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You are here: /main/research expeditions/August/September 2007/Rob Toonen Team

Interview with Dr. Rob Toonen and his inertebrate collections team

by Carlie Wiener

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Dr. Rob Toonen

Dr. Rob Toonen – Principal Investigator, HIMB

Dr. Toonen first gained interest in marine biology back in his childhood. Growing up in Canada, his father owned a pet store where he was infatuated with the aquarium animals. This is Dr. Toonen’s first trip to the Monument even though he has been actively doing research about the species found in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for the past four years.

Role on the research trip
Dr. Toonen will be leading the invertebrate collections on this trip. He is fascinated by the amazing habitat and hopes that his findings will help to conserve the area for future generations. He believes that in order to be a good steward we have to have a good understanding of how to conserve the area.

Favorite part about being at sea
Dr. Toonen loves being able to leave behind the day to day activities and experience the marine habitats he works with first hand. Being away from the everyday pressures and in the natural environment reminds Dr. Toonen of why he was first interested in the ocean.

What they are doing
There are three separate issues which the team will be addressing in their research. Invasive species are one of their concerns relating to movement patterns, where they came from and how to prevent their spread. Another aspect of the research will address life history of coral reef organisms both from an ecology and larval biology standpoint. This means, that scientists will look at individual coral growth and reproduction. Lastly, the group will also explore population genetics as it relates to the number of species exchanged through the Monument both as adults and offspring.

The group will be looking at 30 different reef invertebrates such as sea stars, cucumbers and slugs. Some corals will also be examined, in hopes of understanding the community links. To begin, the samples are statistically analyzed for the minimum amount needed to sample in order to minimize impact. Based on previous knowledge, the researchers will target areas where they are likely to find the species that they are looking for. Depending on the invertabrate, they can gather samples right under the water such as the case with hermit crabs. Other species such as sea cucumbers are brought to the surface and a small skin sample is taken for DNA analysis. The species are put back into the ocean exactly where they are found. In addition, the scientists hope to develop a spatial threat assessment map. This is done by overlaying threats such as pollution, global warming, ship impacts, research, coral disease, etc, onto layers of a map highlighting reef structure. By emphasize areas with the greatest impact it is hoped that the map will provide an idea of what sites to focus conservation on.

Dr. Rob Toonen Team
Dr. Rob Toonen's team planning a day's work. Credit Carlie Wiener

What they hope to find
Right now, one of the pressing questions is how related the Hawaiian archipelago is. It is hoped that by continuing this research in conjunction with other projects, the connectivity of the Monument to the main Hawaiian Islands will become known. Being able to understand connections will help scientists get a better understanding of how the individual marine communities rely on each other. Scientists need to know if preserving the reefs in the Monument will provide recruitment species for the main Hawaiian Islands.

How the science helps to inform Management
The Monument is a vast area, with a huge spatial scale including numerous scattered islands and atolls. It is essential to know how connected they are to each other, or if they stand alone. This information is important when looking at disaster prevention. How likely one area will substitute another or how the chain as a whole will relate to local effects is important. This survey work is not only being carried out in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands but in the main Hawaiian Islands, Johnston Atoll, and other close pacific regions. This will help scientists get a greater grasp on pathways and connections for previous and new species. If they can figure out how species are introduced then stronger management towards invasive species can be formed. Understanding population genetics is essential to properly conserve organisms in such an isolated archipelago. It is crucial to understand how the system interacts with itself.

Derek Smith – HIMB

Derek Smith

Derek grew up by the ocean in sunny California. He has always wanted a career in marine biology, and gets stir crazy if he is not close to an ocean at all times. This is Derek’s first trip to the Monument but has participated in other research expeditions in California and Florida. He currently works at Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology as a marine safety officer overseeing both the diving and boating operations. He enjoys his position as he gets to support numerous science projects giving him an opportunity to dive and work with many people. His interests lie in invertebrate biology, particularly sea hares. In fact, he is very proud of his newly found discovery of sea hares in Kaneohe Bay. He hopes to begin his PhD next year.

Role on the research trip
Derek will be assisting Dr. Rob Toonen in the collection of marine invertebrates. He is excited to be on this expedition and hopes to discover new invertebrate species. He is very interested in why certain species are located at one reef and not found at another similar location. Derek finds hope for the oceans through being able to see one of the last pristine, untouched areas. Without human influence, Derek hopes to find a greater abundance and diversity of invertebrate species.

Favorite part about being at sea
No concrete, no civilization.

Jon Puritz – HIMB

Jon Puritz

Since childhood Jon has been an avid fan of the ocean. To him the ocean represents a big mystery, something that encouraged him to pursue sciences. Jon came out to Hawaii to work with Dr. Rob Toonen on his PhD. Jon is interested in looking at bat sea stars life history and population connectivity. He is also fascinated by anthropogenic effects on the bat sea stars. Jon’s work is unique as he is collaborating with other academic institutions globally including University of California Davis, Simon Fraser University in Canada, and University of Sydney in Australia.

Role on the research trip
This is Jon’s first time out on the ship and to the Monument. He will be assisting Dr. Rob Toonen in the collection of marine invertebrates. Jon is very interested in the differences in population connectivity between the outer and inner atolls. Jon enjoys working with invertebrates because they are usually not thought about and are challenging to work with. He hopes to gather a suite of invertebrates across the Hawaiian Archipelago, filling out the sample collections and possibly discovering a new species.

Favorite part about being at sea
Always being able to feel the ocean, and know that it is constantly there.

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