Adaptation in Reef Fishes Across the Isthmus of Panama


Project: Feeding Trait Plasticity and Adaptation in Reef Fishes Across the Isthmus of Panama

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Project title

Feeding Trait Plasticity and Adaptation in Reef Fishes Across the Isthmus of Panama

Photo credit to Natasha Hinojosas

Mentor name

Dr. Matthieu Leray, STRI Staff,,
Co-mentor: Natasha Hinojosa, STRI Fellow,


Naos Laboratories

Project summary and objectives

Reef fishes occupy many trophic niches with diverse feeding morphologies that contribute to maintaining the stability and resiliency of coral reef ecosystems. Despite their critical functional roles, how reef fishes cope with environmental changes remains largely overlooked. Recent research suggests that coral reef fishes can adjust their diet over the short term is response to changes in prey availability (i.e. dietary flexibility). Studies in freshwater fish (cichlids) showed that rapid (diet-induced) adaptive phenotypic plasticity allow organisms to quickly adapt to changes in local environmental conditions.  Yet, we know little about how these evolutionary mechanisms play out in reef fish in different trophic groups and across life stages.

This project leverages the unique geological history of the Panamanian Isthmus and its oceanographically dynamic Pacific coast as a natural experiment to study the plasticity and adaptation of the feeding traits of individual fish with shared ancestors. Present-day coral reef fishes with shared ancestors (i.e., sister species and sister clades) have been physically separated by the Isthmus of Panama for at least 2.8 million years. They have followed separate evolutionary trajectories in their respective habitat range with the distinct environmental conditions of the productive Tropical Eastern Pacific (TEP) and the oligotrophic Caribbean. In the TEP, fishes in the Gulf of Panama experience drastic annual fluctuations in temperature, pH, oxygen, salinity, and nutrients, due to intense seasonal upwelling. Conversely, fishes in the nearby Gulf of Chiriquí of the TEP experience weak to no upwelling due to trade winds being largely blocked by the Cordillera Central mountain range.

Our objectives are:

  • Characterize the dynamics of consumer-resource interactions on coral reefs of the TEP and Caribbean of Panama.
  • Explore the roles of biogeographic isolation and environmental change on the plasticity and adaptation of feeding traits in coral reef fishes
  • Determine convergent patterns of morphological change between both communities of reef fishes across the Isthmus

We address these objectives by conducting seasonal sampling across regions and oceans to compare responses in gut length, diet, nutrient assimilation, and morphological modifications in the jaw. We will analyze oral jaw morphology through a clearing and staining process referred to as ‘diaphanization’ to look at jaw bone placement in situ. We are also using bulk stable isotope and visual stomach content analyses to confirm changes in diet and diet assimilation.

This research will ultimately shed light on how exposure to different environmental conditions can influence how reef fish respond to ongoing changes. It will also highlight the importance to study trait adaptation of organisms in geographic areas with high levels of environmental variability. 

If you wish to work in this project, we encourage applicants to contact and schedule a meeting with us. Prior to our meeting, please share with us your CV.

Mentorship goals

Interns will have the opportunity to gain experience with conducting field work, laboratory and data analysis. Field components include: 1) preparation for field trips, 2) sample collection, and 3) preservation of various types of samples. Laboratory components include: 1) various types of dissections, 2) stomach content and stable isotope analysis, 3) morphology photography and digital measurements, 4) preparation of specimens for diaphanization, 5) scientific illustrations. Interns will also participate in data entry and statistical analyses.

Interns will also be given the opportunity to improve their scientific reading and writing skills. They will learn fundamental concepts in the field, learn the scientific process, and practice scientific communication.

List of suggested readings

Wainwright, P. C., Bellwood, D. R., & Sale, P. F. (2002). Ecomorphology of Feeding in Coral reef fishes. Coral reef fishes: dynamics and diversity in a complex ecosystem, 33-55.

Zandonà, E., Auer, S. K., Kilham, S. S., & Reznick, D. N. (2015). Contrasting population and diet influences on gut length of an omnivorous tropical fish, the Trinidadian guppy (Poecilia reticulata). PLoS One10(9), e0136079.

Westneat, M. W. (2005). Skull biomechanics and suction feeding in fishes. Fish physiology23, 29-75.

Baliga, V. B., & Mehta, R. S. (2014). Scaling patterns inform ontogenetic transitions away from cleaning in Thalassoma wrasses. Journal of Experimental Biology217(20), 3597-3606.

Boecklen, W. J., Yarnes, C. T., Cook, B. A., & James, A. C. (2011). On the use of stable isotopes in trophic ecology. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution and Systematics42(1), 411-440.

Muschick, M., Barluenga, M., Salzburger, W., & Meyer, A. (2011). Adaptive phenotypic plasticity in the Midas cichlid fish pharyngeal jaw and its relevance in adaptive radiation. BMC Evolutionary Biology11(1), 1-12.

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