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Biodiversity Blog


Meet Stengl-Wyer Scholar: Christopher Hemingson

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Chris lays a transect tape along the reef crest. This is one of the most common techniques used to quantify the cover of various substrates (e.g. corals, sand, rubble, etc.). Photo credit: Victor Huertas

Christopher Hemingson is one of our 2022 Stengl-Wyer Scholars who is working with Dr. Simon J. Brandl at the Marine Science Institute. As part of the Stengl-Wyer Endowment, the Stengl-Wyer Postdoctoral Scholars Program provides up to three years of independent support for talented postdoctoral researchers in the broad area of the diversity of life and/or organisms in their natural environments.

Christopher took some time to speak with us about his research as an evolutionary ecologist working with coral reef ecosystems.

Tell us where you came from before UT, and what you studied then?

I am a Texan native, born and raised in Houston. After finishing my Bachelor of Science at Texas A&M University, I took a big leap and moved to Townsville, Australia for graduate school where I completed both my Master’s and PhD at James Cook University. JCU is situated at the doorstep of the Great Barrier Reef and is renowned for its coral reef research. During my PhD, I began to explore some of the evolutionary drivers of some specific colors and patterns on coral reef fishes. As I was new to this field and it was not my supervisor’s expertise, I had to learn a lot on my own as I “found my feet”. I gained a passion for reef ecosystems during my time in Australia at JCU. Thus, when I applied to the Stengl-Wyer Scholars program, I proposed a project that continues to work on coral reefs; building upon the research I conducted during the end of my PhD.

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Eviota melasma, a small cryptobenthic fish that is plentiful on the GBR. Part of Chris’s PhD work studied these fishes (amongst others) to understand how their coloration was related to coral cover. (Photo credit: Victor Huertas)

You study coral reef systems to understand their evolution. Can you tell us how you go about this?

I am specifically interested in trying to understand what factors were important for causing reef-dwelling organisms (primarily fishes) to evolve such a vast array of different colors and patterns, and importantly, how this may be changing as reefs change. Colors and patterns are a pretty tricky field to study, as their description and measurement is highly dependent on the visual capabilities of the viewer. Therefore, you must ensure that you are using tools that can objectively measure these features without imposing human bias. I use high resolution digital imaging to capture color and pattern data from fishes. We do this by collecting the fish, bringing them to the lab, and photographing each specimen in exquisite detail using a highly standardized protocol. Thus, with these standardized images, we can measure different aspects of each fish’s coloration and make comparisons between species. Much of the work that I will be doing in my tenure as a Stengl-Wyer Scholar will use new ways of measuring coloration for entire communities. So instead of just analyzing the appearance of a single species in isolation, I will use techniques that consider the collective appearance of multiple species simultaneously. Doing so lets us measure how colorful or drab a certain community is, which then gives us the ability to try and understand what local biotic (like the composition of corals in that area) and abiotic factors (like water clarity) are important for determining that community’s appearance. Tackling these questions will help us better understand what aspects of coral reefs led their resident fishes to evolve such amazing colors and patterns.

What got you excited to study coral reefs?

Coral reefs are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems found on Earth. Naturally, this incredible biodiversity is mirrored in an equally stunning diversity of appearances. As someone whose research focus is trying to understand the drivers and functions of various colors and patterns found on organisms, coral reefs were a natural point of interest. Broadly speaking, there are some general “rules” that govern what an organism looks like: for example, blending into your environment to avoid predators, or standing out to attract a mate. From this perspective, the fishes that reside on coral reefs seem to be operating by a different set of rules than those from other ecosystems. This unique aspect of coral reefs makes them very exciting to study in my opinion.

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In Australia, Chris poses for a photo atop a small ridge where Lizard Island’s lagoon and reef are clearly seen in the background.

Does Texas present a unique situation, challenge or benefit for your research?

Texas certainly presents a very unique situation for my research. First, being based at the Marine Science Institute means I am surrounded by other researchers working in the marine environment. Thus, there is great potential to learn, share, and collaborate with other marine researchers. I am excited by the opportunity to work closely with other researchers that have different expertise than my own which will allow me to answer more unique questions that I would not be able to do in isolation. Although the Texas coast does not have coral reefs per se, Port Aransas and Texas in general is only a short plane flight from many tropical nations in the Caribbean. Additionally, many of the oil rigs and platforms that dot the south Texas coastline are important habitat for tropical and sub-tropical species. Thus, I may try and incorporate the study of reef fishes using these structures which are present in our own backyard.

How will being a Stengl-Wyer Scholar help advance your work?

The benefits of being a Stengl-Wyer Scholar are manyfold. First, this program provides fellows with a large amount of independence; allowing me to develop and refine my research skills as I see fit. I applied with a specific project that I had developed so I feel an immense amount of ownership of my research as it was something that I independently conceived. The financial resources provided through the SW foundation are also extremely supportive. Not only are scholars paid a substantial wage (which is a systemic issue for many postdoctoral positions around the world), but we are also allotted an annual research stipend that covers the cost of field trips, purchasing gear and equipment, and attending conferences. You truly do feel like an independent academic in this position. Last, through the advent of our monthly luncheons and seminars, we have the chance to talk with other postdocs and graduate students who are in similar positions. This makes for a very collaborative and supportive network. I am proud to be a Stengl-Wyer Scholar and to represent such a prestigious fellowship.

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