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CReefs - The Australian Node

Ningaloo Reef

Farewell from Ningaloo
By Susan Graham*

The CReefs Ningaloo expedition has come to an end, after three busy weeks. Many samples have been collected, and much work lies ahead for the researchers who will be carrying out extensive investigations into what they have found.

The next expedition will be to Heron Island in the southern reaches of the Great Barrier Reef, in August. We'll be bringing news from that expedition as well.

In the meantime, enjoy reading about the Ningaloo experience, below.

The crew from Ningaloo

*Susan Graham is a Townsville-based journalist with journalism and communication qualifications from the University of Southern Queensland. She has worked with WIN TV and the ABC, as well as being a reporter and photographer at various Queensland newspapers including the Townsville Bulletin.
Image: Susan Graham

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Niel examines Ningaloo's isopods

Dr Niel Bruce, Senior Curator of the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville, is a part of a group that has been examining the marine isopods and tanaids at Ningaloo.

"We have been going out and collecting as widely as possible trying to get the maximum number of species," Niel said.

"This is the first time this area has been examined for such creatures," he said. Bigger creatures such as crabs and shrimps have been examined in the past, but no collecting has previously been focused on the small crustaceans in the region.

A range of research would be carried out on the samples, including addressing questions about diversity patterns such as latitudinal gradients and east-west differences in distribution, as well as taxonomy.

 

Magda Blazewicz-Paszkowycz and Niel Bruce dive for specimens on Ningaloo Reef.

Magda Błażewicz-Paszkowycz and Niel Bruce dive for specimens on Ningaloo Reef.
Image: Gary Cranitch, Queensland Museum

Niel said he had collected about 76 species and only a few of those were named.

"Most of the records are likely to be new to Australia at the very least; they are mostly going to be new species," he said.

"I can't say that I have seen anything that is likely to be a new genus or a new family. There is certainly a whole number of taxonomic families that are not recorded from Australia." He said that was big news. "If it was birds it would be world news and on the BBC and CNN."

"There are probably about five species that I think I will be able to identify easily."

Niel has collected his isopod samples using a method he developed that employs diving, bait trapping and night lighting (see Magda's story on the Lizard Island field trip for more information).

He compared the look of the reef to others where he had dived.

"The character of the reef is very different here, it is almost like the outside is not a real coral reef, and it is just like coral growing on rock. I know as we have been heading south and diving more and more south the coral has got better and our results have got more typical towards what you'd expect from a coral reef habitat.

He said something that he didn't expect was the higher population and species of Asellota (a large suborder of isopods) on the Ningaloo.

Niel said, typically, asellotes made up around 30 per cent of the species in any area.

But at Ningaloo Reef, these species made up about 60 per cent of the isopods collected.

"That is really, really unusual, it is really uncharacteristic, but I think when you speak to most of the scientists they would say that this reef doesn't behave like coral reefs elsewhere," he said.

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Finding Amphipods at Ningaloo Reef 

Dr Lauren Hughes, a postdoctoral researcher with the Australian Museum, has been at Ningaloo to catalogue the diversity of her specialty, Amphipod crustaceans.

She said the crustaceans are about 1cm long and are often likened to marine insects.

"My main focus within the Amphipods, which has about 200 taxonomic families, is the shallow benthic fauna (those that occur from 0-30m)," Lauren said.

 

Lauren Hughes searches for Amphipods at Ningaloo Reef.

Lauren Hughes searches for Amphipods at Ningaloo Reef. Image: Gary Cranitch.

"They are usually associated with the bottom; they'll be on algae, on hard coral within the sediment and within the coral rubble."

She said because they were typically found in those locations she will search and take samples from those areas. At the moment she can process them to family level and some to genera.

She will take the remaining specimens back to her home laboratory at the Australian Museum in Sydney where she will spend the next six months completing identification of these specimens.

"I should get between 50 and 100 species," she said.

