PhD Research

My thesis research combines XL Catlin Seaview Survey Timor-Leste data collected in 2014 and USAID funded datasets collected by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration between 2012 and 2014.

Kids playing at the Dili Rock. Photo: C. Heatherington


Timor-Leste is a newly independent nation and one of six member state of the Coral Triangle, the epicenter of marine biodiversity in the world.  It lies to the northwest of Darwin, Australia in the Sunda Banda region of the Indo-Pacific.  It is a small, developing country with a population of approximately 1.25 million people, a quarter of which is housing in the capital city of Dili. Over 90% of the population relies on natural resources for subsistence living.

A photoquadrat of the reef with 100 randomized points for identification on the image.

coral reef composition

The XL Catlin Seaview Survey produces 1.5 km phototransects of coral reef per survey.  The Timor dataset encompasses 28,000, 1 sq m photoquadrats for analysis of benthic composition, or how much coral vs algae vs rock there is in the picture.  The project utilizes CoralNet, a program that uses machine-learning to analyze the entire dataset.

Brachyura or 'true' crabs sampled from Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures in Timor-Leste.

White syndrome on a tabulate Acroporid coral on a transect.


Coral reefs are among the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. However, the cryptofauna, or critters that hide within the reef habitat have been poorly studied because they are hard to quantitatively assess.  I DNA barcoded the brachyuran or 'true' crabs sampled from Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) deployed by NOAA at the Smithsonian Laboratory of Analytical Biology.

Coral health & disease

Coral disease is an increasing threat to coral reefs globally especially in the face of warming and acidifying oceans.  I surveyed 4 different sites at 5 and 10 m depth for signs of coral disease and compromised health in the capital area of Dili.  Additionally, I collected macroalgae and seawater for nutrient analysis to determine if nutrient was a driver of the presence of disease at my sites.