22 January 2015

Fighting fish may drive global biodiversity patterns on coral reefs

Research grant

Tropical fish the size of your hand might help explain biodiversity at a global scale. A new project seeks to reveal how competition between species can help us to understand the distribution of life on Earth, using coral reef butterflyfishes. Assistant Professor Sally Keith from the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate at the University of Copenhagen has received 3.9 million kroner from VILLUM FONDEN for her research.

Biodiversity is distributed across the world as distinct geographical regions with their own specific complement of plants and animals. Exactly how these boundaries arise and are maintained remains unsolved. The majority of research so far has focused on the environment or physical barriers as the cause but these factors often fail to provide a satisfactory explanation. The crucial missing link to understanding these boundaries might lie in the role of interactions, such as competition and predation amongst species.


Butterflyfish credit: Sally Keith

With the research grant, Sally Keith will observe butterflyfishes competing in their coral reef habitat across the Indo-Pacific. Specifically, she will be SCUBA diving to study the behaviour of the fish in four narrow contact zones where geographical regions with distinct species groups overlap: Hawaii, Bali, Christmas Island and the Socotra archipelago. The data will then be used in state-of-the-art statistical, mathematical, and computer modelling techniques to tackle this question.

 “Butterflyfishes fight over corals, which are their main source of food. I think that this competition could be the force that maintains the difference in species between geographical regions - species that are too similar cannot survive in the same place. By mapping their competitive behaviour at contact zones, I will test this idea, and reveal how strongly small scale interactions between individual fishes can “scale-up” to influence global patterns of biodiversity”, says Sally Keith from the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate. 

It is the fourth time that VILLUM FONDEN is supporting a large number of young researchers and postdocs at Danish Universities through their ‘Young Investigator Programme’. The aim is to support especially talented young researchers in Denmark in science and technology with ambitions of establishing their own, independent research profiles. The grants are awarded on January 23rd at the official ceremony.   


Assistant Professor Sally Keith
Mobile: +45 53 61 35 65
Email: sally.a.keith@gmail.com