Feature Friday: Jamie McDevitt-Irwin

Hi, Jamie McDevitt-Irwin! Great to have you on Reefbites. 



Jamie is currently a Ph.D. at Stanford University, and has completed a M.Sc. at the University of Victoria. Jamie’s research focuses on community ecology, biodiversity, trophic interactions, food webs, community assembly, and functional traits. Jamie is interested in how top predators regulate community structure and ecosystem function, how these effects may cascade down the food web to lower trophic levels, and how these trophic interactions influence patterns of species diversity. Read more about Jamie’s work below! 

Location of fieldwork; why choose this location?

Chagos Archipelago, British Indian Ocean Territory

This remote marine protected area is an ideal study system to look at the role of consumers as it has a relatively intact food web and high biomass of sharks and predatory fishes. I usually go there once a year for one month and live on the patrol vessel with other scientists from a variety of countries and we take out zodiacs to do our fieldwork, which is mostly diving based. 

What is the elevator pitch for your fieldwork project?

My research evaluates the role of consumers in structuring communities and controlling ecosystem function on coral reefs. Specifically, I look the role of predators like sharks in structuring diversity and functional traits of lower trophic level reef fish, if and how these effects cascade down to coral reef recovery, and the role of benthic feeding fish (e.g. herbivores and corallivores) in controlling benthic community assembly. I use stereo-videos to capture the shark and reef fish community, stable isotope analysis of fish muscle to evaluate diet, and experimental caged/uncaged terracotta tiles to look at benthic community assembly. 

Why is this research/project important and timely?

My research will increase our understanding of the role of consumers on coral reefs, and the consequences of their removal. Few coral reefs harbor significant shark and fish populations anymore, so the Chagos Archipelago is an ideal study system to ask these questions and gain insight into how and when consumers are important in structuring ecosystems. 

Additionally, most of our understanding of general ecological theory and the role of consumers, comes from the plant ecology literature and from simple linear food chains. Therefore, I’m excited to apply these theories and questions to highly diverse systems like coral reefs with complex food webs. 

Best and worst parts of your fieldwork:

The best parts for me are when all my hard work of planning experiments and logistics actually works! Or, more likely, I was flexible and changed my plan until it worked. I feel so incredibly lucky to work in the Chagos and dive on these incredibly remote reefs with so many sharks and fish. The worst part is probably logistics planning prior to the trip, that can be very stressful working in a remote location. Also, I can get seasick while living on the boat if the weather picks up! But it’s all definitely worth it. 

What advice would you give for successful fieldwork?

Be organized! I have so many lists and checklists for different stages of planning and while I am in the field. It really helps when I come back exhausted from a day of diving, and then I can follow a checklist of everything that needs to get done that night. I also love colour coding and labelling everything. Journal daily so you can go back and check what you did, because you might not remember a few days/weeks/months later! Also, prioritize safety over science! 

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