CReefs - The Australian Node

 Ningaloo 2010

by Rebecca Leech

Farewell from Ningaloo


3 June 2010


The CReefs Ningaloo 2010 expedition has come to a close.

The expedition has given Australian and international marine scientists the opportunity to collect samples from a large but mostly understudied reef. It has also provided an important forum for researchers from different areas of specialised expertise within marine science to collaborate with, and learn from each other.

Many researchers will return to their home laboratories to confirm and describe new species discovered in the past three weeks. Others will increase their understanding of existing species.


The CReefs Ningaloo 2010 team.
The CReefs Ningaloo 2010 team. Image: Gary Cranitch.

The work of the researchers who participated in the CReefs project will contribute significantly to our knowledge of the plants and animals that live on coral reefs, and the wider picture of what lives in the world's oceans, as part of the Census of Marine Life. This will be the last field trip to Ningaloo Reef as part of the CReefs project, but CReefs will visit Lizard and Heron Islands later in the year.
Into the unknown


3 June 2010


"What's out there?"

According to Gareth Belton of the University of Adelaide, this is the question that science must answer for conservation efforts to be truly effective.

"You can't do conservation if you don't know what you're trying to save," Gareth says.

"There are only a million or so species described, but there could be anywhere between 10 and 100 million species in existence that we are yet to discover and describe. For example, we have only explored two per cent of the ocean below 200 metres. We really don't know what's out there," he says.

Gareth is working with the University of Adelaide's Dr Fred Gurgel to collect and identify species of macro-algae and seagrass on the CReefs Ningaloo expedition.

"On this trip, we are gathering the most basic of data: how many species are there, and how much genetic diversity is there within species from different regions of Australia," Gareth says.

This information will help set the baseline knowledge about the Ningaloo Reef marine flora, without which we cannot detect significant changes - if and when they occur. Algal species can be monitored against this baseline over time.

Gareth Belton returning from a dive on Ningaloo Reef.

Gareth Belton returning from a dive on Ningaloo Reef.
Image: Gary Cranitch.

Algae are a diverse group, ranging from microscopic forms, such as phytoplankton, to 30 metre-long seaweeds such as the giant kelps found in southern Australia and Tasmania.

Algae play various roles in the marine environment. They are major primary producers – producing oxygen, fixing carbon dioxide, and removing nutrients from the oceans. Algae provide refuge and food for fish and invertebrates and on corals reefs they play a vital role in cementing the structures of the reef itself.

However, direct human impacts to coastal environments as well as the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations which will result in ocean acidification, can have negative effects on algae, especially the calcareous algae.

"All the elements within an ecosystem are linked. If the algae go, that will eventually affect everything else in the reef," Gareth says.

"So if they go, who knows what will happen?"

Samples of the algae Gareth collects on the CReefs Ningaloo expedition will be pressed for herbarium collections, deposited and curated at the SA State Herbarium, and samples will be taken for DNA analysis to better understand the genetic diversity and evolution of marine macro-algae.

This knowledge will assist other scientists working in marine research and conservation.

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Poison in the blood


2 June 2010


The zoanthids studied by Yuka Irei are small, sturdy and look great in your aquarium at home. They could also contain enough poison to kill you.

Yuka, a student at the University of Ryukyus in Okinawa, Japan, is focusing on zoanthids during this CReefs Ningaloo expedition.

Zoanthids, related to corals and sea anemones, are an order of colonial animals found in deep sea environments and fringe habitats, such as intertidal, back reef and other shallow areas over dead corals.

Described as button-like, individual polyps are usually less than three centimetres in diameter and feature two rows of weak tentacles. Zoanthids do not grow skeletons, but some incorporate small pieces of sediment, sand and rock into their tissue, and colonies can form a mat on the ocean floor or on other reef structures. Zoanthids gain energy through a combination of photosynthesis through creating symbiotic relationships with algae, and feeding on plankton.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of zoanthids is that some of them produce palytoxin, one of the most toxic organic substances in the world. Palytoxin can be absorbed through intact skin, and even in small quantities, can be fatal to humans if it is ingested or enters the blood stream.

For example, it has been reported that a home aquarist was poisoned when he accidentally brushed an open cut on his finger against a Parazoanthus species. He was lucky to recover: his zoanthid was found to contain more than two milligrams of palytoxin per gram, enough to kill 125 grown men.

A specimen of Zoanthid of the genus Acrozoanthus.
Image: Gary Cranitch.

