Matt Tietbohl is a PhD student looking at the functional diversity of coral reef organisms and maintains strong interests in fisheries, marine protected areas, and coral reef ecosystem dynamics.

If you just had a little shiver run down your spine remembering your days of high school math, you’re not alone, my friend. But maybe you are more like Matt Tietbohl, PhD student in Marine Science, and have a better appreciation of this complex word. Function reflects the natural action or purpose of a thing (in Oxford Dictionary we trust). For ocean-optimist Matt, the word often comes in the context of functional groups, which describe a group of things with the same activity or role.

We commonly see functional groups in chemistry: amines, carboxylic acids, and alcohols are different groups of atoms in a molecule that have similar characteristics. These characteristics remain regardless of the other atoms present and thus, together, they define how an organic molecule reacts. Identifying and characterizing functional groups is one of the fundamentals in organic chemistry simply because understanding these can help identify the properties of any given compound. In biology, functional groups appear in two ways: in the same manner as in organic chemistry (ie amino, carbonyl, or methyl molecules that undergo specific reactions) or as groups of species that share characteristics within a community.

“It’s an easy way to group different animals together, which can allow for a better understanding of their jobs in maintaining a healthy ecosystem” explains Matt. Ecosystem interactions are inherently difficult to study due to complex species interactions. Community structures, niches, and food webs are dynamic and driven by an array of factors such as species type, abundance and diversity, environmental factors and, of course, anthropogenic impacts. Models can be used to predict ecosystem community response to change and therefore the potential ecological resilience of the system.

Breaking members of a system down into functional groups allows us to simplify models and our understanding of the system as a whole. “What I like about this word (and phrase) is that there is actually much more complexity hidden behind it,” says Matt, who directly works with functional groups in his PhD. “Recently, evidence has been mounting that not all fish are created equal in their functional roles – some fish may eat similar food items but forage over different areas, which affects how they overall impact the reef”. Matt is keen on discovering whether all is as it appears, or whether some reef fish may have secret jobs that we are unaware of. Understanding roles of different fish in an ecosystem is important for successful marine conservation efforts.

The meaning of function clearly has a wide spectrum: from math and science to a more philosophical meaning – what is your functional role in your system? Just let that sink in…
If you’re a PhD or postdoc, don’t even bother. You know your functional group, so go sit down and write a paper.

Matts’ example sentence:
“Most surgeon fishes are included in the herbivorous functional group known as ‘grazers’, which mow down small algae growing on coral reefs.”

Want to know more about Matt and his work? Follow him on twitter @WhyOceansMATTer

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash