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CReefs - The Australian Node


Goodbye from Lizard Island
By Claudia Reidy *

The time has come for our team members to say goodbye to each other, and to Lizard Island. Although the work will continue back at the museums and universities, the field trip is over.

The past three weeks have been an amazing experience for us all. The scientists have collected and examined an incredible amount, with the promise of many new species to be identified.

Some of the scientists will meet again for the next trip to Ningaloo; for some this will be a one-off CReefs experience. Ningaloo and Heron Island should be just as fascinating and share the same abundance of remarkable marine life that the waters around Lizard Island have revealed.

Julian Caley, Principal Investigator of the CReefs project, said he was very happy with the outcome of the field trip.

"We had a big group of people who didn't know each other and they all got along well and worked very well together. The scientists have sampled a lot, and sorted a lot. I can't imagine it could have gone much better," he said.

He said that due to this being the first trip, with a lot of logistics to deal with, things have "fallen into place", and he is looking forward to the next trip.

A theme among many of the scientists is the need for more study in the perhaps less popular, more obscure, marine sciences. Because so many of the scientists who specialise in these areas have reached retirement age, this is the perfect time for younger scientists to get involved with the study of animals such as bryozoans, polychaetes, isopods, tanaids, algae and octocorals.

Although Lizard Island is only one part of the Australian node of the CReefs project, the discoveries made on this field trip will be felt around the globe. The more we learn about our amazing and diverse marine life, the more knowledgeable we will be in terms of managing and protecting our oceans.

As scientist Laetitia Plaisance said, "if we don't know what's around us, how can we protect it?"

The dives have been incredible, the sea sightings breathtaking and the sunsets majestic. This beautiful island, home to such amazing marine life, will be missed by all.

It is time to bid you farewell. The labs are packed up, the bags are zipped up and the 12-seater plane awaits.

Until Ningaloo…

From Claudia Reidy, AIMS' Lizard Island Field Survey journalist
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Sea sighting - the leopard shark

 

Leopard shark.

Leopard shark.
Images: Lizzie Perkins

Leopard shark

Lizzie Perkins from the University of Adelaide was out diving to help phycologists Fred Gurgel and John Huisman collect algae samples when she stumbled across a Stegastoma fasciatum, otherwise known as a leopard shark.

The shark, generally considered to be a gentle, passive animal, was spotted on "Big Vicky's Reef", just off Lizard Island.

"It was amazing – the first leopard shark I've ever seen while diving. It sat there for ages while I took photos. It didn't seem worried by me," Lizzie said.

The distinctive markings provide camouflage for the bottom-feeding shark. They eat worms, gastropods (snails), molluscs, crustaceans a and small fish.

"As I got a little bit closer it swam off, then we were headed in the same direction so I encountered it a couple of times after that. It was just resting on the bottom so I was able to get quite close," she said.

"I wasn't worried at all when I saw it as they are generally thought of as harmless. It was very beautiful to look at; he was just watching me as I watched him."

 

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Following the light

 

Light-trap

Light-trap deployment.
Images: Kade Mills

Light-trap deployment

The scientists have brought many "tools of the trade" on this field trip, with one of the most popular being the light trap.

The light trap has been used to collect specimens at night in the waters around Lizard Island.

Shawn Smith, AIMS CReefs project manager, said the lights were an effective way to collect specimens.

"It's basically a big fluorescent tube that you connect up every evening before you take it out," he said.

"It sits out in the water about two metres from the surface. It is a big perspex box with a few gaps in it so the fish can get in but it's hard for them to get out."

Shawn said that the fish were attracted to the fluorescent light, much like a mosquito to light, or indeed a moth to a flame.

Fish display "phototactic" behaviour, which is movement of an organism toward or away from a source of light.  The light entices them into the tube where, although there is room for movement, they are usually trapped.

Shawn, along with researcher Chris Glasby, has been deploying the traps at dusk and bringing them back in at dawn.

"You have to pick them up first thing in the morning, as soon as the sun's up…if they're in there too long it gets too hot for them," Shawn said.

Chris was using the device to look for polychaetes.

"I'm looking for the reproductive forms of a group of polychaete that normally live in the sediment. It's the most effective way to catch them as they swim into the water column," Chris said.

"We're looking at how male and female polychaetes release their eggs and sperm when they reproduce. It's interesting, as these forms that swim into the water column modify their bodies compared to the ones that live in the sediment.  They get swimming lobes and large eyes so they can detect the light – they are completely modified," he said.

Chris said the difficult part was matching the polychaetes caught in the trap to those found in the sediment. He said once you do this, you have a picture of how their body changes as they reproduce.

