Biodiversity and Biogeography of Coral Reef Octocorals

Are you interested in the project below? Awesome! PLEASE DO NOT APPLY THROUGH THE URO SITE. Instead, set up an interview with the project advisor as soon as possible. Then use this form: to send in your application by 5pm, December 10th. You may find it helpful to look at the form now before you start your application process.

Octocorals (soft corals and sea fans) are often the second-most abundant invertebrates found on coral reefs, where they compete for space with the dominant, reef-building stony corals. Changing ocean conditions appear to be shifting the dynamics between stony corals and octocorals in ways that will fundamentally alter the structure and function of reefs, as evidenced by Caribbean reef communities that are increasingly dominated by non-reef-building octocorals as stony corals have declined. Relative to the well-studied stony corals, however, little is currently known about the basic ecology of most octocorals, including how many and which species co-occur or how their populations vary over space and time, information that is necessary to determine which species may be imperiled by climate change and which may instead be benefitting. This lack of basic information is due in large part to the difficulty of distinguishing and correctly identifying octocoral species. Our lab is addressing this problem using molecular approaches (DNA "barcoding") to identify species. DNA barcoding allows us to quantify genetic diversity as a proxy for species diversity, enabling the identification of geographic regions with high species richness, high endemicity or phylogenetically unique lineages that may merit special protection. We are currently working on quantifying the diversity of (a) soft corals that dominate shallow reefs in the Indo-Pacific, and (b) sea fans whose populations are increasing throughout the Caribbean. The work involves extracting DNA from preserved specimens, PCR-amplifying and sequencing DNA barcode genes, and running a variety of phylogenetic and statistical analyses to compare biodiversity and community composition among locations.

Name of research group, project, or lab
Coral Lab (McFadden)
Representative publication
Logistics Information:
Project categories
Student ranks applicable
Student qualifications

Most of the laboratory techniques we use are those learned in Bio23, so it is helpful (but not required) for students to have taken that course.  Students must register for 1 credit of BIOL161 (Research Problems) to participate in this project.

Time commitment
Spring - Part Time
Academic Credit
Number of openings
Techniques learned

polymerase chain reaction


DNA sequence editing and alignment

phylogenetic reconstruction

biodiversity statistics

Contact Information:
Mentor name
Cathy McFadden
Mentor email
Mentor position
Principle Investigator
Name of project director or principal investigator
Cathy McFadden
Email address of project director or principal investigator
2 sp. | 0 appl.
Hours per week
Spring - Part Time
Project categories