New paper: where did Nemo go?

Photo of orange clownfish courtesy of Simon Thorrold.

Baby fish float on ocean currents. So where do they go? Our paper out this week in Current Biology uses DNA to answer that question for clownfish in Papua New Guinea, and about 20 km is the simple answer. What’s especially exciting is that we show how very common and easily measured population genetic patterns called “isolation by distance” accurately measure the larval dispersal process. We validated our answer against observations of dispersal for hundreds of individual larvae (an incredibly time-consuming endeavor). Our findings help open the door to applying the isolation by distance method to a much wider range of marine species.

This work was the result of an exciting collaboration with Serge Planes, Geoff Jones, Simon Thorrold, Pablo Saenz-Agudelo, Michael Berumen, Michael Bode, and others.

Welcoming Wijnand Boonstra, Katrina Catalano, Sarah Gignoux-Wolfsohn, and Emily Moberg!

The lab is busy these days, and we’re excited to welcome a visitor, a new Ph.D. student, and two new postdocs!

  • Wijnand Boonstra is a sociologist from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, visiting to work on fisheries dynamics related to our NSF Coastal SEES project and GreenMar.
  • Katrina Catalano just finished her B.S. at Boston University and a field season in Belize. She’s interested in larval dispersal and reef fish metapopulation dynamics.
  • Sarah Gignoux-Wolfsohn is joining us from a Ph.D. at Northeastern University and will be working on population genomics and white-nose syndrome in bats with Brooke Maslo on our USFWS-funded project.
  • Emily Moberg is joining our Coastal SEES project to work on bioeconomic models of fishery responses to climate change in collaboration with Eli Fenichel and Simon Levin. She just finished a Ph.D. in the MIT/WHOI program.

See our updated People page!

PhD and postdoctoral positions in metapopulation dynamics and population genomics

PhD and postdoctoral positions in metapopulation dynamics and population genomics

One postdoctoral position and one PhD position are available in the Pinsky Lab at Rutgers University to study demography and metapopulation dynamics in clownfishes. The research is based in the Philippines and builds from six years of demographic and population genomic data. Key themes across both positions include understanding mechanisms of persistence in ecological networks by integrating massively parrallel DNA sequencing with ecological field studies. Both positions will also work closely with Will White at U. North Carolina – Wilmington on theoretical and modeling aspects of the research. Research in the Pinsky Lab broadly uses empirical data, mathematical models, and population genomics to study global change in the coastal ocean.

One (1) postdoc position is open:

1) Metapopulation dynamics postdoc: The postdoc will lead data analysis, integration, and modeling to test hypotheses about self-persistence and network-persistence in coral reef fishes. The research will be based primarily around existing data from mark-recapture studies, parentage studies, ecological surveys, and other sources, though opportunities also exist to collect new data. This position has two years of funding.

One (1) graduate assistant position is open, preferably for a Ph.D. degree:

1) Metapopulation dynamics graduate assistant: The GA will lead research on marine demography using field observations and experiments combined with population genomics. Possible topics include, but are not limited to, dispersal, density-dependence, reproduction, survival, thermal physiology, species interactions, and landscape ecology. Projects could involve a mix of field work, genomic wet lab work, bioinformatics, and ecological modeling. This position has five (5) years of guaranteed funding.

Across both positions, the ideal candidates will be skilled with data analysis, statistics, ecological modeling, and databases (or a strong aptitude for learning these skills, in the case of the GA). Applicants with evidence of creativity, productivity, strong oral and written communication abilities, and enthusiasm are especially encouraged to apply, particularly those that bring a new perspective, new ideas, or a new skillset to the team. For postdoctoral applications, a promising record of publication is highly valued. The successful applicants will be independent, motivated problem solvers who communicate well and enjoy working in a collaborative setting. Rutgers and the surrounding area provide an exciting intellectual environment, including the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources; the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences; the Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences; the Genome Cooperative; the NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab; the Princeton Environmental Institute; the Center for Discrete Mathematics and Theoretical Computer Science; and beyond.

**Application process**
The postdoc start date is flexible and the position is open until filled. The GA will begin in summer or fall 2017. Review of postdoc applications will begin on October 1, 2016 and will continue on a rolling basis. Review of GA applications will continue on a rolling basis until December 2016.

