Feature Friday: Maren Toor

Hi, Maren Toor! Welcome to Reefbites. 

IG: @marentoor and @a.coral.a.day

Twitter: @marentoor

Maren is a Master of Science student in Marine Biology at James Cook University, studying the habitat preferences of an invasive tropical ascidian on coral reefs. Read more about her research below! 

Give an elevator pitch of what your projects are about.

My project looks at the habitat preferences of an invasive ascidian on coral reefs. Ascidians are known to be successful invaders and as benthic organisms they compete with other species for space. Studying the ecological characteristics of these species, such as the substrata that they are choosing to live on, can help to understand and predict potential impacts to coral reef ecosystems and ultimately aid in their management or prevent further spread. 

Why is this project important and timely?

As many people know, coral reefs are currently subject to numerous stressors that threaten their stability and resilience. Large-scale disturbances are causing more frequent alterations to benthic community structure and are creating conditions that are favorable to competitive, fast-growing species, as opposed to slower growing reef-building species, such as hard corals. Some tropical ascidian species are known for their rapid growth rates, ability to outcompete other benthic species, and adaptability to various water temperatures, giving them an advantage as reefs are put under pressure from climate change. This is especially true for invasive species that can often outcompete native ones and have few predators of their own in their introduced environments. These types of ascidians have been observed overgrowing a multitude of other benthic species on coral reefs around the world and it is becoming increasingly important to understand whether they prefer to grow on specific organisms, such as hard corals and algae or abiotic substrata such as bare rock or dead coral, and what impacts that might have on the ecosystem. This can aid in better understanding mechanisms of competition, such as direct versus indirect competition, and how that might affect community composition. Understanding ecological characteristics of invasive ascidians in their introduced environments is key to their effective management, and one step in that process is understanding which substrata they’re inhabiting and what ecological impacts that might have. 

What is the broader impact and implication of your work?

Looking at characteristics like habitat preference is just one small piece of the puzzle when dealing with invasive species but when it can be combined with other ecological and biological information it can help to advance our knowledge regarding how invasive species operate and what best management practices or eradication techniques might be. It’s hard to predict how community composition of coral reefs will change in the coming decades but the more information we have about ascidians, and other reef organisms, and the interactions between species, the better prepared we can be to deal with issues that may arise.

How did you come to work in this field?

Somewhat unintentionally but I think that is relatively typical in this field. I was assisting a PhD student with his fieldwork and in the process was able to develop my own project looking at these ascidians. More broadly, I spent my time prior to starting my masters working on reef monitoring and then on coral restoration and the combination of those experiences had a large influence on my current interests in regard to coral reef conservation. There are so many different ways to approach conservation, I am very passionate about corals but effective conservation for them has to include research on other species and their interactions in the ecosystem. So I’ve come to work in this field because of my interest in corals and coral reefs but a desire to how the relationships between species impact reefs and what they might mean for the future of these ecosystems. 

What is your top graduate school life hack or survival resource?

Just remember to find time to do things you enjoy outside of your research or projects. Get outside, spend time with friends, family, or by yourself doing activities that make you happy, so that your work doesn’t become your entire life. I know that’s sometimes easier said than done but it’s definitely helped with keeping myself motivated and not burning out.

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