Welcome to the new and improved professional website of Dr. Mike Gil, Ph.D. Please use the menu bar above or the following links to view Dr. Gil’s mini bio, as well as information on his academic career (including his ongoing research, publications, teaching, mentoring, and CV) and on his work in science communication (including information on speaking and outreach videos).

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How humans affect tropical coral reefs | Caribbean Sailing Association, St. Maarten

My tea cup and I explain to the Caribbean Sailing Association how humans affect coral reefs (St. Maarten, Oct. 2015).

I was invited to give this talk by the non-profit Sailors for the Sea as part of their environmental sustainability symposium at the Caribbean Sailing Association conference in St. Maarten (23 October 2015). It was great talking science and sustainability with such a genuine and engaged group of leaders from all across the Caribbean. With their efforts, coral reef conservation and sustainability will continue to gain traction in so ecologically and socioeconomically invaluable a region as the Caribbean. Spending the weekend in St. Maarten was pretty great too :).

Subscribe to my new series “Confessions of a Marine Biologist” for ridiculous adventures in exotic settings, from coral reefs and the open ocean, to mountain tops and Jack Johnson’s house: http://www.youtube.com/subscription_center?add_user=SciAllOrg

Learn more about my life as a marine biologist here: http://SciAll.org

Learn more about my research here: https://mikegil.com/research/

For speaking engagements/bookings, email mikegil@sciall.org

Fishbook: Do prey social networks influence predator effects on reef fishes?

This is a talk I gave at the Western Society of Naturalists conference in Tacoma, Washington on November 14, 2014

An unforgettable sendoff

After researching the coral reefs surrounding the island of Mo’orea, French Polynesia since 2009, and in my final hours on the island, I was fortunate enough to see a side of nature I had never seen before. This encounter made me feel a connection with these animals and, more importantly, reassurance that we are all connected.

Video: Mike Gil
Photo: Heather Hillard
Music: Starálfur by Sigur Rós

Spoiler Alert: The video features a pair of humpback whales that appear to be courting in the company of a group of spinner dolphins. Humpbacks migrate to Mo’orea each Austral Winter, usually arriving around July, but this is the first time I had ever seen one (or two!) up close. What a sight.

Epic science alliance: Euro-‘Merican adventures

Suddenly, I find myself smack dab in the middle of another summer doing field research on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia. I have been fortunate enough to have this place become a home away from home for me for the past four years, yet it still never ceases to amaze me. For example, this is what I saw on the first night I arrived:

One of main objectives this season is to complete a field experiment that colleagues and I started out here in January of this year. This is no ordinary experiment though: it is a cross-cultural collaboration (and a half!), among French, British, Italian, German, and American (me) researchers. This all started when I received a research fellowship from the French Embassy of the U.S. to continue my field research on coral reefs in French Polynesia and to foster additional collaborations with my European colleagues. Though I was happy to receive the funding, I was unsure exactly how the collaboration would go–Would I find the right collaborators with similar research interests? Would we work well together? Would we be able to work well enough together to complete a rigorous field experiment?

The answers are: Yes. Yes. And almost yes (since the experiment is not quite complete yet!).


Some of the Euro-‘Merican crew, geared up and ready for some field work!

The pan-European research team and myself decided to ask the questions: What happens to a coral reef after a major disturbance,  and do these systems respond differently when they are exposed to different stressors associated with humans?

To answer these questions, we used small corals (collected from the field), and smooth terra cotta tiles, meant to resemble the barren rocks left behind in a recently-destroyed coral reef, to look at how small corals grow and survive and how settlement of new organisms may differ across different experimental treatments. For our experimental treatments, we tested the effects of three factors:

  • Nutrient enrichment (meant to resemble land-based nutrient pollution). We manipulated this by adding fertilizer to half of our experimental units monthly.
  • Sedimentation (meant to resemble increased runoff that would be expected when natural coastal wetlands are covered by cement). We manipulated this by dumping sediment on half of our experimental units weekly.
  • And the presence/absence of consumers (meant to resemble the effects of fishing). We manipulated this by placing half of our experimental units in cages, to exclude any fish greater than 1.5 inches tall/wide.

This design has resulted in an ambitious field experiment that will allow us to better understand each of these stressors (nutrient pollution, sedimentation, and fishing) and how each stressor effect may depend on the levels of the other stressors.

