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.
From Claudia Reidy, AIMS' Lizard Island Field Survey journalist
Sea sighting - the leopard shark
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Following the light
"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
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
Anne and Lyle both worked at the
"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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"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
"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
Yogi Freund and Stella Chiu-Freud
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.
Lizard Island visitor - Nash Hancock
The CReefs team has had another visitor to the island this week – BHP Billiton's Nash Hancock.
"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.
Sea sighting - the 'serene' sea turtle
"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.
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.
Meet the researchers
Laetitia Plaisance says she is living her dream travelling the world researching amazing marine creatures. She told me that she loves
Do you feel like you're working?
Yeah I think it's work, but I really like work!
Why are you on
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
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
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
As only 30 per cent of polychatea species are known, Chris Glasby and Charlotte Watson, representing the Museum and
Polychaetes are a class of annelid worms. Polychaeta means "many-bristled" and the animals are sometimes referred to as ‘bristle worms'.
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,"
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,"
"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
"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'
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).
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
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
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.
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
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
Phil says that
"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
"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
* Claudia Reidy, CReefs journalist on Lizard Island
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.