Ashlee Lillis


Research Summary

The underwater environment is rarely the quiet and serene realm that many imagine.  Instead, it is filled with biological, physical, and geological sounds, forming what we term the “soundscape”.  The soundscape is a key structural element of marine ecosystems, and the characteristics (sound levels and composition) of the acoustic environment can be a defining factor of particular underwater habitats, providing rich sensory information to the inhabitants and scientists. I became interested in how marine soundscapes both reflect and influence ecological processes during my PhD. As a larval and benthic ecologist, my work centers on the early life stages of marine invertebrates, with a focus on reef-building organisms (e.g. oysters and corals). One critical life history process where sound might play a role is in larval settlement and habitat selection, since most marine organisms have a free-swimming larval phase during which they must find suitable adult habitat, an often-irreversible choice.  
As a Coastal Ocean Institute Postdoctoral Scholar, I’m part of an interdisciplinary team working on a project to study the links between coral reef soundscapes, reef characteristics, and larval recruitment. WHOI scientists Aran Mooney (my advisor), Joel Llopiz, and Amy Apprill are leading these efforts and field campaigns in the US Virgin Islands. My primary focus during my WHOI postdoc is investigating the acoustic behaviour of snapping shrimp, organisms about which we know very little but whose sound production (via the rapid closing of their large claw) is the greatest biological source of underwater sound to coastal habitats in temperate and tropical regions worldwide. These animals are truly overheard but underlooked - the pervasive noise has long been recognized as the dominant sound in coastal seas and yet we fail to understand even their basic ecology. I aim to better understand the spatiotemporal patterns and environmental factors (e.g. water temperature, light) that modulate shrimp acoustic activity, which potentially impacts the immersive sensory environment for a range of animals, and could reflect the overall health of these changing coastal ecosystems.