Yuka adds her own story of a researcher who merely swam near a Palythoa species, and was sent to hospital.

"Some Palythoa species have a very strong toxin," Yuka explains.

"If you were to eat it, you would probably die," she says.

Not all zoanthids create the toxin, however.

"Some colonies have very strong toxicity but other colonies don't. It seems to depend on the environment," Yuka says.

While palytoxin is not yet well understood, chemists are investigating it for medical applications, such as use as an anaesthetic.

Yuka is collecting specimens and establishing the diversity of zoanthids from Ningaloo Reef. When she returns to Japan she will study the phylogeny, assisted by her supervisor, Associate Professor James Reimer, who participated in the CReefs Heron Island expedition in November 2009.

Yuka has collected species of Palythoa and Zoanthus, the genera most commonly found in tropical and sub-tropical waters.

She has also made some exciting discoveries.

"I found this specimen of the genus Acrozoanthus living on a worm tube. They have very long tentacles. I've seen this in Taiwan, but I've never seen it in Okinawa," Yuka says.

"I've also found a specimen of Neozoanthus. We don't have distribution data on this species, but it has been seen before in Australia and Madagascar. It's interesting because we found a very similar specimen in Okinawa, and we want to compare the specimens," Yuka explains.

"I think they are similar, but zoanthids often have a large number of different morphs of the same or similar species, so we are not yet sure," she says.

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Colourful defence


26 May 2010


The nudibranch specimen of the genus Chromodoris collected on the CReefs Ningaloo expedition may not be a new species, but it will help marine scientists better understand these amazing creatures.

Nudibranchs, sometimes called sea slugs, are soft-bodied mollusks that shed their shells after the larval stage. Nudibranchs of the superfamily Doridoidea breathe through branchial plumes clumped on their backs instead of gills: the word "nudibranch" means naked gills in Latin. The horn-like tentacles, called rhinophores, on their heads are chemical sensors that lead them to food or other members of their species. Many also have protruding structures called cerata that aid in respiration.

A nudibranch of the genus Chromodoris.

Image: Gary Cranitch

Nudibranchs range in size from two to 60 centimetres and can weigh up to 1.5 kilograms. Most are carnivorous, feeding on sponges, bryozoans, anemones, barnacles and even other sea slugs. Some species store algae in their outer tissues to gain energy from the algae's photosynthesis.

The bright colour of many nudibranchs warns would-be predators that they are dangerous: some species produce toxic secretions, while others store the stinging cells from anemones or bluebottles, which they eat, in sacs at the tips of their cerata and use these for defence.

This specimen of Chromodoris will be examined by Dr Arthur Anker and his colleagues at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

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Something from nothing


26 May 2010


Sometimes finding nothing can tell you something, according to Catalina Aguilar, a Masters student at the University of Ryukyus in Okinawa, Japan.

Catalina is collecting and studying soft coral species of the Melithaeidae family.

This is her first CReefs expedition, but she is comparing the specimens she collects in Ningaloo to those found by her supervisor, Associate Professor James Reimer, on the CReefs Heron Island expedition in November 2009. She will also compare specimens from Australia to those collected in Japan.


A coral of the genus Melithaea.
Image: Gary Cranitch.

"The specimens I have collected here are not as varied as those Jamie brought back from Heron Island," Catalina says.

"There are many different colours and colony shapes within the Melithaeidae family, but here most of the specimens are red or white. I would say there is less diversity in soft corals on Ningaloo Reef than on the Great Barrier Reef," Catalina says.

"This suggests that the high-energy water of the narrow reef at Ningaloo is a less favourable habitat than the wider reef with different tidal layers on the east coast of Australia," she says.

Catalina aims to construct the Melithaeidae phylogeny, and the specimens she collects here will contribute to her understanding of the family.

"There is some description of Melithaeidae species, but no one has put together a full taxonomy of the family, or what relationships the genera have to each other," she says.

The most significant characteristic of Melithaeidae is that they have conspicuous nodes on their branches.

When Catalina takes her specimens back to her university laboratory, she will conduct DNA analyses on all the samples, and describe the morphology of specimens that are most representative for each genus.


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Of description, drawings and DNA


25 May 2010


Tracking the identity of a species is a tricky business, especially when the populations you need to study are located in all four corners of the globe.