"I work on alpha-taxonomy, so I'll identify the specimens to species level (looking at new records) and also to name and describe new species."

She said little work had been done in this area of Australia, on the coast north of Perth to Darwin.

"North Australian amphipods are a little studied fauna," Lauren said.

"Much of the fauna appears to be related to other tropical areas that we know of in the Indo-Pacific, but probably between 40 and 60 per cent I'll be getting will be new to science."

To collect Amphipods, Lauren has been scuba diving and sampling habitats by hand. She places samples of the habitats (coral, seaweed and sand, etc) into either plastic or mesh bags, to later investigate under the microscope back at the makeshift field laboratory.

Lauren said that while she had not yet completed an analysis of the data collected, she did note that Amphipods were not as abundant as she had expected.

She said would like to determine why there were fewer Amphipods here than in other similar reef areas. Lauren said if given the opportunity she could have a wider sample area and search deeper waters and waters further west on the reef. "Maybe more sampling of different habitats might prove fruitful," she said.

"An exciting thing for me on this expedition is that I collected samples of a family called Maxillipiidae, which is it a bit rare. They are quite small animals, about three to four millimetres long. They are distinctive because one of their back legs is about three times the size of their body and is flagellate (whip like), an unusual feature in amphipods. There are only a few species recorded in the world. She said often the Maxillipiidae are damaged during collection due to the length of the leg and the antennae, but the three individuals she has collected remained intact.

"It is so rare I have never seen one before, so it is always exciting to see a family of Amphipod you only seen in books," she said.

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Plenty of urchins at Ningaloo

Diverse, colourful and exciting, the urchins of Ningaloo put a sparkle in the eye of sea urchin expert, independent researcher and author of Sea Urchins of Australia and the Indo-Pacific, Ashley Miskelly.

"My role has been to search for, document and sample sea urchin species from Ningaloo Reef," Ashley said.

I first met Ashley when I was invited to the beach just hours after I had arrived. As we walked onto the beach, he ran to an area of washed-up, dried-out seaweed that other people would typically avoid. I was not yet aware what his role was on the project. He told me he was looking for the skeletal remains of sea urchins that had washed up.

As a result of both scuba diving and combing the shoreline, he has collected evidence of more than 23 species, either their remains or live specimens.

He said that number was on par with what he was expecting to find, around 20 to 30 species.

Ashley said that he has collected about three species that he had not expected at this location.

 

Ashley combs the WA shores near the Jurabi Sand Dune for urchin specimens washed ashore from the Ningaloo Reef.

Ashley combs the WA shores near the Jurabi Sand Dune for urchin specimens washed ashore from the Ningaloo Reef. Image: Susan Graham

Some of the sea urchin skeletons Ashley collected at Ningaloo.

Some of the sea urchin skeletons Ashley collected at Ningaloo.  Image: Gary Cranitch

"All three are heart urchin species, and they are burrowing forms. One of them is a relatively common Indo-Pacific species that has been discovered in the past 20 or so years, but this is the first record of this species along the Western Australian coast," he said.

"Two of the other species are quite rare and they have not been found alive here yet. They are just known from fragments. This is a 450km extension of that species' distribution south from Dampier. Some of the other species that I have found are also extensions of the known distributions.

"Most species I am finding are tropical and some of them are very widespread, occurring from the Red Sea and the Indo-Pacific region."

Ashley found his urchins by searching coral outcrops while scuba diving, looking for the species that are known for hiding in crevices. They are called regular urchins because they are radially symmetrical. They hide away in the day under large rocks or camouflage themselves with seafloor debris, but you can usually make out their outline or see some spines.

He collected these by hand, noting that some of the urchins looked more formidable than they really are; "the spines aren't poisonous, but they look like they are".

When it came to the burrowing species, including the sand dollars, heart urchins and sand urchins (of which there is one species here), he found them by sifting around in the sand with his hands in the clean coral sand. The sand urchin found here, Echinolampas ovata, doesn't burrow very deep, so are easy to find, once you find their habitat.