Along with the polychaete, many crustacea have been found in the traps. Normally the fish found in the device were small pelagic fish, as they swim in the water column.

Although they are effective, the traps do not always catch what the researchers need.

Jo Browne from Museum Victoria and Griffith University has used the light trap twice, to no avail.

She is trying to catch gelatinous zooplankton for her research.

"Gelatinous zooplankton often occurs in large aggregations so it can be pretty hit or miss if you find them or not. One month there might be hundreds, the next month barely anything. Often when they're really abundant in the water column you get so many at once that they fill up the light traps," Jo said.

Instead of using the light traps again, Jo has been using plankton nets - one cone shaped plankton net to do the vertical hauls and one cylinder cone net for horizontal tows. She said this is an effective method, although the specimens may be damaged during the collections.

So far, Jo has caught various creatures including marine invertebrates such as jellyfish and small transparent marine creatures called salps.

The light traps are most effective at certain times of the moon cycle when there is less ambient light, as the fish are able to focus more fully on the bright light of the trap.

"The trap is the only light in the sky so everything is attracted to it. The less light from the moon, the more attractive the light from the trap is," Shawn said.

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Fulfilling life on Lizard

 

Lyle and Anne.

Lyle Vail and Anne Hoggett.
Image: Alex Vail

The CReefs Lizard Island expedition would not be able to go ahead without the Lizard Island Research Station. Without the accommodation, laboratories, boats and staff support, the vital research conducted here would be impossible.

The Lizard Island Research Station is owned and operated by the Australian Museum and is supported by the Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation.

The Research Station has been run for 17 years by joint directors, and husband and wife, Lyle Vail and Anne Hoggett. Two other couples, Lance and Marianne Pearce, and Bob and Tania Lamb, alternate as maintenance staff for six months of the year.

Anne and Lyle both worked at the Australian Museum as scientists in the 1970s and 80s.

"Lyle did his PhD out here and I came along to help and we both decided then that we loved this place and we would want jobs here. Then one day they became available and we pulled out all stops to get them," Anne says.

Lyle says that the location of Lizard Island is ideal for a research station.

"Lizard Island is located mid-way between the coast and the outer barrier reefs…you're able to go right across the continental shelf," Lyle says.

"Day-to-day we run the station, plan for its future, raise money, and look after the visitors (researchers, student groups, resort guests). In the winter we get a lot of yachties too – there might be up to 60 boats at Watsons Bay for the season," he says.

Anne says that initially the most difficult thing was to raise money for the station but now they have a "fabulous foundation" with many people, both private investors and organisations, keen to help the facility.

"It's remarkable what we've been able to achieve since then," she says.

The Station has just recently been, and continues to be, upgraded thanks to the Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation and other key supporters including the Ian Potter Foundation and the Queensland Smart State Research Facilities Fund.

"We're in the middle of a five-year program of upgrading the station's infrastructure. It includes new buildings, new boats, extending the aquarium, and improving the labs and power supply," Anne says.

Since station opened in 1973, more than 1,100 scientific publications have been produced by both Australian and international researchers based on work done there.

"All the discoveries are exciting in their own way," Anne says.

The scientists are all extremely happy with the station and particularly with the facilities.

This is Merrick Ekins' second visit to the station. Merrick is from the Queensland Museum.

"It just keeps getting better and better – and it's because of Lyle and Anne. They're so friendly and helpful and they just have so much energy. Nothing's too hard for them," Merrick says.

Apart from a stint in 2000 when Lyle and Anne's son Alex was starting school in Sydney and the couple took turns flying there to look after him, they have not left the island for more than a month at a time.

"It's just so beautiful here. It's a unique spot as it's a national park surrounded by a marine park…we just love being in a natural environment. You walk from the house to the office and often see a couple of monitor lizards and lots of bird life," Lyle says.

"It's the idea of doing something useful too, it's a very fulfilling life," Anne says.

"We always say we'll stay for five more years, but it's rolling. It's always five years from today," Anne laughs.

For more information on the station, visit the website at
http://www.lizardisland.net.au/

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 Finding the vultures of the sea

Niel Bruce from the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville – a campus of the Queensland Museum – has been on Lizard Island to study the "diverse" crustacean group, the isopods.

 

Isopod

Isopod
Image: Niel Bruce

This is Niel's fourth trip to Lizard Island, this time as part of the CReefs project.

He specialises in isopod taxonomy and crustacean systematics and has been on the island to collect samples, record data and do the taxonomic work involved in finding new species of the crustacean.