Dr Arthur Anker of the Florida Museum of Natural History is interested in the palaemonid shrimp genus Philarius that may help him understand species distribution and diversity in this shrimp group associated with the coral genus Acropora. Two possibly undescribed species were collected on a CReefs trip to Heron Island in 2009.

One of the three presently known species, Philarius gerlachei, was originally described, very briefly, in the early 1900s based on specimens from the Persian Gulf. Dr Anker has specimens of Philarius from a Biotas expedition to Madagascar, a Biocode expedition to Moorea in French Polynesia, and the CReefs expedition to Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef. These specimens share many characteristics with the Persian Gulf specimens, but are different enough, he and his co-author believe, to be classified as separate species.

"The specimen from Heron Island is much bigger than the others and more red in colour, the specimen from Madagascar has white spots, and the specimen from Moorea is greenish and semi-transparent – but these different types have all been all treated in the past as the same species, Philarius gerlachei," Dr Anker says.

He says it will be necessary to compare these recently collected specimens with the type series from the Persian Gulf – the specimen from which Philarius gerlachei was first described – which is deposited in the National Natural History Museum in Paris. The specimen from French Polynesia may well be the species originally described as Philarius gerlachei.

"Once we fix the original species, then we can describe all the others as new," he explains.


"Some descriptions from the 19th or early 20th centuries were taxonomically not adequate, which means today they match several closely related species and we are left to guess what the author meant," Dr Anker says.

Descriptive and revisionary taxonomy is quite often necessary, Dr Anker says, to describe new species or to revise previously described species. He hopes that his and his colleagues' work will greatly assist future identification of shrimp species.

"After we revise old species and describe new species, it will be much easier for other scientists to contrast their specimens with our descriptions, which contain not only morphological descriptions, but also detailed drawings, colour photographs, keys, and sometimes also DNA sequence data," he says.

"Now they will not have to guess: they will know."


Dr Arthur Anker examines a shrimp collected from Ningaloo Reef.
 Image: Gary Cranitch.

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Spot the difference


25 May 2010


Chad Buxton, from the Museum of Tropical Queensland, is almost certain that he has discovered a new species of marine life.

Chad's focus is on the order of crustaceans called isopods. He specifically studies the Stenetriidae family, which are free-living on coral reefs and are microscopic in size, ranging from two to five millimetres.

"Stenetriidae haven't been particularly well-described on Australian coral reefs, so most of the species that I'm pulling up are likely to be new to science," he says.

Chad has been diving and examining the material from the Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) to collect isopod specimens. He found the new species in an ARMS sample. Since then, he has also found the same species free-living on the reef.

"The antennae of these particular isopods are banded yellow and clear, and they have a distinct black dot on the posterior region of their dorsal side," he explains.

"They are significantly different from other species I've seen, so I suspect that when I get them back in the lab under a high-powered microscope, I will be able to confirm that they are a new species," he says.

The colouration, banding patterns, dots and speckling is a good indicator of species in some genera of isopod, such as the Joeropsidae studied by Senior Curator at the Museum of Tropical Queensland Dr Niel Bruce, Chad's supervisor and a participant on previous CReefs expeditions.

Although Chad's discovery is based on unique colouration, species in the Stenetriidae family are typically identified by differences in the first pereopod, the first pair of legs or front claws.

"Stemetriium have chelate first legs or claws, and the shape of the claw is a good trait for identifying species: some are narrow, some wide, some have a large hook, and some are very setose, that is, they have a lot of hairs," Chad says.


Chad is endeavouring to establish a more accurate taxonomic categorisation for the Stemetriidae, identifying new species, and tracing the ancestry, evolution, spread and diversification of species. The fossil record of isopods dates back 300 million years.

Chad's participation in this project may also reveal more about the role isopods play in coral reefs. It is thought that they provide a food source for fish, and also help to clean the oceans by feeding on dead fish and other detritus.

"Isopods are widespread and found in large numbers in some parts of the ocean, so they are likely playing an important role in the ecosystem of coral reefs and in the oceans at large," Chad says.

To date, there are more than 10,000 known species of isopod, classified into approximately 100 families. Around half of the known species are found in marine environments.


An as yet undescribed species of Stenetriidae. Image: Gary Cranitch.

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Golden petals of the sea
24 May 2010


Polychaetes, or segmented worms, are amongst the most common and widespread invertebrates in the oceans.

