News Release

Role of cleaning fishes in conserving biodiversity distinguished with FLAD Science Award Atlantic 2023

Grant and Award Announcement

Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon

José Ricardo Paula


José Ricardo Paula, researcher at the Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre, Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon (Portugal).

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Credit: José Ricardo Paula

José Ricardo Paula, researcher at the Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre, Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon (Portugal), will receive 300.000 euros in funding in three years to develop a project that aims to improve the understanding of the role of cleaning mutualisms in the conservation of Atlantic biodiversity, using emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence.

In the global ocean, there are several fish species, known as cleaners, that specialize in providing cleaning services to other fish, by removing parasites, dead tissue or food debris from the skin, scales or teeth of these “client fish”. How do these mutual cleaning interactions – cleaning mutualisms – influence the resilience, biodiversity, and ecosystem health in the Ocean?

That is the main question that the project ‘ATLANTICDIVERSA – Use emerging technologies to understand the role of cleaning mutualisms in Atlantic biodiversity conservation’, aims to address. It is coordinated by José Ricardo Paula, now distinguished with the 4th edition of the Science Award Atlantic attributed by the Luso-American Development Foundation (FLAD), and will be developed in partnership with Elizabeth Madin, researcher at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology (University of Hawai’i).

An innovative approach

The research team aims to uncover the ecological roles of cleaning mutualisms in Atlantic ecosystems, understand their resilience to climate change and use this knowledge in conservation strategies, simultaneously promoting public involvement and education through technology in real-time.

“We know today, from localized experiments on the Australian Great Barrier Reef, that the removal of these mutualisms leads to ecosystem breakdown, to similar levels of overfishing. However, despite its importance, what we know comes only from a small location in Australia. We have no information for the Global Ocean, the Atlantic and even Portugal”, explains José Ricardo Paula.

In practice, the project will start by using citizen science to access global data –in particular, ReefLifeSurvey, a database collected by trained recreational divers in 55 different countries. This data will allow the researchers to grasp a global idea of the role of cleaning mutualisms in the global ocean.

Then, the research team will confirm whether the patterns observed globally are experimentally confirmed in five Atlantic locations: Algarve and Azores (Portugal), Cape Verde, Florida (USA) and Curaçao. “This confirmation will be attained through ecological manipulations, where we will remove key cleaner fish species and monitor the evolution of the ecosystem in the absence of these mutualisms”, adds José Ricardo Paula.

And here enters the artificial intelligence component of this project. Cleaning mutualisms tend to settle in small underwater territories called “cleaning stations” – biodiversity aggregating centers that can be used as a window into the ecosystem. The researchers will develop underwater film cameras coupled to computers prepared for artificial intelligence, and connected to the internet. “In addition to the obvious advantage of disseminating these images for education, thanks to an artificial intelligence algorithm, it will be possible to continuously measure the number and diversity of species present in these stations, allowing for the first real-time monitoring of marine ecosystems”, adds the researcher.

Besides understanding the relevance of these species, the researchers will study how resilient they are to future problems of climate change, such as increase in temperature, acidification of the oceans and loss of oxygen. That will be achieved by exposure to future water simulation systems, at the Guia Maritime Laboratory (Portugal). Understanding their resilience will also be important to understand the potential of using these species in conservation programs through reintroductions.

“This project could redefine ecological theories, potentially identifying cleaner fish as key species for conservation. The use of cameras integrated with artificial intelligence to monitor biodiversity will also establish a new standard in marine research”, concludes José Ricardo Paula.

About the award

The FLAD Science Award Atlantic is aimed at researchers working in Portugal aiming to develop a collaborative effort with researchers in the USA. For this 4th edition, the jury received about thirty applications, the largest number in the history of this award.

“The winner of the 4th edition of the FLAD Science Award Atlantic, José Ricardo Paula, is a young biologist whose marks of internationalization and cooperation already reveal a future scientific path of excellence in the study of environmental threats to ocean biodiversity. In cooperation with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, it is proposed to use digital technologies and artificial intelligence to, together with marine biology, understand how specific mutual cleaning interactions between fish influence resilience, biodiversity and the health of ecosystems in the Atlantic Ocean”, says Elsa Henriques, member of the FLAD Executive Board.

With the creation of this award, FLAD intends to promote the new generation of Portuguese scientists, and support projects with a strong focus on obtaining practical results, such as the creation of engineering and technologies, which facilitate our understanding and exploration of Atlantic ecosystems.


Brief biography of José Ricardo Paula

José Ricardo Paula, PhD, is specialized in Behavioral Ecology and Evolution, working from the physiology and neurogenomics of animal behavior to the use of large ecological models and the development of artificial intelligence tools to study behavioral ecology.

He is the leader of the Behavioural Ecology and Evolution research group based at the Guia Maritime Laboratory (Cascais, Portugal), at MARE – Ciências ULisboa, and also the President of the Portuguese Society of Ethology.

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