JAMES COOK UNIVERSITY
Research Field: Evolutionary Biology & Phylogenetics
Coral reefs are home to over 30% of all marine fishes despite only accounting for less than
0.1% of the world’s ocean. The centre of coral reef fish biodiversity is found in the Indo-
Australian Archipelago – the ‘bullseye’ of a steep gradient in species richness that declines
across the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Understanding the origins and maintenance of this
biodiversity pattern across two-thirds of the world’s oceans is central to Dr Cowman’s
By combining DNA and fossil information, Dr Cowman builds phylogenetic trees that allow
him to trace the evolutionary history of fishes and estimate how fast species are produced
(speciation) and how quickly they disappear (extinction). His research has shown that over
the past 60 million years, coral reefs have provided a safe haven for fishes that survive past
periods of climate change and acted as a cradle where new species are produced.
With the future of Indo-Pacific reefs in peril from anthropogenic climate change,
understanding the origins of the biodiversity they support is a critical step to preserving its
enormous value for future generations.