Putting this experiment into the field in January was a cultural experience for me. But this had more to do with working at CRIOBE, the French research station on the island, and less to do with communication (fortunately for me, all of my collaborators are English speakers!). CRIOBE is a very different station from Gump: for example, it is in Opunohu Bay (which is much less populated than Cook’s Bay, where Gump is located), there are resident scientists that oversee all of the scientific operations there, and (most notably for me) it is inland (as opposed to on the water) with limited boat availability. This last point really came into play when I went with my European counterparts to collect coral for our experiment. Bear in mind, January on the north shore of Moorea can be an intense time for weather–the swell is most often directly from the north, and storms are common. So when we were able to get a boat reserved, we knew we had to get out on the reef and get our work done as efficiently as possible, even if the weather was not ideal. Well, the weather was not ideal, and the day we went out to collect corals, the waters were raging in Opunohu Bay. At first, I thought nothing of this–I had gone into the field under much, much worse conditions, while working at Gump Station. What I hadn’t anticipated and what was revealed to me 5 minutes before we left the station to depart from the shore was that the boat we were taking was not moored out in the bay but instead needed to be launched from the shore (meaning directly into the waves crashing onto the beach). Also, the station truck we would use to do this did not have 4-wheel drive, so we needed to get the boat and trailer down the beach and into the rough waters manually (meaning by pulling/pushing it by hand). To spoil any anticipation of a major accident, I am happy to report that no one was seriously injured, but it was a pretty intense operation. After struggling to get the boat and trailer down the hill and into the water, I was then in charge of securing the boat (by simply holding onto the bow line) in chest-deep water to keep it from being thrown by the waves back onto the beach. This experience resembled a mosh pit at a Rage Against the Machine concert, and I took the hull of the boat to the chest on more than one occasion. Fortunately for me, the team got ready quickly, hurled the gear into the boat, jumped in, allowing me to jump in, and we were able to get the engine started and take off from the beach just before a wave ran us aground. This experience certainly gave me a higher appreciation for how tough the CRIOBE researchers needed to be to do field work in foul weather. Thankfully though, we got our coral collection done with no major issues, and we prepared an army of little corals to enter into our 6-month experiment.


My German collaborator, Silvan (right) and I, after a successful coral collection (despite the foul weather!).


Some of our tiny army of Acropora pulcra coral colonies, just before they were deployed in our field experiment.

Once we pre-weighed the corals (so that we can weigh them at the end of the experiment to measure coral growth), we were ready to deploy the experiment. We used cinder blocks to anchor both our corals and our settlement tiles, and since we ended up with eight experimental treatments (2 levels of sedimentation [high and low], 2 levels of nutrient enrichment [high and low], and two levels of fish abundance [caged and uncaged]) and 9 replicates, we needed to haul 72 cinder blocks, as well as 36 cages into the field.


Stackenblocken: 8 experimental treatments X 9 replicates = 72 cinder blocks and a whole lotta heavy lifting! But nothing builds cross-cultural camaraderie like physical challenges.


My collaborators, Anne (left), a French master’s student, and Suzie (right), a British professor, look to the horizon toward the site where we will deploy our experiment. At this point, as I am driving the boat it is just inching by, having been filled with countless cinder blocks and cages.

This was a very intense day, and we finished deploying the experiment just as the sun went down! Man, were we relieved.


From left to right: Anne, Suzie, Silvan and I share a moment of relief as we beat the odds and got the entire experiment out in one afternoon. Go team!

My European collaborators maintained the experiment until I returned here (Moorea) last month to take over. Soon, we will end the experiment and see what our treatments have done to the corals and tiles over the past 6 months. The anticipation reminds me of being a kid on Christmas Eve–but now data are now my presents :). I can’t wait to see what they tell us! More soon…


Marine Biology Maestro in Mexico

I spent the better part of last month in Akumal, Mexico, co-instructing a field course in marine biology for juniors and seniors at the University of Texas at Austin (my alma mater). This course and I go way back, actually: I was enrolled as an undergraduate in summer 2007, I was a guest researcher in 2009 (when it was held in Puerto Rico, due to swine flu…and the Mexican drug cartel didn’t help), and I co-taught it in 2011 and this year. Once again, it was a very special experience.

The location is a pretty incredible place to get introduced to marine biology the right way: in the field! For three weeks, we stay just steps away from your typical Caribbean white-sand beach, beyond which is a sheltered bay that is home to an extensive coral reef and seagrass meadow. This ecosystem supports so many sea turtles, it’s hard to not encounter one on a casual snorkel.


Akumal Bay at sunrise on Day 1 of the class.


A green sea turtle chomping on some Thalassia testudinum seagrass (aptly dubbed ‘turtle grass’), as I take his/her headshot.