Interested postdoc candidates should submit: 1) a one-­page cover letter that describes which position(s) they are applying for (and preferred position if applying to more than one) and their preferred start date, 2) a two-­page research statement describing their relevant background and anticipated research approach to the problem they would be addressing, 3) a CV, and 4) the names and contact information of three other scientists familiar with their work.

GA applicants should include a 1-2 page cover letter describing their interests, CV, a recent transcript, GRE scores, and contact information for three references. Qualified GA candidates will be contacted and encouraged to apply to the graduate program in either Ecology & Evolution ( or Oceanography (, depending on student interests. Ph.D. applications to Rutgers are due in December.

Please submit all materials to with “Postdoc application 2016” or “Graduate application 2016” as the subject.

Malin Pinsky
Assistant Professor
Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources
Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, NJ 08901

Welcome, Jordan!

Jordan Holtswarth has joined us for the summer as part of the RIOS program, a NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates. She comes from the University of Missouri and will be helping analyze data on clownfish reproduction.

Come see us at Ocean Sciences!

OSM_2016Nearly the whole lab and many collaborators will be at Ocean Sciences in New Orleans next week talking about our work!



Ph.D. position open in coral reef metapopulation dynamics

IMG_1011_modWe’re looking for good Ph.D. applicants! We have a Ph.D. position open to research marine metapopulation dynamics using field work combined with population genomics. Our research group has interests in marine ecology, population genetics/genomics, climate change, biogeography, dispersal, and fisheries. Student projects will generally overlap with these areas, but independent thinking and new ideas are strongly encouraged.

Potential projects include (but are not limited to) questions of metapopulation dynamics, demography, dispersal, local adaptation, thermal physiology, and implications for marine reserve design. We do extensive fieldwork in the Philippines with clownfish, and excellent opportunities exist to build from four years of existing data. Projects would likely involve a mix of field work, genomic wet lab work, bioinformatics, and ecological modeling. Enthusiasm, drive, excellent written and oral communication abilities, and strong quantitative skills are necessary. Scientific diving certification is encouraged, but training can occur during the graduate program.

Interested candidates should send an email to describing their motivation and research interests along with a CV, GPA, GRE scores (if available), and three references. In-progress applications to external fellowships are viewed favorably. Qualified candidates will be contacted and encouraged to apply to the graduate program in either Ecology & Evolution or Oceanography, depending on student interests. This is a funded position, though Ph.D. students will be encouraged to apply for external fellowships.

Change Is In The [Water]

From Patrick Flanagan, Ph.D student in Oceanography, while doing fieldwork in the Philippines last week:

IMG_2060_smThere’s not much to listen to while scuba diving… mostly your own bubbles, and the Rice Krispies pops and crackles of coral-munching fish and disgruntled snapping shrimp. If they made underwater headphones, I’d totally be rocking out like Star Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy, or getting into my Steve Zissou groove, while I spend my hours searching for and tagging anemones and clownfish.

But the quiet found, as you slowly glide over vast expanses of reef, pausing to observe an odd creature or jot down some notes, is definitely good for a little meditation.

Specifically, thinking about change.

I used to worry a lot about change. When I worked on Coho salmon restoration and marine science education in California, I was exasperated with the plight of the dwindling endangered fish, frustrated with the amount of pollution, habitat destruction, and overfishing I saw, despondent over the swelling tidal wave of climate change coming to natural systems everywhere. It was paralyzing, and heartbreaking. I cared so much that it made me not want to care any more, which was contrary to my nature.

I decided to take a small step outside of my feelings about change, and instead put on my scientist hat and start thinking about change. I did my best to try to observe how the natural world is changing, instead of placing positive or negative values on those changes.

Change can be scary. Sometimes it’s exciting. Sometimes it is overwhelming, or invigorating, but it can just as easily go unnoticed. Depending on your perspective, change can be historically cataclysmic, or it can be mosquito-fart inconsequential. But change is inevitable, especially in nature. And nature, like a scientist, doesn’t place value on things.

This has turned out to be very important here in the Philippines.

The reefs we’re studying are not what they once were. It’s clear from the intricate and expansive algae-covered structures we see on every dive: these were once vibrant reefs, populated with countless species of thriving corals and fish. Over the last several decades, with overfishing, agricultural runoff, pollution, dynamiting, invasive species, tropical storms and climate change, these reefs have been hit hard. Much of the old reef is now a mossy brownish-green; ancient ruins in an overgrown forest. Even the banded sea snakes have become bandless pea snakes. And don’t worry about sharks: on these reefs, you’d be hard-pressed to find a fish bigger than your hand.