"We currently have really big gaps in the knowledge about isopods; very little is known about the biology of some species. Around 1,000 marine species from Australia are known so far (about 5,000 world wide); 300 of those are from Queensland," Niel said.

"In two days of collecting I've got around 45 species. Of those, there are about 10 are species that not yet been described. I'm trying for maximum diversity for the expedition," he said.

Most isopods are small, growing between only two and 10 millimetres, but some giant isopods, or Bathynomus, have been found to have grown to half a metre.  

There is, though, one particular group that is most famous, or more appropriately "infamous": those species named cymothoids.

These little isopods live parasitically on fish and eat off their tongues, essentially replacing the tongue by attaching to the host's mouth, hence their common name, the "tongue biter".

"The parasites on crustacea are permanently fixed to the hosts," Niel said.

Some isopods are predators, some strong scavengers feeding on dead fish and some are parasitic, burrowing into the flesh of live fish.

"The scavenger latches on and starts to eat its way in, they can actually switch to anaerobic respiration for a short time," Niel said.

Niel has been collecting dead coral and rubble around the island to survey the free-living isopods.

"I love to get out and see the animals myself. At the moment I'm collecting a 20 litre bucket of rubble per dive or snorkel. From one of the buckets alone, I got 22 species of isopod," he said.

Although little is known about their predators, fish seem to be one of the main animals to eat isopods.

Isopods could be seen as the "vultures of the sea"; Niel said. They are a very important part of the food chain, as the fish that die are eaten by isopods.

Niel said that one of the greatest things about studying a little known crustacean is that there is a "great element of discovery and new knowledge".

Niel enjoys the "problem-solving" aspect of the taxonomy and that fact that little is so far known about them.

"When you study isopods you discover new families, new genera – your scale of discovery is very high and you can set the standard for the whole world," he said.

Niel said isopods are also interesting because they can be a monitor of the environment. The abundance of isopods can be indicative of the health of the area.

"It's a simple premise that by the time the bigger animals start to disappear, like the fish and the birds, the damage is done. It's the little things that are really sensitive to habitat disturbance," he said.
 
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Lizard Island home to 'amazing' soft corals

They are probably one of the first things you notice on a dive or a snorkel – the beautiful and exceptionally colourful soft corals; yet so little is known about these animals.

 

Octocoral

Octocoral
Image: Trish Hendriks

Octocoral

Octocoral
Image: Trish Hendriks

Octocorals, named for the eight tentacles that fringe each polyp, are different from hard corals in many respects, including the fact that they have no solid skeleton and they are "filter feeders", unlike hard corals which are predators and capture zooplankton. Soft corals depend on the current to carry the particles to them.

The CReefs soft coral team here on Lizard Island is made up of scieBack to topntists Katharina Fabricius, Monika Schlacher-Hoenlinger, Patricia Hendriks and Merrick Ekins.

Katharina, from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), has been studying soft corals for 20 years, whereas Monika, Patricia and Merrick, all from the Museum of Queensland, are relatively new to the area. They tell me since meeting Katharina and seeing all the "amazing" soft corals on the island, that they have been inspired to expand their knowledge in the area.

Katharina said that only about five people around the world specialise in soft corals, and most are of retirement age so it is a good time for younger scientists to become involved in octocorals.  

She said that before she wrote her book on soft corals, there was very little available on the subject and most was "cryptic taxonomic literature" from the previous century.  

"They're not reef-building but they're very common…in some areas 25 per cent of the surface is covered in soft corals," Katharina said.

"I saw that there was a big gap in the knowledge – and also, they're really beautiful. Aesthetically they're one of the most amazing things on the reef – divers love them," she said.

The team is here to collect and sort the samples and expects to find many new species in the area.

"We are hoping to get 400 samples on this field trip. It's the first time that any attempt has been made to count the soft coral species systematically anywhere on the reef. Probably every second or third species we find has not yet been described," Katharina said.

The three scientists working with Katharina are from the Sessile (meaning not moving) Marine Invertebrates section of the Queensland Museum. They usually specialise in sea sponges, hence their affectionate name around the researchers as "the sponge people".

Originally from Austria, Monika was inspired to become a marine biologist after meeting Hans Hass.

"He is Austria's version of Jacques Cousteau. I met him when I was about eight years old. I told him I wanted to study marine biology and he was really nice," Monika said.

Patricia said that due to growing up on the Gold Coast, it seemed natural for her to study in this area.

"When it was time to choose what we did at university – I just automatically chose marine biology," she said.

Merrick began his career a little differently. After graduating with a science degree he worked in plant pathology until he took up the position working with sponges at the museum.

"Spending my time looking through fields or collecting samples diving in amazing water. Hmmm, I wonder which one sounds more appealing," Merrick laughs.