He said he had found eight species of heart urchins, three species of sand dollars with the remainder being radially symmetrical sea urchin species.

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Surveying seaweed

Rainbo Dixon went to Ningaloo as part of her PhD research through Murdoch University in Perth. She has been cataloguing the marine flora at the site.

"I am focusing on one genus of brown algae called sargassum. It is one of the most dominant seaweeds out there," she said.

"I am hoping to collect from as many locations from around Australia as I can, get vouchered DNA samples and with these construct a molecular phylogenetic tree of the Australian species."

She said people often collected sargassum and they don't always know which species it is. Having reproductive plants that are fertile is essential to be able to identify the plant.

 

Rainbo Dixon photographs seaweed at Ningaloo lagoon.

Rainbo Dixon photographs seaweed at
Ningaloo lagoon.
Image: Gary Cranitch

"It is a bit of a problem group and I am going to try to work it out using the different DNA techniques," she said.

At Ningaloo, she made a total of over 400 individual collections.

After collecting, she returned to the lab to press her specimens in herbarium paper. Some of the samples would be stored with silica to dry it out. These will be used later for DNA analysis. Other samples are also stored in formalin which preserves their shape and form; to be studied further under a microscope in the laboratory.

She will describe any new species she finds.

She thinks that she and Fred Gurgel, one of her PhD supervisors (see story elsewhere in this blog), have collected new species as they had collected some samples that they hadn't been able to identify so far.

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Searching the sea for Sphaeromatidae

Christine Hass, a research associate with the Western Australian Museum, has been working to establish the biodiversity of particular Isopods (a kind of crustacean) known as Sphaeromatidae.

She has collected only few species of the family Sphaeromatidae but has noted that there are high numbers of asellots.

"We have found an amazing diversity of asellots, a group of Isopods that is particularly diverse, and quite small," Christine said.

She had also found that the Sphaeromatidae family was quite elusive.

"That is not really expected because in other coral reefs you find quite a high number of sphaeromatids; that is something unique I suppose to the Ningaloo Reef," she said.

 

Christine Hass searching for the elusive Sphaeromatidae on Ningaloo Reef.

Christine Hass searching for the elusive Sphaeromatidae on Ningaloo Reef.
Image: Gary Cranitch

"I have been here once before and I found a new species of sphaeromatid that is currently undescribed and I think that once we are finished here I will describe that species."

Christine said it would be interesting to return to the region and examine other areas such as Coral Bay.

She has been collecting samples from sand, algae and coral rubble to examine later, keeping them in separate plastic bags. Keeping the samples separate allowed her to determine in which habitat each Isopod species was more likely to live.

She said overall, Ningaloo Reef was quite diverse in Isopods. "I feel, we collected a good representation of what is actually here."

She said she also looked particularly at the Isopods that live in association with sponges. "I did that here too but the results were limited. There were some species but I was hoping for more," she said.

Christine said that the cooler water at Ningaloo was not likely to affect the numbers of Isopods on the reef as they were a very diverse group that lives in a wide range water temperatures.

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Sampling spectacular species

Western Australia's Ningaloo was a new experience for French woman Laetitia Plaisance, a postdoctoral research fellow on the CReefs Project. She works in the US for the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography for the University of California in San Diego.

Laetitia said for her, the Ningaloo trip has been the completion of the next round of strategic sampling in her work. She has been sampling in other locations including the Line Islands, Tahiti and Lizard Island in the Pacific, collecting species that live in small heads of dead coral. She said there were very strict guidelines to follow for collecting these dead coral heads. The head has to be still attached to the reef and situated at approximately10 metres below the water's surface, "that has been a challenge here where much of the reef is very shallow."

