Reef Matters Seminar Series

Dr Marian Wong

Transitions in the study of social evolution in reef fish societies.


Understanding why and how groups have evolved has been a fundamental question in evolutionary ecology, ever since Darwin pointed out that the existence of groups posed problems for his theory of natural selection. Since then, scientists like myself have been trying to work out why non-breeding subordinate group members stay within groups rather than disperse to breed elsewhere, testing theory that was initially developed with terrestrial taxa in mind. In the marine realm, understanding sociality poses a rather unique (additional) problem in that group members are typically non-kin, meaning we can essentially throw kin selection (a key explanation for sociality in terrestrial taxa) out the proverbial window. So for the last 2 decades or so (scary that I now think in decades), I’ve been pursuing answers to these questions using one particular group of coral reef fishes, the coral gobies (genera Paragobiodon and Gobiodon). What I’d like to do is take you on a journey from where it began, to where we’re currently at, to where we need to go to try and provide better answers to this enduring question. The work I’ll be discussing ranges from experimental manipulations to phylogenetic analyses to the analysis of reams and reams of video…and is the product of a hugely collaborative, productive and exciting endeavour between myself, inspiring colleagues and exceptional students.

About Marian:

Dr. Marian Wong is a senior lecturer based at the University of Wollongong, NSW, who investigates the sex and social lives of fishes. Her fondness for all things fishy started from a young age when she spent holidays snorkeling and diving in Malaysia on some of the world’s most beautiful reefs. Since graduating with a Bachelor in Zoology from the University of Cambridge UK and a PhD from James Cook University in Australia, she has spent over 15 years pioneering investigations into the reproductive and social behaviours of fished, including conflict, cooperation, group living and mating systems. Together with her collaborators, her research has led to a deeper understanding of why animal societies evolve and how they can remain stable despite conflicts between individuals, which has direct implications for our own societies. Marian currently studies fishes that live on the coral reefs of Australia, in the Great Lakes of Africa, and in the more humble ponds and streams of the University of Wollongong campus. Throughout her career, she has also witnessed many threats facing fish populations, including climate change, over-fishing and invasive species. These experiences have spurred her investigations into how behaviour can influence the resilience of species to environmental change, and her advocacy for the need to protect aquatic biodiversity.