The overall goal of our research is to understand the processes shaping marine biodiversity so that this information can inform marine conservation planning. We use a combination of  molecular genetics and ecological modeling in both field and laboratory settings to address how biotic and abiotic processes result in diversification of marine organisms. Importantly, we do this in the context of educational programs focused on building research capacity, both in the U.S. and abroad. Current research themes in the lab fall into the categories below.

Physical Drivers of Speciation in the Coral Triangle

120m copy
Coral Triangle Pleistocene Sea Levels

The Coral Triangle is the world’s most biologically diversity marine ecosystem. While this pattern has been known for decades, the origins of this amazing biodiversity remains an active area of debate. Although some have suggested that this region is a Center of Origin of marine biodiversity, many have criticized this hypothesis for lack of credible processes to promote speciation within the Coral Triangle. A major goal of our work is using comparative phylogeography to identify physical barriers to marine larval dispersal across the Coral Triangle that could promote speciation within this region.

Measuring Marine  Driversity Across Geographic and Taxonomic Scales

While the biodiversity gradients that shape the Coral Triangle are

An Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structure
An Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structure

well known, this pattern is based on data from a relatively small number of taxa, namely fish, corals and gastropods. We know comparatively little about diversity across most marine phyla, particularly fauna that live within the matrix of coral reefs. We know even less about microbial and viral diversity and how those may be related to metazoan diversity. Funded by an NSF PIRE grant,  a major current focus of our lab is using standardized protocols to assess biodiversity from viruses to metazoans across the Coral Triangle biodiversity hotspot, and understand how that diversity may be impacted by anthropogenic stressors like pollution and climate change.

Ecological Drivers of Speciation in the Coral Triangle

Although variance clearly contributes to diversification in the Coral Triangle, the high diversity of species may create novel ecological niches, resulting in ecological speciation. A recent focus of students in our lab is examining the role of ecological speciation in contributing to the formation of the Coral Triangle biodiversity hotspot.

Marine Conservation

Sembering et al 2014
DNA bar-coding of shark fin

Over-fishing, marine pollution and climate change pose a significant threat to marine environments world-wide. As marine ecosystems represent a major protein source for much of the world, support hundreds of millions of jobs, and are an important cultural heritage around the world, it is essential to use scientific research to promote the conservation and sustainability of these invaluable habitats. A  long-standing focus of our lab is to ensure that our data supports the conservation and sustainability or marine environments around the world.