Australian Society For Fish Biology

Prof. David Bellwood FAA

Over the 18 years I have known Dave Bellwood, his enthusiasm for the study of fishes has been deep, infectious, and unwavering. Whether it be talking about some “little brown jobbie” that his team has found on the reef, or spectacular coral reef icons like Bolbometopon muricatum, Dave’s face and voice lights up with the joy of working with the finned beings that swim and feed on reefs around the world.

Born in Yorkshire, Dave graduated from the University of Bath, UK in 1980. He trained in fisheries at MAFF (Lowestoft, UK), where he worked on North Sea inshore trawlers and discovered the joys of seasickness while hauling in beam trawls by hand, and in taxonomy at The Natural History Museum in London. In the NHM, he described new species of fish parasites under the guidance of Geoff Boxshall who he credits for teaching him key elements of practical science (e.g. how to respond graciously to negative reviews; a skill he is still working on). Dave’s greatest delight was to examine Charles Darwin’s personal collection of barnacles and to be given the key to the museum storerooms where he could have lunch breaks looking at the holotype of the sunfish Molamola and whale carcasses. Dave left Bath Uni with an Honours on the effects of cyanide as an anaesthetic for reef fishes, two papers on fish parasites, and a ticket for Australia. His PhD on parrotfishes at JCU in 1981-85, was followed by a year as a post-doctoral researcher at Silliman University in the Philippines (in 1986), where he arrived just in time for the ‘February Revolution’ and the overthrow of the Marcus Regime (a coincidence of timing not a causation).  

Dave’s early ambition was to work with Howard Choat (as Dave called him – the best marine biologist he had ever seen). Howard had just been awarded a professorship at JCU and was setting up a Marine Biology programme, so Dave returned to Australia as Howard’s first post-doc in 1988. At this time, Dave shared a small room with a PhD student called Kendall Clements. Dave assures me that if he had otoliths there would be a clear ‘Kendall band’ marking these exciting and formative years.  This period was followed by a Faculty position at JCU and rapid promotion through the ranks from Lecturer in 1991 to a Personal Research Chair in Marine Biology in 2004, and Distinguished Professor in 2015; all the time working on fishes. Domestically, Dave has 12 fish tanks, two ponds and for a while supplied Townsville with home-bred bristle-nosed catfishes. His secret apparently is the special catfish pellets he uses (which look remarkably similar to the pellets he feeds to his chickens!).

Over his career, Dave has made an outstanding contribution to our understanding of ichthyology that spans the systematics, evolution, biogeography, biology and ecology of reef fishes from both tropical and temperate seas. Perusing his research portfolio of 260+ publications (with 21,000+ citations) reveals a diversity of topics and surprising discoveries over the past four decades, including: the exceptional swimming abilities of larval reef fishes; parrotfishes as coral reef sculptors that are critical for ecosystem health; the world’s shortest lifespan for any vertebrate; hopping hotspots of fish diversity that traversed the world’s oceans since the Devonian; fossil fish assemblages that revealed the ancient origins of modern-day reef fishes; and batfishes coming to the rescue of coral reefs smothered in seaweed. He has dived all over the world examining the role of fishes in maintaining reef systems, from Mauritius to Malta and the Philippines to Panama, but no matter where he goes his dive buddies have no problems identifying him underwater with his inimitable white socks (fashion leader as well as ichthyologist, clearly).

Dave’s achievements in research have been matched by his dedication to tertiary education. Dave has been a stalwart of the undergraduate marine biology teaching program at James Cook University, including a capstone course in reef fish evolution and ecology, where he delights students by showing them how to boil a fish head then reassemble all the bones. Based on my own experience and that of many others who have been part of Dave’s lab group, his student supervision has often been characterised by strong expectations to perform, backed by lively debate and a fierce loyalty for the many students who he has always treated as equals. The formula seems to work in fostering a new generation of ichthyologists, with many of his 70+ honours and postgraduate students from around the world having gone on to grow their own research groups, or take key roles in management, start-up consultancies or government. Dave’s influence on his students has been strong, from shaping how we think about the important stuff like work-life balance as a field marine biologist, to more subtle things like how many of his students now pronounce fish species names with a slight Yorkshire accent.

For his outstanding contributions to ichthyology, Professor David Bellwood was awarded the 2015 K. Radway Allen Award by the ASFB.

Prepared by Dr. Christopher J. Fulton, The Australian National University

Selected Publications:

Bellwood DR, Goatley CHR, Bellwood O, Delbarre DJ and Friedman M (2015) The rise of jaw protrusion in spiny-rayed fishes closes the gap on elusive prey. Current Biology, 25. 2696-2700.

Bellwood DR, Hoey AS, Bellwood O, Goatley CHR (2014) Evolution of long-toothed fishes and the changing nature of fish-benthos interactions on coral reefs. Nature Communications 5, 1-6.

Bellwood DR, Hoey AS, Hughes TP (2012) Human activity selectively impacts the ecosystem roles of parrotfishes on coral reefs. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B 279,1621-1629.

Bellwood DR, Meyer CP (2009) Searching for heat in a marine biodiversity hotspot. Journal of Biogeography 36. 569-576.

Bellwood DR, Hughes TP, Hoey AS (2006) Sleeping functional group drives coral-reef recovery. Current Biology 16, 2434-2439.

Bellwood DR, Hughes TP, Folke C, Nystrom M (2004) Confronting the coral reef crisis. Nature 429, 827-833.

Bellwood DR, Hughes TP (2001) Regional-scale assembly rules and biodiversity of coral reefs. Science 292, 1532-1534.


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Dave impressed by the excellent skull reconstruction job done on this Dogtooth tuna by one of his undergraduate students at James Cook University.

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Dave meets Bellwoodilabrus, for some reason it is one of his favourite wrasses from the Eocene of Monte Bolca, Italy.

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Dave’s white socks: when style is everything.