They say they have all been motivated by the soft corals and plan to continue working with them back at the museum. The team has been inspired not only by Katharina's passion and knowledge in the area, but also by diving in these beautiful waters and collecting the remarkable-looking specimens.

Soft corals come in myriad colours with intricate patterns. Patricia's favourite is the Xenia soft coral.

"They have these big long stalks with the polyps - they were still pulsating when we brought them back in. They're amazing," she said.

The scientists are enjoying their time on Lizard Island learning about these beautiful corals, but admit the diving aspect is ever so slightly more interesting than the data input. But overall the sponge people, perhaps soon to be octocoral people, love what they do.

"When you do something you love it never feels like work," Monika said.

For more information on the Queensland Museum's website, go to http://www.qm.qld.gov.au/organisation
 
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Photographic duo in their element

The Lizard Island crew has had the pleasure of welcoming an acclaimed photographer and producer duo to the team this week.

 

Yogi Freund and Stella Chiu-Freud 

Yogi Freund and Stella Chiu-Freud
Image: Peter Ward

Juergen "Yogi" Freund and wife/producer of their company Freund Factory, Stella Chiu-Freund, have spent the past week on Lizard Island taking some amazing photos.

The freelance duo is here to capture the scientists' work, their specimens and any other amazing creatures they can find around this incredible habitat.

The pair has travelled to Lizard Island many times but this is their first trip staying at the Research Station.

"We love it here. We love the mangroves and the reef. We're in our element. Our only frustration is we never feel we have enough time here. It's photographically too rich," Stella said.

They have been taking photographs of all stages of the research process: the collection, processing, microscopic work and capturing the scientists with their animals.

The couple met when Yogi was taking photographs as a volunteer for the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) in Stella's home country, the Philippines. Stella was producing a documentary at the time and wanted to buy one of his photographs. They were married in 2000 and immigrated to Cairns in 2003.

"I'm Australian now, he's still German but this is home for us," Stella said.

Yogi said that they were motivated to move to Cairns as there are so many national parks and beautiful spots around the city.

"It's like having a photo studio outside your door stop," he said.

Originally from Dortmund, Germany, Yogi has been a photographer for over 20 years, beginning as an industrial photographer and then, after being inspired by greater things, moving onto wildlife photography.

"It is always nature that inspires me," Yogi said.

The couple's work has a strong nature conservation theme as they capture the delicate images of animals in their habitats. They say that environmental conservation is a big part of their work; that shooting beautiful images can create awareness. Yogi has a strong relationship with the WWF and has been contributing to its image library for 20 years.

"You have to be inclined to help organisations," Yogi said.

"I started donating images to WWF and then after a while they asked me to shoot for them and the relationship slowly developed," he said.

Due to Yogi's work, he has even been persona non grata on an island in the Philippines in the past. In 1998, Yogi took some very moving photos of a whale shark being hunted and slaughtered by Pamilacan Island fishermen. After Yogi had left the island the new president outlawed hunting whale sharks. The locals believed this to be Yogi's doing, causing outrage and controversy.

"It's all about education. Once they agreed to stop hunting it was fine and now they're tour operators. Good things happen eventually but it's a long process," Stella said.

Yogi has won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition from the Natural History Museum in London more than once and, although he can be coy about his amazing achievements, Stella tells me that he has won eight prizes in different categories of that competition.

Stella's role is to organise the operational side of Yogi's work and make all the arrangements.

"I do all the behind the scenes preparation. He concentrates on the photography and I concentrate on the operational side of things. When I produced documentaries I used to handle 10 people; now I handle one and he's more difficult than 10 people," Stella laughs.

"We're story bound: when organisations require a photographer - we're there. Sometimes we stay for two to three months and travel around in our van Carla - we even sleep in Carla. Since we're freelance, we can choose to stay or choose to leave. That way we can cover so much of Australia whether by land, sea or air," she says.

The team has just finished shooting a "snake story" for a 30-page feature in a German magazine and tells me they never feel in danger when shooting wildlife stories, even if the subject is a snake, shark or spider.

"Recently we were driving a long, long way in the outback and we had to pull over at a rest area. One of the people there said ‘don't sit where the benches are, there are redback spiders' and he was so freaked out but we said ‘quick, get the camera'. For things that people normally say ‘eww' about, we say ‘wow!' Stella laughs.

For more information on Yogi and Stella's company, go to www.jurgenfreund.com

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Lizard Island visitor - Nash Hancock

 

The CReefs team has had another visitor to the island this week – BHP Billiton's Nash Hancock.