There are species that live in the coldest darkest abyss, such as the three-metre-long cold seep tube worm Lamellibrachia luymesi; species such as the Pompeii worm, Alvinella pompejan, that tolerate extreme high temperatures near hydrothermal vents on the floor of the Pacific Ocean; even one as-yet-unclassified species found by robot probes at 10,902 metres underwater, one of the deepest areas of the oceans explored by humans.

On coral reefs, different polychaetes species can be found burrowing into dead corals, moving freely around coral rubble and algal holdfasts, in tubes anchored to rubble or algae, or swimming amongst the plankton near the surface of deeper waters out from coral reefs.

Several polychaete families are named after nymphs and goddesses, such as Nereis, commonly known as the clam worm, and Aphrodite, known as the sea mouse. Others are less nobly titled, such as a species of Osedax dubbed the "bone-eating snot flower".

But of all of the approximately 80 families of known polychaetes, polychaete expert Charlotte Watson of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory has picked her favourite: the Chrysopetalidae.

"The Chrysopetalidae are pretty small, from two to 10 millimetres in length. Their hairs are expanded structures, like little leaves, that cover their backs and fit together like tiles on a roof. They are coloured gold and silver and bronze. Chrysopetalidae means golden petals in Latin," she explains.

This is Charlotte's fourth CReefs expedition. She estimates there have been 30 new chrysopetalid species found on CReefs expeditions, as well as a new species of Syllidae found from Lizard and Heron Islands.

"It's about five millimetres long, with brightly-coloured yellow and orange lobes on the back, with little white tips on the end of the lobes. The only other species of this genus was collected in New Zealand in the 1950s, so this is a new species and record for the tropics."

Charlotte has named the species Clavisyllis yongei, after Yonge Reef, Great Barrier Reef, were it was first discovered.


A polychaete of the genus Spirobranchus.

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Hitching a ride


24 May 2010


Human interaction with the oceans is changing how marine species evolve and spread, according to Museum Victoria honorary associate and bryozoan expert Phil Bock.

Bryozoans, also known as moss animals or lace corals, are tiny invertebrate organisms, typically about 0.5 millimetres long, that create colonies on dead coral or the underside of rocks in coral reefs.

There are around 6000 known species of bryozoans around the world, but Phil believes that there are hundreds more to be discovered.

"There are at least two families which were previously known from New Zealand, Indonesia, the Philippines or other places which are now known to be in Australia as well due to the collecting made possible by CReefs. Some specimens of these families will be classified as new genera. Another group was already known, but because of new information from CReefs, we're classifying it as a new family. I would say there will be between 100 and 200 new species discovered through this project," Phil says.

The specimens Phil collects on CReefs expeditions will enable scientists to investigate how bryozoans have spread and evolved.

"Bryozoans don't move across the deep ocean very easily," Phil explains.

"Some populations which are thought to be one species at present are found in Hawaii, Indonesia, the Solomon Islands and Australia, and in some cases right across to the Red Sea, so somehow they have spread. But there are others which are isolated on one particular sea mount. There is no simple pattern," he says.

"Some research has focused on a group of bryozoans that foul the hulls of ships, and through the movement of ships have spread around the world. DNA analysis of the genetic differences among populations may tell us more about how human interaction with the oceans has contributed to the distribution and evolution of these species," he says.


A bryozoan of the genus Adeona, also known as grey lace coral.
Image: Gary Cranitch.

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Snap, crackle and pop


24 May 2010


The snapping shrimp studied by Dr Art Anker of the Florida Museum of Natural History are bubbly creatures – they create bubbles for stunning prey, self-defence and communication.

Dr Anker's focus on the CReefs Ningaloo expedition is the shrimp family Alpheidae, also known as snapping shrimp.

The typical alpheid shrimp feature is an oversized claw that possesses a snapping mechanism – hence the name – almost like clicking their fingers. The claw can issue a jet of water and make a cavitation bubble, which the shrimps "pop" to create a shockwave strong enough to stun or injure other organisms.

"If they catch a little worm and it wriggles around, they just snap a few times to stun it," Dr Anker explains.

However, the snapping can be used also for self-defence or for defence of the shrimp's territory or domicile.

"When the crown-of-thorns sea star, Acanthaster, tries to crawl over coral where alpheid shrimps live, the shrimps, along with some crabs sharing the coral head, pinch and snap very aggressively until the sea star goes away," Dr Anker says.

Alpheid shrimps are extremely abundant on coral reefs and much of the crackling noise heard underwater is due to their snapping. There is even a theory that the noise of snapping shrimp may assist turtles and large marine mammals such as whales to find their way to coral reefs.

