Dispersal and adaption in the sea: Profile of Prof Cynthia Riginos

My favourite early childhood memories are of snorkelling in the Mediterranean Sea – I was captivated by the unfamiliarity and beauty of this underwater world. To this day, putting on a mask and sinking below the water’s surface prefaces my most anticipated adventures.

Through studying biology at school, I learned astounding facts about my underwater friends, the most notable being that fishes and invertebrates start life as microscopic planktonic larvae that live in the water column for days to months. What larvae do as plankton and where they go has been called the “black box” of marine biology. My research centres on using tools from evolution, ecology and genetics to peer into that black box of planktonic larvae to learn about marine animal movements and also how planktonic dispersal influences their ability to adapt to different locations.

Genetic biodiversity across the planet

My research has been instrumental for showing that marine larvae disperse much shorter distances than previously thought. My work has also uncovered general principles about how dispersal and adaptation are affected by seascapes, environment and the biological attributes of species.

I am also passionate about making genetic biodiversity data publicly accessible and building digital infrastructures to support collaboration and reproducibility. I helped develop the first workable platform, the Genetic Observatories Metadatabase (GEOME), for linking published genotypes with their spatial and other collecting metadata. With new funding from the GEO-Microsoft Planetary Computer Programme, we will be creating an interface to archive and visualise worldwide genomic biodiversity across all major habitats on Earth.

Although my research has traditionally been

discovery-driven, I am increasingly drawn to

understanding which species and locations

are vulnerable or resilient to global changes.

For example, some of my current research projects include assessing the capacity for genetic rescue in corals, determining spreading routes for crown-of-thorns seastars and documenting the effects of an invasive mussel on native ecosystems and aquaculture. These investigations are led by a wonderful group of students, postdocs and research assistants who teach me new things each day.

From the US to UQ – and CBCS

I was delighted to join CBCS last year and have enjoyed many stimulating conversations about biodiversity and conservation. I look forward to drawing upon CBCS’s incredible depth and breadth of knowledge as my group’s investigations yield new outcomes with applied relevance.

Despite being a newcomer to CBCS, I have been a T&R academic at UQ for 16 years and am presently the Director of Teaching and Learning in the School of Biological Sciences. Before joining UQ, I held an endowed postdoctoral fellowship in Molecular Evolution and Comparative Genomics at Duke University in the US, and completed my PhD and MSc degrees from the University of Arizona in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. I grew up in Washington, DC and spent summers with family in Greece.


Top image: Collecting intertidal fishes at Point Cartwright, Queensland. Left to right: Jenny Evans, Cynthia Riginos, Kimberley Dunbar, Sinan-Saleh Kassam. Photo: Anjanette Webb

Project members

Professor Cynthia Riginos

School of the Environment