 

The 24-year-old Graduate Environmental Adviser for BMA Coal (BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance) has paid the team a short visit to see what the scientists are up to, understand more about the project, and report his findings back to BHP Billiton.

Nash Hancock
Image: Claudia Reidy

The Employee Engagement Program, of which Nash was a part, was financed as part of BHP Billiton's funding of the CReefs project.

The program will support visits by two employees from BHP Billiton on each field trip.

"My main aim was to have a look around Lizard Island to see how the research is going, and I also got the chance to go snorkeling which is great around here as it's such a pristine area," Nash said.

Nash said that he also wanted to come to Lizard Island to learn more about marine life.

"I've learnt about polychaetes, bryozoans, octocorals and I've been helping the scientists collect the specimens while out snorkeling," he said.

"I've been impressed by the different species on the reefs around Lizard Island. The giant blue clam I saw yesterday was amazing. When you swim over the top of it, it shoots out a big jet of water."

NasNash works at the Goonyella Riverside Mine and lives in Moranbah, a small mining town 200 kilometres inland from Mackay.

"My main work at the moment is water management. This year so far we've had over 800 millimetres of rain on site, which is like a once in a hundred years flood event. There was so much water on site that we had to make sure that our strict environmental guidelines were met on where that water could go," Nash said.

He said that seeing the CReefs project first-hand had been a fantastic opportunity to see the practical application of BHP Billiton's funding.

"I think it's a really great thing that they've done. The scientists are such dedicated people, and there will be years more work ahead from these trips alone," he said.

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Some of the scavenging-type isopods, the cirolanid, have been used to clean shark cartilage before it is sold.

 

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Sea sighting - the 'serene' sea turtle

CReefs participants Jo Browne and Kade Mills were out snorkelling around Mangrove Beach and Watsons Bay this week when they were lucky enough to see many people's favourite marine animal – the sea turtle.

Sea turtle

Sea turtle. Image: J. Browne

Jo and Kade say that they saw one turtle at each snorkelling spot. Sea turtles are generally not social animals so divers tend to see them swimming alone.
Sea turtles may be carnivorous, herbivorous or omnivorous.

"The one at Watsons Bay was feeding on the sea grass; it was just swimming along and eating," Jo says.

"They're a favourite with divers as they are so serene - they swim along so gracefully," she says. Kade says that although there are quite a few around Lizard Island, they can be quite random sightings.

"Sometimes you see them quite frequently then other times you go looking for them and you never see them," Kade says.

"Some will just swim around you; the one at Mangrove Beach just kept swimming circles around me. They're not too bothered by you unless you start swimming after them. If you stay in one spot they get quite curious and come around to have a look," Kade says.

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Lizards of Lizard Island

When I told friends that I was going to Lizard Island for a couple of weeks they all seemed to have the same reaction: "why is it called lizard island?" Being the "sometimes scared of reptilians" person that I am, I was hoping that it was because the island was shaped like a lizard. Perhaps not.

Lizard Island lizard.

Lizard Island lizard.
Image: Claudia Reidy

There are several lizards which populate this beautiful island but none so striking as the goanna, or Varanus panoptes.

So far, in two days, I've seen at least four of the enormous but indeed remarkable-looking goannas which live on this appropriately named island.

The first one stopped me in my tracks, its beady eyes staring up at me as I tried to pass it on the track.

That one was slow, and certainly not bothered by my presence. The other few were far quicker, merely poking their long tongues out and darting into the bushes as soon as I was close enough to remark "ooh look. another one".

According to one of Lizard Island Research Station's directors, Lyle Vail, the lizards aren't friendly per se, but they generally keep out of your way.

"Sometimes if you're coming up and there's one on the path and it decides that it doesn't want to shift out of the way, it holds its ground and coil its tail quite tightly – they can use it to lash out at you as a way of defending themselves," Lyle said.

He said it is very hard to tell how many there are on the island but he would guess hundreds, not thousands.

The main diet of a goanna is grasshoppers, but occasionally they try for larger animals. "People have seen them take off with little birds, but generally the diet is grasshoppers and skinks. You often see them digging under logs to see what's there," he says.

LylLyle said they grow to around a metre and a half long and only come out during warm days – they tend to stay in their burrows during the cloudy, cooler days.

"They need to get the sun to warm them up early in the morning to get their energy," Lyle said.

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Meet the researchers

Laetitia Plaisance says she is living her dream travelling the world researching amazing marine creatures. She told me that she loves Lizard Island so much she could see herself living in Australia; the only thing stopping her is having to put her cat through six months of quarantine. She's an animal lover, an experienced researcher and a passionate environmentalist. I decided to sit down with this French scientist to find out a little more about her.

