Spotlight on SAFS Research in the Tropics and Arctic

SAFS’ global network is one of its greatest strengths, providing nearly limitless opportunities for scientific and personal discovery. Explore some of our research highlights, spread across tropical and northern latitudes, through an interactive map. Deep dive into our new and exciting projects that provide students interdisciplinary study abroad experiences.

PAC-ISLEs Explores Oceania

PAC-ISLES 2019 class American Samoa. Luke Tornabene

PAC-ISLES (Present-day and Ancient Connections between Island Societies and Local Ecosystems) is a year-long student research program funded by the National Science Foundation. The year is punctuated by an immersive overseas research experience in Oceania. This year’s UW cohort will travel to Tonga, where they will study its anthropological and biological history and the connectivity between indigenous cultures and fish communities across several islands. Students will work alongside an interdisciplinary group of UW faculty that includes Luke Tornabene (SAFS) and Holly Barker (Anthropology). They will also have the opportunity to work with international marine ecologists, who have experience collaborating with Pacific Islander communities. The program will emphasize teaching underrepresented UW students, including at least six Pacific Islanders.

Students will analyze their findings and compare them with the extensive biological and anthropological collections at the UW’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. This program has the potential to advance the understanding of biological and cultural diversity on and around the Pacific Islands, while simultaneously promoting an exchange of knowledge between scientists and Pacific Islander communities abroad and here in the US.

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Caribbean Invaders


The highly invasive lionfish has established itself throughout much of the Caribbean and along the US east and Gulf coasts. Lionfish have successfully invaded and altered shallow coral reef ecosystems by being both voracious predators of young reef fishes and less susceptible to parasite infection than native fishes. Lionfish have also invaded deeper coral reefs, where they are less visible and data are harder to gather. Currently, SAFS researchers are collecting and examining lionfish from both shallow and deep coral reef sites off Curacao and comparing the diets of the fish and their parasite burden across depths.

“This research is incredibly exciting because studies on deep sea lionfish are particularly difficult to conduct,” says Rachel Welicky, a postdoctoral researcher in Chelsea Wood’s lab. “Our access to hard-to-collect fish, via a deep sea submersible, allows us to answer numerous questions that may have a significant impact on lionfish management.”

Preserved lionfish at the University of Washington Fish Collection. University of Washington

Ongoing research will help determine if lionfish are limited by parasites and what they are consuming at deeper depths. This research is particularly important because fishes at deeper depths are of reproductive age, and if lionfish are not weakened by parasites and are as voracious as they are on shallow reefs, then the future of native reef fish populations may be bleak.

Future Rivers

Fishing in Cambodia. Mark Stone/University of Washington

Freshwater science has long been a cornerstone of SAFS research. Our faculty and researchers have projects that span the world’s tropics, including Southeast Asia, India, Africa, and South America. Across these regions, healthy and well-managed freshwater ecosystems are essential to millions of people. Because of the important societal and economic benefits freshwater systems provide, the challenge is to understand the potential impacts of changes to these ecosystems on communities.

Future Rivers is a National Science Foundation Research Traineeship Program led by Gordon Holtgrieve that aims to gain a better understanding of how freshwater systems function and respond to change. Future Rivers trainees gain real-world experience on management and environmental sustainability options and on the interactions of food, water, and energy sectors. The program, part of the UW EarthLab Initiative, emphasizes science communication with stakeholders and teaches students technical and data science skills and helps enhance their cultural awareness. Students learn to apply their new skills within fields outside of academia, thus helping to create connections among academic, government, and industry partners when addressing freshwater issues.

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Effects of Melting Sea Ice


The Bering Sea, home to one of the world’s largest and most profitable food fisheries, is experiencing a warming trend that is dramatically changing the duration and timing of sea ice advance and retreat. This accelerated transformation has impacted its sub-Arctic and Arctic food webs—the foundation of many important commercial fisheries. George Hunt is investigating the cascading effects caused by the loss of sea ice and its impacts on stock abundance and distribution for many species.

Sea ice in the eastern Bering Sea supports the growth of ice algae, an important food source for zooplankton, which in turn feed larger fish. With less ice available, algal populations decline and so will the fish that depend on the sea-ice supported food web. Melting sea ice also cools the water and results in a pool of cold water near the bottom. This provides a refuge for the young of commercially important fish by deterring predatory fish less tolerant of colder temperatures. With a loss of sea ice, fish populations will likely diminish in the southern Bering Sea—some species will move northward in search of prey no longer present in the south, thereby becoming less accessible to southern-based fisheries. To aid in fisheries management, scientists are working to develop models that predict fish abundance and size based on future climate conditions.

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