Divers enclose the dead coral head in a large bag in an attempt to capture all of the animals contained within it. They then use a hammer and a chisel to break the base, then bring the bagged coral to the surface.

Once back in her makeshift lab, Laetitia uses a hammer and chisel to break the head into small pieces, measuring about 5cm. "We get everything that lives inside, every crustacean, mollusc, worm and sea urchin, as well as many other things. Every piece of algae, every sponge, usually from one head here I have up to 150 different creatures that live inside," she said.

Laetitia separates the different animals into their types, to make samples easier to process and so the creatures do not harm each other. She said while on this trip a file shell had stung a shrimp and paralysed it.

She either freezes or relaxes the creatures before she takes a sample so they do not suffer.

"On a shrimp, for example, I would take a leg, and put it in a special tube which has a barcode on the bottom, I can scan that and it goes into my database and I link it to the tube that contains the shrimp," she said.

"I can use the tissue samples to sequence the DNA once I am back in the US.

Laetitia said because the animals are still alive after she had taken her samples, she was able to give the creatures to the specialists who could then do morphological analysis.

"I am not analysing morphology (to determine what species it is): that is a job for specialist taxonomists.

"I study the (DNA) sequence and once I have sequences for each species, I study how many were living in the coral heads, and then with a statistical approach we can determine how many species live in Ningaloo, and we can compare that result to those from other areas.

 

Laetitia Plaisance took samples for DNA Barcoding from this file shell.

Laetitia Plaisance took samples for DNA Barcoding from this file shell.
Image:
Gary Cranitch

She said she had a feeling that, when compared with other locations she had already sampled, Ningaloo had more invertebrate animals per coral head, than at Lizard Island. At this stage it was only a feeling, as the data was yet to be analysed.

Laetitia said when she returned to her home laboratory she would have more than 700 individual samples to process, and then she needed to analyse the data.

She said her work here was part of an international program whose goal is to barcode every species on Earth.

"After a while, people will be able to go into the field, obtain a DNA sequence and know right away what species it came from. It will make life much easier for taxonomists and ecologists."

Click on this link to read about Laetitia's work at the Lizard Island CReefs expedition.

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Fred's algal adventure

During the Ningaloo expedition Dr Carlos Fredrico Gurgel, "Fred", has been in search of algae.

Fred works for the University of Adelaide, the Department for Environment and Heritage South Australia, the South Australian Herbarium and SARDI-Aquatic Sciences.

The curator and research fellow has been combing the reef and ocean floor in search of species that are present in WA and to document species that may occur in other regions.

Fred has been scuba diving, snorkelling and searching the shoreline for algae that has washed up.

He said while collection was important, once back in his makeshift CReefs Laboratory (at the back of the gazebo which also houses our communal kitchen and dining room) documentation was also imperative.

He said the algae samples were stored in three ways.

  • In silica beads to dehydrate them;

  • Pressed between paper blots for insertion in the herbarium collections; and
  • In formalin solution which allows morphological information to be preserved

 

Rainbo Nixon and Fred Gurgel.

Fred said that each sample must be stored in all three ways as the silica beads and pressing the samples between pieces of paper can change the morphology (structure) of the plant after dehydration.

He said one thing that was especially interesting at Ningaloo was that they had found some species that are generally restricted to colder waters.

Fred said this could be because there was a mixture of warm and cold waters on Ningaloo Reef. He noted the good conditions on the Reef.

He said that while it was too early to know if they had come across any new species. Once they had returned to a laboratory for a proper detailed morphological and molecular analysis, all would be revealed.

Rainbo Nixon and Fred Gurgel.
Image:
Gary Cranitch

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Embracing a rare opportunity

TWO people who have been involved in the CReefs Expedition to Ningaloo from the beginning of the base camp set up, are Steven Gregg and Gavin Dally.

Both are from the Museum and Arts Gallery of Northern Territory (MAGNT) in Darwin. They helped the project manager, Shawn Smith, establish the base camp for the operation as well as the laboratory and laboratory equipment.