But it’s not dead–far from it. Life continues here, in between the rubble of blasted coral, the spiderwebs of discarded fishing net, the plastic bags and diapers. For one, it is a fantastic place to live if you’re a species of encrusting algae, or one of the many invisible jellyfish floating about, stinging unsuspecting marine biologists.

It’s also still a place where anemones can do well, and they and the soft corals are surrounded by a still diverse set of fishes, crabs, nudibranchs, worms, sea stars, and so much more. And the most bizarre creature I’ve ever almost-accidentally-touched: a six foot-long sea cucumber that looked like a swimming pool lane marker mated with a monster from Tremors.

I don’t know what these reefs looked like a hundred years ago, but I can make educated guesses.  A before-and-after photo would probably be a punch to the gut.

Or, it could be historically inconsequential.

Twenty thousand years ago, global sea level was nearly 400 feet lower. Where these troubled reefs stand would instead have been the lush foothills of the stunning mountains that tower over this island. The nearest coral reefs would have been on the other side of Leyte, lining the edge of the Philippine Trench.

Ten thousand years from now, sea level will likely have risen such that these waters would be far too deep for any light-dependent coral polyp to even consider living here. As they have for hundreds of millions of years of Earth’s history, coral reefs will move up and down the peripheries of islands, following the shallow waters of the millenial tides.

Yes, it is hard on individuals, and on many generations of corals and the plethora of organisms, including Filipino fishermen, that depend on them. And on the scale of a human lifetime, this change is dramatic.

But ultimately, this is just change, on a larger scale–not good, not bad, just change.

Malin and his colleagues recently published a paper in Science outlining the trend of disappearing ocean species, pointing to a developing ocean counterpart to the Anthropocene Extinction Event well underway on land. This is change on a level seen only a few times in the history of the planet, Through our actions, our inactions, and our unintended consequences, we’re in the running to get a Most Change Caused trophy, like the one given to the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs.

At this point, it looks like our dependence on fossil fuels (like the leaded gasoline they sell in Coke bottles on the side of the road here) is far from dwindling. And our best models are starting to show that, even if all carbon production stopped tomorrow, global temperatures will continue to rise into the next century.

Change is inevitable. Perhaps, then, the question should shift away from “How can we stop (or reverse) it?” to “How are we going to adapt to it?” What do we want our oceans to look like in a hundred years? If change is going to happen, can we influence how it affects us and the other species we depend on, or will we just adapt our livelihoods, like the reefs, to the rising and falling tides?

There’s not a lot of options for food here… it’s mostly fried chicken, bananas, and white rice. I’ve tried the tiny, two-bite filleted-and-fried fish they serve in the cafeteria here. They’re a bit too bony for my taste.

I wonder what fish we’ll have to eat when I’m 100 years old.

I hope, at least, we’ll have waterproof headphones by then.

Dive slates become plates

It’s hard to believe that we’ve already been in the Philippines for over a week!IMG_2359_sm

Four fifths of the Pinsky Lab is here to conduct a census of clownfish and their host anemones. After two full days of travel by plane, ferry and van, we set to work surveying the coral reefs on the western coast of central Leyte. Surveys are conducted on SCUBA and we work in teams to tag all of the anemones and note the clownfish. Some sites have tons of anemones and others are very sparse with terrible visibility. Each dive is like a 2-3 hour Easter egg hunt and it’s our job to find all of the anemones before we run out of air. Besides a lot of anemones and clownfish, we’ve also seen clownfish eggs, a diverse array of fishes and an uncanny number of sea snakes.

IMG_2341_smWe have hired a boat to take us to our sites, which makes it very convenient for diving. It also means that we spend most of the day on or in the water, including eating our rice and fried chicken lunches off of dive slates and fins! In addition, commuting by boat allows us to admire the spectacular deep valleys and sheer green cliffs of Leyte that are dotted with long ribbon-like waterfalls. Often times, we arrive back to our hostel just as the sun is setting. With a coconut palm lined coastline, it is incredibly picturesque and a beautiful way to round off a long day of diving.

– by Jennifer HoeyIMG_2230_sm_modIMG_2334_sm