Hugo Harrison_Coral Sea.jpg

Having grown up amongst French vineyards of the Loire Valley, diving the coral reefs of the world seemed an unlikely profession. Now a DECRA Fellow in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Science, my research is leading me to some of the most remote reefs of the Australian continent.

Despite the many palpable privileges of living in France, I moved to Edinburgh, Scotland where I earned a Bachelor’s degree with Honours in Genetics. Always a keen explorer, my greatest discovery during this time was that an underwater world had been left largely unexplored. This was a turning point, which lead me to team up with Dr Stephen Simpson, then NERC Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, and a group of 24 undergraduate students for a research expedition to the southern coast of Oman.

The objective of the expedition was to determine whether coral reef fish larvae could disperse between isolated reefs separated by over 400 km of sandy shores. The findings of the study depict the epic voyage that anemone fish must endure to colonise new habitats and the potential for connectivity in marine systems.

I quickly realised my studies in molecular genetics could address long-standing questions in marine science and pursued a PhD at James Cook University with Geoff Jones and in co-tutelle with Serge Planes at Centre de Recherches Insulaires et Observatoire de l’Environment in Perpignan. My thesis research combined large-scale field studies with novel genetic approaches to address critical questions regarding the effective management of coral reef ecosystems in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Today, my research is best described as the molecular ecology and evolution of coral reefs, with emphasis on the population dynamics of coral reef fishes including: the dispersal ecology and recruitment dynamics of larval fishes, the reproductive success of adult fishes, and the role of hybridisation in speciation. Much of the theory in this field was introduced in the 1980’s and developed over subsequent decades but empirical demonstrations of theoretical concepts have been somewhat hindered by the difficulty of tracking larval offspring in situ. Despite a late adoption of molecular tools in marine ecology, they have rapidly become invaluable in addressing this significant knowledge gap.

My current DECRA project aims to understand the processes that shape dispersal patterns in marine seascapes.  Over the next 3 years, I will be leading research expeditions to remote reefs of the Coral Sea, which are some of the most pristine and isolated reefs that surround the Australian continent. Teaming up with colleagues in the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Science, KAUST in Saudi Arabia and CSIRO in Hobart, I hopes to develop a mechanistic understanding of connectivity in coral reef ecosystems and establish management strategies that enhance conservation measures and fishery objectives.