Steven works as a technician maintaining the MAGNT natural history collections, while Gavin is the collection manager of Natural Sciences at the museum. But they said their roles here at Ningaloo had been a little different.

"I am here to collect polychaete worms, so I am collecting as many as I can, all of the different types," Gavin said.

"They will be identified and put into the knowledge base of Ningaloo."

Gavin said worms formed part of the ecosystem's biodiversity: "they are food for a lot of things".

"The main collecting methods we have been using here at Ningaloo are scuba diving to collect coral rubble, broken up bits of dead coral," he said. "We break these up and pick out the worms".

"We're also using grabs, where you take a sample from the bottom of the sea," he said. "It is a mechanical device that picks up a sample which you sieve and sort out the worms."

Gavin said the worms had to go back to MAGNT where an expert would identify them if they have been sampled before or describe and name them if they are completely new.

"There is a good chance there will be new species found," he said.

"There are quite a lot of worm species here, a good range of worms and that is good news."

Steven said his role at Ningaloo had primarily been to take scientists out on the boats to sample in various habitats using different methods.

"I take the divers out, get them in the water and keep an eye on them to make sure they are safe," he said.

"If they need help in sorting and processing their specimens, I can assist them there as well.

"I have a science background in assisting scientific research, so I can provide support for most of their activities," he said.

Gavin's experience has encompassed a wide range of biological collection, but, "the marine stuff is certainly my personal favourite – that is where my passion lies."

Steven said he was able to contribute his experience in museums to this expedition, particularly in the processing of biological specimens.

"Science is very diverse and if you study one particular group, yes, you can become really focused," he said.

"In my role at the Museum I am spread across the entire spectrum of not only marine research but also terrestrial and other fields as well."

"By being here I am able to speak to people who are specialising in various area, so I am learning something all of the time.

"I am adding to my own professional knowledge base and all these people here are very easy to speak to. I find that they are the best of lecturers – if you have a question it is answered," Steven said.

Gavin was also enthusiastic about CReefs.

"For me the CReefs Project has been fantastic. These sorts of trips are really good for everyone because all of the samples that we collect," he said.

"They will be owned by the state they are collected from, in this case Western Australia, but will be distributed to other museums where they can be worked on by the appropriate experts," he said.

"For instance, the museum in Darwin will receive a lot of the polychaete worms, because we have expertise there.

"The CReefs project has been great for getting taxonomists together, and out in the field doing their thing.

He described the expedition as "showing people the value of knowing what is out there.

"This project is part of the international Census of Marine Life, which is designed to increase our knowledge of what lives in the world's oceans," he said.

"It has really been a pleasure to participate in this project," Steven said.

This was Gavin and Steven's first expedition with the CReef project and they are hoping to join the next one.

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Ningaloo – a destination

Ningaloo has been described as nature's aquarium.

While the divers here have been searching for samples of species from their particular fields; they have been also been able to see examples of nature's beauty.

Those lucky enough have seen dugongs, humpback whales, manta rays and whale sharks, as well as colourful fish and fascinating coral, most just a dive or snorkel away.

We have been staying in a caravan park about 30 minutes from the small town of Exmouth.

The area is alive with the sound of birds chirping, not to mention the caravan park's resident sulphur crested cockatoo which says hello as you walk past.

At dusk you can watch the migration of hundreds of kangaroos, wallabies and "wallaroos".

Also nearby is the Mandu Mandu Gorge, in Yardie Creek, which brings with it yet more wildlife, a walking trail and the promise of Black-Footed Rock Wallabies and other wildlife, if you are there at the right time of day.

As a Queenslander, with affection for sand and sea and a love for a colourful sunset, this has got to be one of the best places for those things to be seen together. You can sit on the beach, with no one else for miles and watch as the sun sets over the sea. Tt seems to linger forever. Seeing the sunset over the sea for the first time was worth the trip on its own.

