Robert J. Toonen

Professor, Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology

Dispersal and Recruitment of Invertebrate Larvae; Population Genetics, Evolution & Ecology of Marine Invertebrates






(808) 236-7425


(808) 236-7443


Research Interests

I have a hard time describing my research program in a few sentences. During my research career, I have used a variety of approaches (including individual behavioral assays, ecological experiments in both the field and laboratory, molecular genetic, and computer modeling approaches) in an effort to address a pretty broad variety of interesting biological questions. I don't fit neatly into any traditional niche, but I tend to focus my research interests primarily on marine invertebrates, although I am willing to acknowledge the occasional lesson learned from studying chordates as well. Projects that I have been involved with over the years include such diverse studies as jellyfish feeding behavior, chemical defenses of coral reef sponges, genetic structure and patterns of dispersal in corals, coral bleaching, invasive species biology, connectivity and marine protected area design, cues for larval settlement, modeling of optimal larval settlement behavior, population genetics and phylogenetics of marine invertebrates, conservation genetics of charismatic megafauna (such as sharks, sea turtles and marine mammals), and marine ornamental culture & aquarium science.

Obviously, with that grocery list of interests, it is not simple to describe the interests of my lab fully in a paragraph here. However, much of my current research focuses on the processes that influence dispersal and recruitment in coastal marine invertebrates, and I am particularly interested in the evolutionary consequences of larval developmental modes among Hawaiian coral reef species. In general, I try to approach my research from an ecological perspective to scale up from genes to individuals to populations, and ultimately to the micro- and macro-evolutionary consequences of the processes being studied.

Selected Publications

Crandall, E., Toonen, R.J., ToBo Lab, Selkoe, K. (2019) A coalescent sampler successfully detects biologically meaningful population structure overlooked by F-statistics. Evolutionary Applications. 12(2):255-265, DOI:10.1111/eva.12712

Johnston, E.C., Z.H. Forsman, J-F Flot, S. Schmidt-Roach, J.H. Pinzón, I.S. S. Knapp & R.J. Toonen (2017) A genomic glance through the fog of plasticity and diversification in Pocillopora.Scientific Reports. 7: 5991, DOI:10.1038/s41598-017-06085-3  

Bowen, B.W., M.R. Gaither, J.D. DiBattista, M. Iacchei, K.R. Andrews, W.S. Grant, R.J. Toonen & J.C. Briggs (2016). Comparative phylogeography of the ocean planet. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. 113(29):7962–7969, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1602404113

Selkoe, K.A., J. Watson, C. White, T. Ben-Horin, M. Iacchei, S. Miterai, D. Siegel, S.D. Gaines & R.J. Toonen (2010). Taking the chaos out of genetic patchiness: seascape genetics reveals ecological and oceanographic drivers of genetic patterns in three temperate reef species. Molecular Ecology, In press.

Gaither, M.R., R.J. Toonen, D.R. Robertson, S. Planes, and B.W. Bowen. 2010. Genetic evaluation of marine biogeographic barriers: perspectives from two widespread Indo-Pacific snappers (Lutjanus spp.). Journal of Biogeography 37:133-147.

Andrews, K.R., L. Karczmarski, W.W.L. Au, S. Rickards, C. Vanderlip, B.W. Bowen, E.G. Grau, and R.J. Toonen. 2010. Rolling stones and stable homes: social structure, habitat diversity and population genetics of the Hawaiian spinner dolphin (Stenella longirostris). Molecular Ecology 19:732-748.