey morphology and escape response

Co-supervisors: Justin Rizzari (JCU)

The non-consumptive (fear) effects of predators can be much greater than their consumptive effects on the community of prey they influence. This Masters minor project experimentally
explores the trait-mediated effects of predators on the body morphology and fast-start response of Pomacentrus amboinensis.




Ryan Ramasamy- The effects of neophobia on coral reef fishes

Co-supervisors: Maud Ferrari and Doug Chivers (Univ Saskatchewan)

Neophobia is one way to avoid deadly encounters with novel predators as organisms become frightened by everything ‘new’ in their environment. This allows organisms which are naïve to the predators in their environment to safeguard themselves from predators through exhibiting conservative behaviour. This project will begin to shed light upon the effects of neophobia in the marine environment. This studiy proposes to: (1) examine the survivability of neophobic fish compared to controls; (2) examine how the escape responses of neophobic fish differ from control counterparts


Eric Fisher - Structure and behaviour of aggregations of large coral reef fishes
Co-supervisors: Howard Choat (JCU), Mike Cappo (AIMS)

Fishes often form large aggregations at specific areas on reefs to perform vital task including spawning, feeding and the maintenance of social organisation.  Whenever fishes aggregate they become more vulnerable to exploitation as harvest become more economical.  Unfortunately, this has often meant that fishes are exploited when spawning, leading to the loss of not only adult biomass but their contribution to the next generation.  Because of the importance of these aggregations to the ecology of species and their ease of over exploitation, resource managers have recently started to limit access to these important areas with spatial or temporal fishing closures.  While many researchers and managers acknowledge the importance of fish aggregation sites, the ecology of these areas and their importance to community processes and reef energetics is poorly understood. The proposed study will evaluate the importance of fish aggregation sites to the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem.





Taryn Laubenstein - Adaptive potential of coral reef fishes to ocean acidification

Principal supervisor: Phil Munday (JCU)

Though acidic waters induce negative behavioral responses in reef fishes, populations may persist in future acidic conditions through genetic evolution.  This project seeks to determine the potential for evolutionary rescue in three parts.  First, it will examine patterns of individual variation in sensitivity to increasing carbon dioxide, as well as the consistency of these patterns over time.  Heritable variation is a prerequisite for evolution, so its presence indicates a potential for adaptive evolution.  Second, the project will investigate whether there are tradeoffs between physiological and behavioral tolerance to high carbon dioxide.  If tradeoffs exist, they could constrain the pace and direction of adaptation.  Finally, the project will create a general sensitivity model to estimate how quickly populations must adapt to avoid extinction.


Mike Jarrold - Effects of natural variation in CO2, and rising CO2, on coral reef fishes

Principal supervisor: Phil Munday (JCU)

This project will used a series of integrated laboratory and field experiments to test how both the duration and magnitude of fluctuations in CO2, in combination with increased temperature, affect a range of reef fish species across different families. To assess their impacts, I will use a range of well-established behavioural and sensory traits that are sensitive to CO2 exposure, as well as standard life-history and physiological traits. By using naturally relevant CO2 levels, the results from this project will greatly improve our understanding on how reef fish communities will respond to rapidly increasing CO2 levels.


Jacob Eurich - Processes underlying niche partitioning and ecological versatility in a guild of coral reef damselfishes

Co-supervisor: Geoff Jones

This project will used a series of integrated laboratory and field Territorial damselfish play an integral role in the structure of coral reefs through their role as small-bodied consumers and aggressive holders of benthic space. Their behaviours influence the benthic composition and potentially have an important role in modifying the agents of habitat degradation. This project explores individuals’ ecological versatility and the role of competition, habitat use and resource partitioning for territorial damselfish along a 5° - 23° latitudinal gradient. This project will provide insight into how complex marine communities may respond to future elevated temperatures predicted under climate change.

Research video:



Donny Warren- Effects of developmental thermal acclimation on competition in two coral reef damselfish

Global warming is an imminent threat to Earth’s ecosystems and will have a large impact on community structure. As surface temperatures rise, species will be forced to adapt to a warmer climate to maintain competition for resources. However, not all species possess equal ability for thermal acclimation. By studying capacity for thermal acclimation and how it affects competition, we can gain understanding of what the future community structure may be. Here I propose a behavioural study using two resource competitors, the damselfish Pomacentrus amboinensis and P. moluccensis, raised in a range of elevated temperatures to determine whether developmental thermal acclimation affects competition for shelter resource.