This place is appropriately named: Akumal means “place of the turtle” in Mayan. In addition to the sea turtles (or ‘charasmatic megafauna’ as they are sometimes called by jaded marine biologists ;)), there is a whole suite of life for the students to discover in the reef. Each time I visit this place, I find myself enamored with the diversity of coral species that persist here, boasting colors and patterns that seem like they’ve been pulled from a dream:


This coral, Porites asteroides, reminds me of golden hills in some surreal landscape.


Another coral, Montastrea species, with much larger polyps.


This coral, Diploria labyrinthiformis, looks just like its namesake.


A gorgonian (or ‘soft coral’) called a sea rod. You can see the tentacles of the individual polyps: jellyfish-like, wouldn’t you say?

It never ceases to amaze me that coral reefs exist because a bunch of tiny upside-down jellyfish (coral polyps) are able to form colonies (coral colonies) that essentially grow rocks (coral skeleton), allowing countless organisms to inhabit the reef environment. Here are some of those organisms–a few reef fish that we would regularly encounter:


A butterfly fish, which uses its tiny mouth to eat the coral polyps shown above. They also use the corals for shelter, so essentially they eat their own house.


A cowfish that seemed to like my camera. What an eye! Seems eerily similar to a cow’s…

Of course I love spending time in the ecosystem that I have come to study for a living, but introducing this system to people is a rare treat. There is something about working with students with genuine interest in a field setting that makes teaching this class feel like you’re being spoiled as an instructor.


The whole gang of instructors and students for the 2013 Maymester in Akumal class.

We started out with a crash course in field-based scientific research and natural history and then broke off into student-led research projects. This translated to lots of time snorkeling in the reef and seagrasses of Akumal Bay. Some of the students even missed their formal graduation from the University of Texas at Austin to participate in the course. But we had them covered with a surprise commencement ceremony, complete with homemade cardboard graduation hats with seagrass tassels:

The college graduates of the 2013 Akumal class!

The college graduates of the 2013 Akumal class!

 An additional gem that lies in this area of the Mexican Caribbean (called ‘the Mayan Riviera’) is a series of cenotes, or underwater caverns that give rise to natural springs. These cenotes are formed when a part of the ceiling of the water table below ground collapses, due to erosion, revealing a hole from the surface into crystal clear and naturally filtered waters. We brought the students to several of these special spots, though my favorite of all has to be ‘Cenote Manatee’. Though there haven’t been manatees there in decades (rumor has it that there was one there once, hence the name) it is nonetheless an incredible spot. This is one of the rare locations where mangroves exist in so clear and calm waters that one can explore them with unique clarity. Snorkeling in these waters made me think of the movie ‘Avatar’, but underwater, and being in this system really makes you appreciate the abundance of life that teems among the mangrove roots, which researchers have shown are vital habitat for juvenile fish of all sorts:


The two worlds of the mangrove forest: air and water.


An emerald paradise.


A wide-angle perspective from below.

Though our days were jam-packed with field work, lectures and discussions, on several evenings we (the instructors and students) found the time to unwind with beachfront acoustic guitar sing-alongs, led by my fellow instructor Dr. Phil Buccolo. Who knew a $20 guitar bought from a desperate man in front of a pawn shop could sound so good? We had the beach all to ourselves at night, to sit back, sing a few tunes, and watch the clouds and stars pass by in the clear sky overhead:

I would like to end with a side note. So, the main grocery store nearest the beach was a place called Super Chomak. We loved this place, and in particular, we loved the sign out front, which showcases an ancient Mayan sport.


Dr. Buccolo and I demonstrate our athletic prowess and our sheer admiration for sacrificial Mayan athletes on the roof of Super Chomak (photo incredibly taken by Kathryn Thompson).

We later found out that this sport, though it may appear to be humorous, was in fact, serious business. Ancient Mayans believed that the very stars in the video above were actually demons that were kept at bay by sacrifices. So, to decide who would appease the demons, they created a team-based sport, in which players must hit a ball into a raised hole, without using their hands. The catch is that when the sun went down, the losing team was sacrificed. Like I said, no joke. But we still could not refrain from many a joke about how crazy it must have been to be on such a team; can you imagine how hard it must have been to recruit new teammates? “Hey Joe, so we are down a man for tomorrow night’s match. Are you in?” Thankfully, sports are less serious these days…

As many great experiences do, the class seemed to fly by, and before I knew it (4 days later), I was on a plane bound for French Polynesia, where I will spend the rest of the summer. Stay tuned!