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Research-led Field Course to Tobago

Tobago panaramic

Tobago field workEvery summer we run an undergraduate field course to Man-O-War Bay, Tobago, to explore coral reef biology. Coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems, rivaling that of tropical rainforests. They cover only 0.2% of the World’s oceans, and yet offer habitat for 25% of marine species. These evolutionary hotspots also provide coastal protection, economic stability (largely through fishing and tourism) and are one of the most beautiful habitats on Earth. Yet, 70% of coral reefs may be lost over the next 20-40 years, due to overfishing, pollution, erosion, climate change and poorly managed tourism. This course provides an introduction to the ecology of coral reefs, experience of survey methods, an insight into the problems facing conservationists and field scientists, and perhaps most importantly opportunities for student research projects. We offer the chance to learn first-hand the joys and tribulations of research, whilst also developing transferable skills that will assist students not just in their final year, but in their future careers.

 Tobago houseThe course is based in the small fishing village of Charlotteville, located in Northern Tobago. The island is just 28 miles by 8 miles and is considered by many as the last unspoilt Caribbean paradise, even though Southern Tobago is very much a tourist honey pot. Inland, Tobago boasts the oldest tropical rain forest reserve (established in 1776), but the island is probably best known for its mangroves, sandy beaches and coral reefs. Along side undergraduate teaching we run a series of research-led projects; currently we are most excited about cleaner-client interactions.

Tobago parrot fishCleaning symbiosis is a common mutualistic relationship among tropical reef communities; the removal of ectoparasites, diseased or damaged tissue benefits the ‘cleaner’, which gains nutrition, and the client fish, whose ectoparasite load is reduced. In the Caribbean, common cleaner species include the Sharknose Goby (Elacatinus evelynae), an obligate cleaner, and the French Angelfish (Pomacanthus paru), a facultative cleaner. The French Angelfish only cleans whilst a juvenile, and a small proportion of its diet is a product of cleaning. Hence, its role in keeping the reef healthy and relatively free of parasites has been overlooked. We are investigating whether (i) French Angelfish carry out significant numbers of cleaning events and (ii) if they attract larger numbers and more frequent client visits to cleaning stations where they (and other cleaners) are present