Megan Welch - Transgenerational effects of CO2 on behaviour
Principal supervisor: Phil Munday

Recent studies have shown that elevated levels of dissolved CO2 impact neurotransmitters, which directly affect the sensory system of tropical fishes. The way fishes respond to sensory cues is also impacted and has been shown to affect learning and predator recognition, which dramatically affects juvenile survival. This study will look at the extent to which fishes can adapt across generations to CO2 conditions to ameliorate the impacts of CO2 on behaviour.



Govinda Liénart - Temperature effects of chemically mediated predator-prey interactions
Co-supervisor: Maud Ferrari (University of Saskatchewan)

Understanding how temperature affects interaction strengths between prey and predator is of vital importance for predicting consequences of global warming for the stability of populations, communities and ecosystem processes. The overarching goal of this study will be to assess the effects of temperature on the chemically-mediated predator prey interactions in marine tropical fishes.


Davina Poulos - Prior residency effects and the dynamics of fish communities in a changing environment

Priority effects have a major influence on the dynamics of communities because most organisms live in age or size structured communities. New individuals entering into the established community do so through recruitment of larval propagules or migration of later life stages. Many marine organisms also undergo ontogenetic shifts in habitat, so are faced often more than once with re-establishing habitat space in which to live. The pulsed nature of inputs into established communities means that prior residents can have a major influence on the establishment, success and survival of individuals entering a local community.


Jennifer Atherton- Effect of the threat of predation risk on offspring through maternal effects

This project examines whether and how information about the parental predator environment is conveyed to the offspring through a parental non-genetic influence.






Giverny Rodgers - Impacts of temperature on adaptability of a coral reef fish population close to its thermal limit
Co-supervisor: Phil Munday (JCU)


Peter Morse -  Mate choice and the evolution of sexually-selected traits and behaviours in the Lesser Blue-ringed Octopus
Principal supervisor Kyall Zenger (JCU); Additional co-supervisr: Christine Huffard (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute).

Many matings systems involve female choice, with females electing to mate with genetically superior and/or compatible males because this is likely to improve the future reproductive success of their offspring. This study aims to quantify potential courtship behaviour, modes of sexual selection, possible selective advantages of polyandry and how these processes might impact on the genetic structure of blue-ringed octopus populations off the coast of Fremantle, WA Australia. 




Maria del Mar Palacios- Controlling Mesopredators: importance of intraguild behavioural interactions in trophic cascades

Populations of large predators have been overfished and decimated from oceans worldwide. Loss of predation force (top down control) has triggered trophic cascades and phase shifts due to the explosion of small consumers that deplete resource prey species. Using a reef fish food web I will experimentally address how the effect of small predators on their resource prey can be modified by the fear response to top predators and by intra/ interspecific guild interactions. Understanding the behavioural interactions among predators and its impact on trophic cascades is indispensable to predict consequences of predator loss and design appropriate management policies on coral reefs.



Lauren Nadler - Influence of climate change on schooling behavior in coral reef fish

Co-supervisors: Philip Munday (JCU) & Paolo Domenici (Istituto per l'Ambiente Marino Costerier, Italy)

At least 50% of all fish species in the world’s oceans school at some point during their lives, providing a range of benefits including increased predator avoidance, energy savings, and foraging opportunities.  As a result, effective execution of this behavior is essential for the survival and success of many ecologically and economically important fish species.   Although schooling behavior is prolific on coral reefs, its dynamics have rarely been investigated in coral reef fish and no studies have yet examined how climate change may affect it.  Therefore, this project will work to fill the knowledge gaps on how these cooperative groups are established and maintained as well as in what ways it may be disrupted by increases in temperature and dissolved carbon dioxide by the end of the century. 

Lauren Nadler



Tove Lemberget – Importance of body condition and growth to the larval survival of a Caribbean lizardfish

The overall aim of this study is to investigate the influence of fish growth, body condition and environmental variables on the magnitude of larval replenishment in a tropical reef-associated fish. Replenishment in this study is measured as the magnitude of catches of late larval-stage fish caught in light-traps. Specifically, this study aims to:    1) Describe replenishment patterns of larval lizardfish (family Synodontidae) in the San Blas Archipelago, Panama, and investigate the relationship between replenishment and variation in environmental variables (temperature, solar radiation, rainfall, wind and turbulence); 2) Evaluate the growth-mortality hypothesis; 3) Investigate the relationship between nutritional condition of fish at capture and magnitude of replenishment; 4) Examine the relationship between fluctuating asymmetry between left and right otolith and temporal replenishment patterns; 5) Investigate the link between environmental variables (temperature, solar radiation, rainfall, wind and turbulence), growth, condition and magnitude of replenishment. 


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