Here are some of the pictures that the field photographer Gary Cranitch took during a chartered flight over the Ningaloo Reef.

 

Ningaloo Reef Western Australia.

Images:
Garry Cranitch

Whale shark - Western Australia

Ningaloo Reef Western Australia.


Tourist boats at Ningaloo

Image:
Garry Cranitch


A big 'Grey' kangaroo - Western Australia

Image: Susan Graham

Scenes from Ningaloo

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Studying the small - Bryozoa

Kevin Tilbrook, an independent researcher linked to Natural History Museum of London as scientific associate, works with an often overlooked group of animals in the ocean known as the Bryozoa.

Bryozoans are commonly known as lace corals or moss animals.

"Each colony consists of a group of individuals," Kevin said. "They're asexually budded one from another so they are all genetically identical.

"Colonies can form large intricate structures which bear no resemblance to the structure of the individual."

He said that he, like the other researchers on the CReefs trip, was at Ningaloo to do an inventory of the species in the area.

He said it was good to be able to collect the samples, (he looks at rubble, shells and rocks) even though he will not to be able to work the information fully, as he doesn't have an official posting or funding for further research. The samples he has collected will go to a retired bryozoan expert in Melbourne, and they will work them up together.

Kevin said his ability to access the deeper sites had been hindered partly by the weather and only being able to search while snorkelling on this trip.

He said he has recognised 95 per cent of the species that he had come across here.

Many of his samples had come from the lagoon but he thinks there may be more species on the outer reef. He said there was the possibility that there was more diversity to be detected if he were to collect samples from greater depths and other locations.

There are some species Kevin said he would expect here, but so far he has not yet found them.

"It may be phenomenally diverse; I don't think it is, my gut feeling is that it is not as diverse as the Great Barrier Reef. But it is interesting for the fact that it isn't diverse," he said.

"It may be because we are getting to the bottom of the tropics that we are not finding the tropical bryozoans I would have expected to find.

"But as there is so little known about tropical bryozoans it is hard to generalise about numbers.

"It is a good starting point for Western Australia," he said.

He said he was looking at a three inch shell that Magda had collected for him which carried about eight species on it, and added three species to his list. "That shell was from a different place, a different depth, it is about trying to get samples from as many and varied places as possible".

Typically, he said, he waited for the items collected from the reef floor to dry before looking at them.

"The whole rock glistens when it is wet, making it difficult to differentiate the bryozoans but when it is dry, only the bryozoans glisten, because they have an organic layer over the top of them," he said.

He said while he was at Ningaloo he would try a technique used by a colleague which involved adding food colouring to the water they were kept in. This method was meant to highlight the colonies when wet.

In WA he has been looking at the specimens under a microscope, but when back in the laboratory he would use an electronic microscope. This makes telling the species apart easier as the distinguishing characters are so small and only really visible at high magnification.
 

 

Kevin Tilbrook examines one of the many samples collected from the Ningaloo lagoon.

Kevin Tilbrook examines one of the many samples collected from the Ningaloo lagoon. Image: Gary Cranitch

He said he was looking at a three inch shell that Magda had collected for him which carried about eight species on it, and added three species to his list. "That shell was from a different place, a different depth, it is about trying to get samples from as many and varied places as possible".

Typically, he said, he waited for the items collected from the reef floor to dry before looking at them.

"The whole rock glistens when it is wet, making it difficult to differentiate the bryozoans but when it is dry, only the bryozoans glisten, because they have an organic layer over the top of them," he said.

He said while he was at Ningaloo he would try a technique used by a colleague which involved adding food colouring to the water they were kept in. This method was meant to highlight the colonies when wet.

In WA he has been looking at the specimens under a microscope, but when back in the laboratory he would use an electronic microscope. This makes telling the species apart easier as the distinguishing characters are so small and only really visible at high magnification.

 

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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