Laetitia Plaisance

Image: Claudia Reidy

Tell us about your background.

I am from France originally, but now I live in San Diego, working at the CReefs Institution of Oceanography at the University of California; soon I'm moving to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington DC. My background is mainly in parasites. I did my PhD on the evolutionary biology of parasites. I got involved in the Census of Marine Life through the American node led by Nancy Knowlton, my adviser. We want to do a survey on the biodiversity of the coral reefs of the world.

What's the most interesting thing you've researched so far?

I'm always amazed by the amount that we don't know. For example for my PhD I was working on parasites that are found in the gills of butterfly fish and of the 15 species I studied, 10 were new. Only one-third of what I was looking at was known to science.

Why did you choose marine biology?

It was a childhood dream. I think because I was born in the Mediterranean, and I'm fascinated by the Mediterranean, it's like my heart. I'm living my dream – moments like now, on an island like this.

Do you feel like you're working?

Yeah I think it's work, but I really like work!

Why are you on Lizard Island; what research are you doing here?

I'm setting up a method that we can reproduce anywhere in the world to look at the diversity of the reef…you have to have a standard, and ours is to study biodiversity in dead coral heads. I want to see how many species are in the coral. Fish and corals have been studied, so I'm looking at invertebrates.

What have you found so far?

I've found so much. Only today in one coral head (Pocillipora verrucosa) I've found 20-30 species of crab. The pocillipora is interesting because it's everywhere except for the Caribbean, where it is extinct.

What is so important about marine biology?

If we don't know what's around us, how can we protect it? I worry so much about global warming. We need to study so much more to see the difference. I'm looking forward to seeing the differences in diversity between Lizard Island, Heron Island, and with my other work from Line Island and Tahiti. I also want to highlight the importance of DNA technology. Before we were looking at species and recognising them from morphology and a lot of it looks the same but when you look at their DNA – they are completely different.

What's the worst part of your job?

Having to kill the animals to send them to the museum, I hate that part!

What's the most beautiful thing you've seen while diving?

It was on Heron Island, my first encounter with a manta ray. It swam right below me, like an angel flying. It was very close; it looked like it was flying. I tried to swim faster to catch up but she disappeared. She was just gliding – so beautiful.

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Polychaetes

As only 30 per cent of polychatea species are known, Chris Glasby and Charlotte Watson, representing the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, are very excited at the prospect of what they may find on this field trip.

Polychaetes are a class of annelid worms. Polychaeta means "many-bristled" and the animals are sometimes referred to as ‘bristle worms'.

Polychaetes

Polychaetes

Images: Chris Glasby

Chris and Charlotte, specialists in polychatea, have already found many polychaetes and they're expecting half to two-thirds of those found on the island to be new species.

"At the moment we have two ‘morpho' species [not formally described] within the genus Nematonereis, family Eunicidae," Chris said.

"This is a genus that is not well known in Australia. We are distinguishing the new forms morphologically – one has a long antenna and one has a short antenna," he said.

"At the moment we're not sure that they're new but we think they are, so that's exciting. And that's not the only thing we're going to find. There are going to be new species here."

Polychaetes are related to leeches and earth worms as they all come under the Annelida classification which has three classes of segmented worm – Polychaeta (bristle worms), Oligochaeta (earth worms) and Hirudinea (leeches).

There are 82 families of polychaetes, and Chris estimates there are around 12,000 known species.

The polychaetes often have eyes, antennae and mandible jaws. They grow to different sizes but the Nematonereis that Chris and Charlotte are researching tends to be a small worm, growing to approximately 15 millimetres. They usually feed on alagae and tiny crustaceans such as tanaids.

The polychaete's main predator is fish.

"Fish nose-down and suck up polychaetes from the coral rubble," Charlotte said.

The worms are collected by hand using scuba on dives around the island. The scientists collect the loose rubble and seaweed to discover what lies within.

"You can have hundreds of polychaetes in one micro habitat, and we sort it in the lab to find these interesting things," Charlotte said.

Charlotte's favourite polychaete is the family Chrysopetalidae – and seeing a photo of it, you can see why. The beautiful jewel-like appearance and myriad metallic colours is quite glamorous for something called a ‘segmented worm'.

For more information on Chris and Charlotte's work at the museum visit the museum's website at: http://www.nt.gov.au/nreta/museums/index.html

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Tanaids

Magdalena Blazewicz, from the University of Lodz in Poland, is in Australia for the next 16 months working with the Museum of Victoria to study the "underestimated" crustaceans, Tanaidacea. With a species of tanaids named "Zorro" due to its black stripe, and some of the male crustaceans having claws longer than their bodies, it is surprising to hear so few marine biologists specialise in tanaids.

