Marine symbiosis and coral reef biology

Dr Simon Davy

We research coral reef biology and cnidarian-dinoflagellate symbiosis. Cnidarians include corals and sea anemones, while dinoflagellates are microscopic algae.

Coral reefs are iconic marine habitats supporting immense biodiversity. These complex ecosystems provide essential fish nurseries, protection from coastal erosion and tourism income for many tropical coastal communities. Coral reefs are a living three-dimensional framework and are more complex than they first appear.

Central to coral health is a symbiosis or partnership between the coral host and its intracellular symbionts - photosynthetic dinoflagellates. These dinoflagellates live inside the coral's gastrodermal or gut cells and this intimate partnership provides the trophic and structural foundation of the coral reef ecosystem. A healthy symbiosis is essential to ecosystem functioning and resilience.


Our research interests include:

  • fundamental molecular, cellular and physiological processes involved in the establishment, maintenance and breakdown of cnidarian-dinoflagellate symbiosis
  • mechanisms that underlie the sensitivity or resilience of the symbiosis to environmental stressors such as climate change (ie: coral bleaching research) and ocean acidification
  • the physiology and ecology of temperate cnidarian-dinoflagellate symbioses
  • coral disease, from molecular to ecological levels - we conducted the first research on coral viruses with our collaborators
  • symbioses between sponges and various photosynthetic partners, and echinoderms and their sub-cuticular bacteria
  • physiology and ecology of Antarctic sea-ice algae and microbes.

Recent work has been funded by internal and external grants, including the Marsden Fund, NSF (US National Science Foundation), the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FRST) and the National Geographic Society.


In  recent years we have collaborated with many researchers in New Zealand and overseas. Overseas collaborators include:

  • Dr Greta Aeby – University of Hawai’i*
  • Professor Denis Allemand – Centre Scientifique de Monaco
  • Dr Stuart Donachie – University of Hawai’i
  • A/ Prof Sophie Dove – University of Queensland
  • Dr Christine Ferrier-Pagès – Centre Scientifique de Monaco
  • Dr Ross Hill – University of Technology, Sydney
  • Prof Ove Hoegh-Guldberg – University of Queensland
  • Dr Bill Leggat – James Cook University
  • Dr Jim Maragos – US Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Professor John Pringle – Stanford University
  • Dr Rosanne Quinnell – University of Sydney*
  • Dr Eugenia Sampayo – Penn State University
  • Professor Virginia Weis – Oregon State University*
  • Dr Susie Wharam – Bigelow Marine Lab*
  • Dr Willie Wilson – Bigelow Marine Lab
  • Dr Thierry Work – US Geological Survey.

*Current external co-supervisor of a PhD student