Dr. Pim Bongaerts, coral biologist, is appointed John M. McCosker Chair of Aquatic Biology and Hope for Reefs co-leader
SAN FRANCISCO (August 9, 2018) — Coral reefs have a new champion in Golden Gate Park. The California Academy of Sciences is pleased to announce the appointment of Dr. Pim Bongaerts as its newest Assistant Curator of Invertebrate Zoology and John M. McCosker Chair of Aquatic Biology. In his new role, Bongaerts will study the biodiversity and resilience of tropical coral reefs, with a particular focus on the corals that live at dimly lit “mesophotic” depths 100 – 500 feet beneath the ocean’s surface. Bongaerts, whose coral research has focused mainly on the Great Barrier Reef, is a molecular ecologist who combines next-generation sequencing and field ecology to better understand the processes that generate and maintain coral reef diversity. As part of this important work, Bongaerts will co-lead the Academy’s Hope for Reefs initiative that researches and restores the planet’s treasured and threatened coral reef ecosystems.
“Joining the Academy is incredibly exciting—this place embodies everything that inspired me to study the natural world,” says Bongaerts, who recently moved from Australia to the Bay Area with his wife and toddler. “The museum has so much creativity behind every corner. It is definitely not your average scientific institute, and that’s why I am so excited to join the team—we can be a part of scientific undertakings that would simply not be possible anywhere else.”
“When Pim joined the Academy, he completed a critical scientific team fighting for the future of coral reefs around the world,” says Dr. Shannon Bennett, Academy Chief of Science. “His evolutionary focus to address the contemporary resilience of tropical coral reefs, deep or shallow, perfectly complements the Academy’s current work combining gold-standard museum-based science with state-of-the-art underwater technologies and genomics. Pim’s work and commitment to outreach will help shape the future of our natural world, starting with some of Earth’s most important habitats.”
From Northern Europe to tropical reefs
Originally from the Netherlands, Bongaerts’ early fascination with both the natural world and technology led him on a scientific path to tropical reefs half a world away. While working on home aquariums and terrariums, he became enamored with the vibrant plants and animals of the tropics—tediously trying to recreate his own “slice of tropical rainforest.” He also kept busy learning computer programming from a young age, writing bits of code on his Dutch-made Philips P2000 home computer. It wasn’t until years later, during his first-ever SCUBA dive in Panama, that Bongaerts saw his path to coral biology more clearly.
“When you look out over the ocean, it’s hard to imagine the other worlds that lurk beneath the surface,” says Bongaerts. “That first glimpse of the bustling cities of corals and reef creatures inspired me to pursue a career in marine biology and find a way to blend my love of both nature and technology. That experience grabbed me and never let go.”
While conducting graduate research on the coral reefs of Curaçao in the Southern Caribbean, Bongaerts spent many dives peering past the boundary that marks recreational diving limits. “We used to do photosynthesis measurements at 130 feet deep where we had to wait several minutes between each set,” he remembers. “I would always gaze down the slope wondering what corals and fish lived there, knowing these depths remained virtually unexplored.” This curiosity turned into Bongaerts’ career focus for more than a decade, allowing him to research deep reef communities and discover how they differ from life in the shallows.
Exploring deep reefs
Scientists know very little about the biodiversity and ecology of mesophotic reefs 100 – 500 feet beneath the surface, the connection between their shallow-water counterparts, or the ways these ecosystems are responding to changing ocean conditions. As one of the world’s leading experts on mesophotic coral reefs, Bongaerts visits far-flung coral reefs to zero-in on the health and biodiversity of mesophotic reefs, exploring their vulnerability to warming oceans and other climatic stressors.
On these deep reefs, animals live in partial darkness—beyond recreational diving limits, yet above the deep trenches patrolled by submarines and ROVs. As part of its Hope for Reefs initiative, Bongaerts’ Academy team and their collaborators are exploring these unknown frontiers with the help of high-tech equipment like closed-circuit rebreathers that allow scientists to extend their limited underwater research time. Bongaerts, who comes to the Academy as an experienced technical diver and licensed ROV pilot, is close to completing the grueling training requirements for deeper closed-circuit rebreather dives. With Academy expeditions to the reefs of the Philippines and Pohnpei already under his belt, Bongaerts is hitting the ground running in his new San Francisco home.
“Tropical coral reefs extend much deeper than most imagine,” says Bongaerts. “For example, on the Great Barrier Reef, we discovered that photosynthetic corals occur down to at least 410 feet. It is a great reminder that there’s still so much to explore and understand, as coral reef research has focused almost exclusively on the shallowest quarter of that depth range. Researching these communities is difficult—but if we only have mere minutes at depth on every expedition dive, we’re going to make every second count to collect the data we need.”
Science for the future
The Academy’s Center for Comparative Genomics will play an important role in Bongaerts’ future projects; he’s known for his work using genetic information locked in coral DNA to explore how coral populations are connected, and how it allows them to adapt to different environmental conditions. A strong interest in bioinformatics helps Bongaerts develop new tools to extract biological meaning out of large genomic datasets. At the Academy, he hopes to bridge the gap between genomics and coral reef management, leveraging next-generation sequencing methods to identify signs of both vulnerability and resilience in natural and artificially restored coral populations. Bongaerts is thrilled to join efforts with Academy coral curator and Hope for Reefs co-leader Dr. Rebecca Albright, a leading expert on ocean acidification, who has been working with Academy partners SECORE International on coral restoration work using sexual reproduction and large-scale cultivation on Caribbean reefs.
Bongaerts looks forward to growing the Academy’s invertebrate zoology collection—a critical part of biodiversity research in the modern world. Using genomic tools, he hopes to work with the collections to overcome some of the major challenges in coral taxonomy, complicated by their shape-shifting nature and unique DNA properties. Bongaerts stresses the critical importance of specimen collections as a physical reference for global scientists who need to correctly describe new species. At the same time, he is also committed to developing “minimal impact” sampling methods for large-scale population-level assessments and continuous monitoring efforts.
In addition to his research, Bongaerts intends to continue his passionate dedication to public engagement and science education. “Witnessing the human-driven decline of coral reefs around the world has been beyond difficult,” says Bongaerts, adding that it’s imperative global communities are part of the solution. “Mass coral bleaching is a wake-up call to change the way we manage our food, water, and energy systems. I find my hope in my work and the younger generations’ ability to face climate change head-on. We have to keep the spirit of sustainability and environmental protection alive and well.”
The Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability at the California Academy of Sciences is at the forefront of efforts to understand two of the most important topics of our time: the nature and sustainability of life on Earth. Based in San Francisco, the Institute is home to more than 100 world-class scientists, state-of-the-art facilities, and nearly 46 million scientific specimens from around the world. The Institute also leverages the expertise and efforts of more than 100 international Associates and 450 distinguished Fellows. Through expeditions around the globe, investigations in the lab, and analyses of vast biological datasets, the Institute’s scientists work to understand the evolution and interconnectedness of organisms and ecosystems, the threats they face around the world, and the most effective strategies for sustaining them into the future. Through innovative partnerships and public engagement initiatives, they also guide critical sustainability and conservation decisions worldwide, inspire and mentor the next generation of scientists, and foster responsible stewardship of our planet.