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From the Caribbean to the Gulf of California to the Pacific, Salomé Jaramillo Gil is willing to travel for her marine biology studies.

Two people stand on a boat floating in clear ocean water.
Salomé Jaramillo Gil and a fellow researcher observe the water around them searching for marine life off the coast of the Galápagos Islands.

Salomé Jaramillo Gil’s research journey began during her undergraduate studies in Colombia, where she studied the habitat preferences of the yellow stingray in the Caribbean. Then, she moved to Mexico, where she pursued a master’s degree in marine ecology, affording her the opportunity to study whale sharks’ movements in the Gulf of California. Now, as a Fulbright scholar, she is embarking on her PhD in biology at UNC-Chapel Hill under the mentorship of biology professor John Bruno. Her doctoral research is taking her to the Galápagos Islands, where she is focusing on the behavior and ecology — the relationship between an organism and its environment — of hammerhead sharks and eagle rays.

We asked Salomé about her research and experience in the archipelago.

Why did you choose UNC-Chapel Hill?

I was drawn to Carolina primarily because of John Bruno. His pioneering work in climate change and his dedication to mentoring Latinx students resonated deeply with me.

Upon reaching out during my PhD application process, I learned about his ongoing projects in the Galápagos Islands focusing on climate change and marine community ecology. Given my interest in animals’ responses to climate change events, this was an exciting prospect. Moreover, he mentioned his collaboration with researchers Diana Pazmiño and Alex Hearn, who specialize in the study of rays and sharks in the archipelago. The possibility of collaborating with them was particularly appealing.

Two people on a boat, one is holding a small ray still in a tank of water while the other person takes a photo of the ray.
Gil and a fellow researcher take a photo of an eagle ray as part of her project’s data collection process.

What are you studying?

My dissertation focuses on two main topics. The first one is analyzing the movement of hammerhead sharks and eagle rays within the Galápagos. I aim to discern correlations between their movements and external factors such as depth and temperature gradients and chlorophyll. The results of the ecological model analysis will provide information about the mechanisms driving their spatial behaviors and habitat preferences.

The second part of my research is to describe the diet of eagle rays across various life stages of two distinct populations — one inhabiting waters off the coast of Florida, and the other residing near San Cristóbal Island in the Galápagos — by employing cutting-edge DNA techniques. I seek to characterize the feeding preferences and dietary shifts of eagle rays, contributing to a deeper understanding of their feeding relationships with other life in their ecosystem.

Five people sit in a boat floating in clear ocean water while one person stands in the water next to the boat.
Gil and a team of researchers in the Galápagos Islands.

What are your goals for this project?

I aspire to contribute to our understanding of the interactions between large vertebrates and their environment, providing insights to improve conservation and management efforts inside the Galápagos Marine Reserve. Moreover, the discoveries of this work will serve as a cornerstone for understanding the ecology, dietary preferences, and movement patterns of eagle rays in the Galápagos. Given the limited knowledge about eagle rays inside the archipelago, this research promises to fill crucial gaps and lay the groundwork for future conservation efforts.

What are some highlights from your experience in Galápagos?

One of the most remarkable aspects for me has been the proximity to wildlife. Living here, you’re constantly surrounded by incredible creatures like sea lions, blue-footed boobies, and marine iguanas — they’re practically everywhere you turn. What’s truly awe-inspiring is the accessibility to marine life. Every time I dive into the water, I’m greeted by schools of fish, graceful rays, and even sharks. The abundance of life here has far exceeded my expectations.

Salomé Jaramillo Gil is a PhD candidate in the Department of Biology within the UNC College of Arts and Sciences and conducts research with the UNC Center for Galapagos Studies.

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