Head of Laboratory

Ulrike E. Siebeck


MacGregor Building (#64), Level 1


Ulrike E. Siebeck


  • Amira Parker
  • Sarah Van-Eyk
  • Christoph Braun
  • Caitlin Newport
  • Sirada Oratanachai


The central research interest of my lab is the visual perceptual abilities and neuroethology of reef fish (teleosts and elasmobranchs). Specific areas of interest include colour vision (including vision in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum) and pattern discrimination (including robust object and face recognition). The lab takes a holistic approach by studying the physiology and anatomy of the retina, the optics of their eyes, and animal behaviour, specifically their ability to learn to solve specific visual discrimination tasks, both in situ on the reef and in the laboratory. Traditionally, it has been assumed that fish are relatively simple animals with limited cognitive abilities.

We are rapidly learning that this is not the case and one of the labs research aims is to apply rigorous behavioural methodologies derived from human psychophysics to better understand their visual abilities and memory function. In trying to understand the significance of sensitivity of some fish to UV light, we have also been investigating the costs of UV vision. We are interested in UV-protective mechanisms available to reef fish. Natural sunscreens (Mycosporine-like amino acids, MAAs) are contained in external fish mucus and in ocular media, where they absorb ultraviolet radiation and thus protect the fish. However, there is a trade-off, as this external protection limits spectral sensitivity as well as communication with UV signals. As a consequence, fish relying on UV signalling have reduced external UV defences.

We are investigating whether, and if so how, internal repair mechanisms (e.g. photoreactivation) may be able to compensate for the lack of external UV protection. This research is particularly relevant in the light of a changing climate which is projected to lead to increasing levels of UV radiation entering our oceans.

Selected publications

Visual perception / UV communication

  • Van-Eyk S., Siebeck U.E, Champ, C., Marshall N.J. and N.S. Hart (2011): Behavioural evidence for colour vision in an elasmobranch. Journal of Experimental Biology 214(24): 4186-92.
  • Siebeck U.E., Parker A. Sprenger D., Mathger L. and G. Wallis (2010). Covert face recognition in a species of reef fish. Current Biology 20(5): 407-410.
  • Siebeck U.E., Litherland L. and G. Wallis (2009) Shape learning and discrimination in reef fish. Journal of Experimental Biology 212: 2113-2119.
  • Siebeck U.E., Wallis G. & L. Litherland (2008). Colour vision in coral reef fish. Journal of Experimental Biology 211: 354-360.
  • Wallis G., Siebeck U.E., Swan K. & H. Buelthoff (2008): The prototype effect revisited: Evidence for an abstract feature model of face recognition. Journal of Vision 8(3): 20.
  • Michiels N.K., Anthes N., Hart N.S., Herler J., Meixner A.J., Schleifenbaum F., Schulte G., Siebeck U.E, Sprenger D. and M.F. Wucherer (2008): Red fluorescence in reef fish: A novel signalling mechanism? BMC Ecology 8:16.
  • Siebeck U.E. (2004). Communication in coral reef fishes the role of ultraviolet colour patterns for the territorial behaviour of Pomacentrus amboinensis. Animal Behaviour 68: 273-282.

UV protection/ocular media

  • Eckes, M., Siebeck U.E., Dove S. & Grutter A. (2008) Ultraviolet sunscreen in reef fish mucus. Marine Ecology Progress Series 353: 203-211.
  • U. E. Siebeck & N. J Marshall (2007) Potential ultraviolet vision in pre-settlement larvae and settled reef fish - a comparison across 23 families. Vision Research 47: 2337-52.
  • Jill P. Zamzow & U.E. Siebeck (2006). Ultraviolet absorbance of the mucus of Pomacentrus amboinensis (Pomacentridae): effects of fish size and time spent in captivity. Journal of Fish Biology 69: 15831594.
  • Ulrike E. Siebeck, Shaun P. Collin, Majid Ghoddusi & N. Justin Marshall (2003): Occlusable corneas in toadfishes: light transmission, movement and ultrastructure of pigment during light- and dark-adaptation. The Journal of Experimental Biology 206: 2177-2190.
  • Ulrike E. Siebeck & N.J. Marshall (2001): Ocular media transmission of coral reef fish Can coral reef fish see ultraviolet light? Vision Research 41/2: 133-149.


  • Leis J.M., Siebeck U.E. and D.L. Dixon (2011) How Nemo Finds Home: the neuroecology of marine larval-fish dispersal and population connectivity. Integrative and Comparative Biology 51: 826843.
  • Siebeck U.E., Losey G. & N.J. Marshall (2006): UV communication in fish. In: Fish Communication (eds.: B. G. Kapoor, F. Ladich, S. P. Collin and W. G. Raschi) Science Publisher, Inc, Enfield New Hampshire, USA.

Student projects


  • Mechanisms of face discrimination and individual recognition in reef fish
  • Behavioural avoidance strategies of elevated UV radiation in reef fish
  • Vitamin D3 production in reef fish

Research Support:

  • ARC Discovery grant (Leis, Siebeck and Paris; 2011-2014): Orientation in the pelagic environment: how do larval marine fish find their way home?
  • ARC APD and Discovery grant (Siebeck; 2005-2008): Hide and Speak colour communication in reef fish
  • Seaworld Research and Rescue Foundation
    • Siebeck, Braun and Reef (2012-2013): How do coral reef fish cope with elevated UV levels?
    • Siebeck and Eckes (2008-2009): The role of natural sunscreens for the control of ultraviolet radiation damage in reef fish
    • Siebeck and Marshall (2005-2007): How does coral bleaching affect coral reef fish?
  • Australia Pacific Science Foundation (Siebeck, Eckes and Dove; 2008-2009): UV sunscreens in reef fish mucus and UV-induced DNA repair systems in the tissues of reef fish


The Australian Coral Reef Society

Highlight in Nature: Secret code

New York Times: For Fish in Coral Reefs, Its Useful to Be Smart

ABC documentary on our work at Lizard Island:

Documentary: Cracking the colour code (incl. our work)