Rachel Ravago-Gotanco
School of rabbitfish

Schools of young rabbitfish make a sparkling spectacle as they cast a shadow across the seagrass flats of Bolinao. From March to May each year, the sight excites the local fisherfolk as juvenile rabbitfish provide a significant resource when they arrive to settle on the reef flats. But where have they come from, where are they going, and why does it matter?

As part of her PhD studies, Rachel Ravago Gotanco is focused on these very issues. The rabbitfish (Siganus fuscescens) population faces long term threats because they are widely harvested before maturity. If the species is better understood, conservation and management efforts will be more effective.

With the cooperation of local people who provide samples of both adults and newly settled juveniles, Rachel is using molecular techniques to study the connectivity of the rabbitfish populations of the Philippine Archipelago. Examination of genetic differences between populations reveals important information about the distances rabbitfish travel and their seasonal movements. This spatial and temporal data helps tell the story of how the fish populations are connected and provides details of population dynamics. This information underpins conservation and management efforts.

“There have been significant historical changes in the rabbitfish population, but very little is known about what is really going on,” says Rachel.

“I am looking at factors which influence these changes, the connectivity between populations and the population size. By tracking the distribution of genes among rabbitfish populations, historical and contemporary links can be inferred, which can be useful in predicting reactions and population trajectories in the face of environmental stressors.

“Molecular biology offers powerful new conservation and management tools. The amazing biodiversity of the Coral Triangle has lots of scope to apply this new knowledge – and feeds my curiousity.”

Rachel’s rabbitfish research is contributing to the work of the Connectivity Working Group.

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