Dr Isabelle Côté

 My degrees

BSc Marine Biology, McGill University

MSc Behavioural Ecology, University of Alberta

PhD Behavioural Ecology, University of Toronto

 What I am now

Professor of Marine Ecology

Email: imcote@sfu.ca           Twitter: @redlipblenny

My research and interests

Impacts of a novel predatory invader on coral reefs 

My group was one of the first ‘on the ground’ to measure the ecological impacts of Indo-Pacific lionfish on native Caribbean fauna. These predatory fish have colonized >4 million km2 of marine habitat since 2004 when they appeared in the Bahamas. We provided the first comparisons with the native range, showing that lionfish grow larger and are more abundant in the introduced range (Darling et al. 2011). We were also the first to estimate predation-induced declines in native reef fish abundance, 65% in just 2 years (Green et al. 2012). Our studies of lionfish behaviour, feeding rates, and prey choice (Côté & Maljković 2010,  Green et al. 2011, Côté et al. 2013) have allowed us to identify the physical and behavioural traits of prey associated with vulnerability to lionfish predation (Green & Côté 2014). A large part of our research has focused on producing sound science to underpin management to mitigate lionfish impacts. We debunked (unfortunately) the idea that native predators could keep lionfish populations in check (Hackerott et al. 2013). In a 2-year-long field study in which we manipulated lionfish density on patch reefs, we found that regular removals could lower lionfish density and stem the decline of native fish (Green et al. 2014), although regular culling changes lionfish behaviour and makes them harder to catch (Côté et al. 2014). We also documented lionfish movement to assess site recolonization after culling (Tamburello & Côté 2015) in an effort to identify optimal culling frequencies (Nicola Smith).  We are now unraveling the indirect effects of the lionfish invasion on ecological and behavioural processes such as reef community trophic structure (Luis Malpica-Cruz), nutrient budgets (Fiona Francis), and prey learning (Adrienne Berchtold), and on industries (e.g., fisheries, tourism) that depend on coral reefs.  We have also turned our attention to another invasive marine predator, the European green crab in BC (Brett Howard).

Challenging notions of ecosystem resilience

Some of my work, done primarily with Emily Darling, has challenged conventional notions about the nature of interactions between multiple stressors and the concept of resilience when managing natural ecosystems. We demonstrated, first with a meta-analysis of published experiments (Darling & Côté 2008) and then using long-term data from Kenyan corals (Darling et al. 2010), that multiple stressors do not always interact synergistically to produce ecological surprises that accelerate biodiversity loss. These studies led us to propose a novel conceptual framework that overturns the commonly held expectation that managing local stressors will increase ecosystem resilience to climate change (Côté & Darling 2010).  We summarised the state of thinking about these issues in a recent review with Chris Brown (Côté et al. 2016).

I also have a keen interest in the functional processes that are supposed to impart resilience to coral reefs. Herbivory is a key example. The new conventional wisdom is to recover herbivore (specifically parrotfish) populations to shift reefs from macroalgal-rich to coral-rich states, but is this emphasis on fish herbivores justified?  We have just started a new study that aims to measure herbivory by fish and invertebrates, both by day and night, to understand who eats what and when, and get a clearer picture of the key players in the herbivory story.

 Long-term ecological change on Caribbean coral reefs

My group pioneered the use of meta-analysis to reconstruct patterns of ecological change on coral reefs. To my knowledge, we were the first to measure the rate of coral loss for any region of the globe (Gardner et al. 2003). Over the years, we continued to use meta-analysis to piece together the trajectories change of other Caribbean reef components. We showed a recent decline in reef fish abundance after 50 years of stability (Paddack et al. 2009), with a shift towards more generalist species (Alvarez-Filip et al. 2015). We also discovered that Caribbean reefs have become flatter (Alvarez-Filip et al. 2009), largely because of shifting species composition (Alvarez Filip et al. 2011). These large-scale, longitudinal studies have provided the most in-depth picture of change of any coral reef region. They have allowed us to challenge the notion that pervades the coral reef literature about the imminent collapse of Caribbean reefs owing to macroalgal proliferation. We found that macroalgae, in fact, do not dominate the majority of Caribbean reefs, and that the reefs that have given rise to this notion have followed a drastically different trajectory of change than other reefs in the region (Côté et al. 2013).

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