Tanaids

Tanaids

Images: M. Blazewicz

"I think it is because they are very small and most people seem to want to work on something bigger, like the octopus," Magda said.

"In the Antarctic they can be up to 20 millimetres, but usually they are very small in the tropics – just a few millimetres. I think also you have to be very patient when working with tanaids as they are a cryptic species. Superficially they are very similar but you have to spend a lot of time looking at fine details to find new species," she said.

Before 2000, there were 800 known species described, and since then 200-300 more species have been described and an extra 500-600 are recognised but not yet to the stage of being described.

"So in seven years we've doubled the number of known species in the world. It shows that there are a lot of tanaids….they are an underestimated group," Magda said.

She said that only seven people around the world specialised in tanaids, and there was still so much more to learn.

"We don't know what tanaids eat. When you open the stomach you can see organic matter but we can't confirm exactly what it is. Some of the male tanaids have an extremely large claw – sometimes bigger than their body! We're not yet sure what the claw is for, perhaps helping it to climb. ….the tanaids can be found anywhere but each species has peculiar preferences for micro habitats."

Magda is here on Lizard Island due to a 6th Framework Program (Marie Curie Action) from the EU Commission, allowing her to come to Australia and work with taxonomists like Gary Poore, a crustacean specialist from the Museum of Victoria.

"The aim here is to look for the varied habitats and to catch new species. The coral reefs have not really been investigated. I hope to find many new species here…so far I have five or six," she said.

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Sea sighting – Cassiopeia ‘the upside down jellyfish'

CReefs participants Jo, Kade and Lizzie were taking a recreational snorkel off the beach at the research station when they spotted a most intriguing little creature - the Cassiopeia, otherwise known as the ‘upside down jellyfish'.

Cassiopeia ‘the upside down jellyfish'
 

Cassiopeia ‘the upside down jellyfish'

Images: Kade Mills

The Cassiopeia lies on its bell, upside down, on the ocean floor and has tentacles that direct up in the water column. This posture enables the zooxanthellae (symbiotic algae that lives in its tentacles) to photosynthesise.

Jo Browne, one of the scientists who spotted this unusual jellyfish, will be studying it as part of her research on Lizard Island.

"I'm going to look at them to see if they have symbiotic animals living in association with them, and also study what they're eating. I'll be looking at whether they have plankton on their oral arms or in their gut cavity," Jo said.

She said that Cassiopeia are found in tropical waters where the water is clearer due to less plankton, so they can lie more easily in the shallow water where the sunlight is most direct.

The invertebrates' bodies are made up of 95 per cent water, three per cent salt, and two per cent protein.

"The ones we've seen out here are quite small," Jo said.

The Cassiopeia does have a sting, but is essentially harmless to humans.

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The psychology of phycology

When people presume you have incorrectly spelt your occupation because they've never heard of it before, you have to wonder if you are doing the rarest job in the world. But phycologists John and Fred love what they do and would not want to be ‘psychologists' for all the algae in the world (which is around 7000 species, just in case you're wondering).

Algae

Algae

Images: John Huisman

Phycology (meaning seaweed in Greek) is the scientific study of algae.

John Huisman, from Murdoch University and the Western Australian Herbarium, and Fred Gurgel, from the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Herbarium, are here to collect and record all the algae they can find around the area, and hopefully spot some new species too.

"We're trying to visit as many habitats as possible – lagoons, reef slopes, drop offs…we're trying to maximise the number of species we can collect," John said.

"Our aim is to document what is here. If you went to a National Park in Victoria for example, you'd be disappointed if you didn't know what was growing there. This is essentially a marine park – but nobody really knows what is here," he said.

Algae are diverse groups of plant-like organisms, ranging from microscopic forms to metre-long seaweeds.

John and Fred say that algae play a significant role in the sea; that when you look at a coral reef, a lot of the structure is held together by algae.

"A lot of the sediment in coral reefs is often from algae as well – it's not always bits of coral. There's a lot of calcified algae that breaks up," John said.

"It's the association between coral and algae that builds the structure that we see underwater…if corals can be considered bricks, algae would be the cement that holds it together," Fred said.

Zooxanthellae algae form symbiotic relationships with the coral. The algae and corals have a fragile relationship that is affected by, for example, higher sea surface temperature caused by global warming.

"The symbiotic algae leaves because it gets too warm and the balance is disturbed, causing the coral bleaching effect. The coral can recover if it re-associates with the algae," John said.

