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Robert J. Toonen, PhD

Assistant Research Professor, Hawaiʻi institute of Marine Biology and Dept of Oceanography


  • PhD Population Biology, University of California, Davis
  • MS Marine Sciences, University of North Carolina, Wilmington
  • BSc Honours Zoology, University of Alberta, Canada

Coral adaptation and acclimatization to global change: Resilience to hotter, more acidic oceans

Coral reefs are the rainforests of the sea. Reefs provide critical habitat for fish and thousands of other species, which are important sources of food and income, particularly here in Hawaii. Reefs also protect our shorelines from storms and tsunamis, and generate considerable tourism revenue. A recent estimate valued Hawaii's reefs at over $33 Billion dollars annually for the American public. Thus, protecting them is important for the livelihoods of people here in Hawaii, as well as millions of other people around the world. Human activities are releasing carbon dioxide to the environment, making the oceans hotter and more acidic. Corals become stressed by elevated heat and acidity and grow more slowly or can even die as a result, destroying reefs. However, some corals may be better able to tolerate hotter, more acidic conditions than others. This study will follow on our previous Sea Grant supported research to investigate the factors which apparently allow some corals to acclimatize or adapt to conditions in the future. Understanding the effects of these factors on coral health and growth helps us to project how coral reefs will change in the future, and inform resource managers how best to conserve them.


Defining ecosystem-based management boundaries using genetics and fisheries data

The exchange of individuals among populations, termed connectivity, is a central element of population persistence and maintenance of genetic diversity, and influences most ecological and evolutionary phenomena. To date, field studies of marine connectivity have necessarily focused on one or a few species at a time, providing little understanding of both the extent of variability in connectivity across a whole community and what factors drive that interspecific variability. By combining our extensive genetic data collected from across the Hawaiian Archipelago with existing ecological and fisheries data, we seek to understand the drivers of connectivity and guide future management efforts around the world. Our community-level genetic analysis will be the first rigorous attempt to determine the relative roles of oceanography, ecology/habitat, fisheries and history on influencing genetic patterns in an alternative hypothesis-testing framework. This project will increase our understanding of patterns of exchange in marine systems and enable more effective and sustainable management of marine resources. In combination with other projects currently underway in our lab, this effort seeks to develop predictive modeling that will extend inference of connectivity patterns beyond the sites and species sampled and provide insight on the suites of species with similar and divergent patterns of connectivity, contributing new knowledge to basic marine ecology and the science of Ecosystem Based Management.

Contact Information

(808) 236-7401
(808) 236-7443

Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology PO Box 1346 Kane‘ohe, HI 96744