The scientists are expecting to collect at least 200 species in the area, not including all the pieces covered with epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants) that will only be discovered once the researchers look at their findings under the microscope.

"What is unique in the tropics….is when you can take a one centimetre square area you can find four or five species, all growing on top of each other, compared to the temperate areas where you find plants that are one metre tall like those huge kelps," Fred said.

The scientists say that Lizard Island is "a perfect, pristine spot" to go looking for seaweed but you have to dig around to find the different species here, as opposed to temperate climates where it floats around in large pieces.

To store the algae, they press the specimens and dry them out in a herbarium press – this simple process preserves the specimens for hundreds of years.

Both scientists are passionate about their area of study, and were inspired by different scientific leaders. John became interested in the field because of an inspiring lecturer at university and Fred by watching Jacques Cousteau on television.

"I've never been interested in things that are common, such as whales and turtles. I wanted to study something different – and phycology matched that," Fred said.

"The algae are an undiscovered treasure trove of beautiful plants," John said.

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Meet the researchers:  Phil Bock

Geologist, scientist, teacher, blogger, amateur philosopher and Fijian Chief - the indefatigable and fascinating Phil Bock has accomplished many things in his life. The retired scientist has more energy than a 20-year-old and boundless enthusiasm for his area of study.

Phil Bock

Image: Claudia Reidy

Phil became involved in the CReefs project not only out of choice and desire to study on Lizard Island (and Heron Island later in the year), but also out of necessity.

He is one of the few people around the world who studies bryozoans, also known as lace corals or moss animals.

"The biologists don't get into it very much….they tend to get things that are easier to collect. Something like a sea urchin is a lot easier to collect than these things."

When asked why students should get involved in his area of study, his eyes light up and he tells me "the soft corals don't have any skeleton – the lace corals are quite a different group, much more advanced biologically. There are so many weird designs to see…so many colonies. You can get these beautiful patterns," he says.

Bryozoans are tiny aquatic colonial animals that are abundant in modern marine environments, and have been important components of the fossil record. They are superficially similar to coral.

There are around 6000 species of bryozoans around the world and Phil believes that that there are 500-1000 more "which will be found without much effort."

Phil retired from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) 10 years ago but has never really stopped working. He is an Honorary Associate at the Museum of Victoria, and has been working there in a voluntary capacity since 1976.

He became interested in science at a very early age.

"I always wanted to be out there collecting rocks and looking at the world…when I was 13 we went to a building excavation for a children's hospital and I remember one of my friends broke open a rock and there was a starfish inside of it. I was amazed…so I started looking for fossils – which is what I've done ever since."

Phil's first passion was geology. He studied fossils near the Twelve Apostles in Victoria when he stumbled across bryozoans and started diving to get his own samples.

Phil says that Lizard Island is "marvellous" and "a great opportunity", as the area has never really been studied.

"This is my first time working on the Barrier Reef; I've usually worked on the cooler waters…I think I've seen around 60 species so far and most are new to me," he says.

Phil says that currently there is no-one doing paid work in the study of bryozoans and that he has been lucky enough to have created a hobby out of his work.

Phil has been running his own website on bryozoans for 14 years, and it's the first thing he checks when he gets up in the morning.

"I like to see what's been going on," he says.

His other interests are philosophy, particularly in relation to the evolution and creation debate, listening to music and reading science fiction.

He also volunteers at the University of the Third Age teaching geology and biology. At the moment his class is discussing the history of the Earth.

On top of all this, Phil is also a Fijian Chief. His father was a Methodist missionary and Phil was born in Fiji. Due to his father being an Honorary chief, they made him a chief too.

"I'm a chief in theory but I've never tried it out. One of the things I'm told….at least 50 years ago, was that no-one could be at a higher level. My mother said this was a real pain in the neck. Can you imagine a two-year-old in the room, the visitors came and they had to get down on the floor!" Phil laughs.

For more information on Phil's bryozoan website, go to www.bryozoa.net

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* Claudia Reidy, CReefs journalist on Lizard Island

Claudia Reidy

Originally from Hobart, Claudia has an Arts degree from the University of Tasmania, majoring in journalism and political science. 

She is a skilled writer who has worked in communication roles for government departments and the not-for-profit sector, and spent a year living in Japan teaching English.

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CReefs Australia: A partnership between BHP Billiton, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation,
the Census of Marine Life and the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).
CReefs Australia is a node of the Census of Coral Reef Ecosystems (CReefs),
a project of the Census of Marine Life.

Web contact: web@aims.gov.au

Copyright (c)2008-2010 Australian Institute of Marine Science
URL http://www.aims.gov.au/creefs