Dr Anker also believes that alpheid shrimps may also snap to communicate with each other.

Some alpheid shrimps play an important role in bioerosion – the term used for reef damage due to biological (mostly animal) activity – and renewal of reefs.

"Many of them are reef destroyers. They bore into both living and dead coral. It degrades reefs, but also clears away dead coral and allows new life to grow, and creates new microhabitats, so it's a very important process," Dr Anker says.


A specimen of snapping shrimp of the genus Alpheus.
Image: Arthur Anker.

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Softly, softly


24 May 2010


The fossil record of soft corals dates back millions of years, but pollution of the oceans could significantly reduce the number and diversity of these important animals in a much shorter time frame.

"In the age of the dinosaurs, soft corals such as Sinularia species built the first coral reefs," says Dr Merrick Ekins from the Queensland Museum.

"Some individual reef building soft corals such as Sinularia could be hundreds of years old," he says.

Dr Ekins and his colleague Dr Monika Schlacher-Hoenlinger, also from the Queensland Museum, are focusing on soft corals during the CReefs Ningaloo expedition.

Soft corals are so named because most do not have hard external skeletons; instead many rely on hydrostatic pressure created by actively pumping water into their tissues for structural support. However gorgonians, also known as sea fans, do construct a solid internal axis of gorgonin, a proteinaceous horn-like material. Most soft corals also have hard sclerites, made from calcite, which provide additional structure. These sclerites also provide taxonomists with diagnostic characters that can be studied under a microscope for species identification. The soft corals are also known as octocorals, as they have eight tentacles fringing each polyp, as distinct from the six-tentacle morphology common to hard corals.


While most genera of soft corals are not reef-building, they play other roles, such as filtering water and providing habitat for other creatures.

Drs Ekins and Schlacher-Hoenlinger are collecting specimens of soft corals, looking for new species, and setting a baseline for the abundance and density of species by performing counts on transects: each transect is 5-metres long and the numbers of each species found within half a metre either side of the line are counted. The results allow Drs Ekins and Schlacher-Hoenlinger to determine which species are common or rare, and to compare between reefs.

While they have found less diversity on Ningaloo Reef than on the Great Barrier Reef, there have still been surprises.

"We are excited because we've found a Zignisis," Dr Schlacher-Hoenlinger says.

Drs Monika Schlacher-Hoenlinger and Merrick Ekins prepare for a dive.
Image: Gary Cranitch.

"This is not a new species – the genus is known from the west coast of Australia – but we haven't found it on any previous CReefs trips. It seems to be rare," she says.

"We won't know until we have identified the samples in the lab, but definitely there will be lots of new species from the CReefs project," she says.

But will these species of soft corals survive for another million years? Drs Ekins and Schlacher-Hoenlinger say that pollution could have a negative effect.

"Pollution and turbidity can affect the health of soft corals," Dr Ekins says.

"If there's construction on land and you get more run-off and sediment, it's likely to change the species makeup in an area. Some soft corals are partially photosynthetic, so if the water becomes dirtier, those species will be affected," he says.



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The Barnacle Window


23 May 2010


Specimens of barnacles collected during the CReefs Ningaloo expedition by Andrew Hosie of the Western Australian Museum may provide insight into the symbiotic relationship between certain species of barnacles and sponges.

Andrew is the first researcher ever to visit Ningaloo Reef solely to document the diversity of barnacle fauna. He is particularly interested in sponge barnacles.

"It's unknown whether the barnacle burrows into the sponge, or the sponge grows around the barnacle, but effectively by the barnacle's adult stage, it is buried by the sponge with just a small hole uncovered through which the barnacle can feed on plankton," Andrew says.

Most barnacles grow a shell wall made up of a series of overlapping plates, but the shell of certain sponge barnacles leave a membrane-covered window between the animal and the sponge. Andrew hopes to collect specimens from Ningaloo Reef that will enable him to better understand the relationship between barnacle and sponge, and the purpose of the window in the barnacle shell.

"It could be as simple as conserving energy: the barnacle is protected by the covering of sponge so it may not need to build a strong shell. It could enable chemical communication: perhaps the barnacle is convincing the sponge's immune system not to attack. It is possible that the barnacle is deriving nutrients from the sponge, although in some parasitic barnacles that derive nutrients from the host rather than from plankton, the feeding apparatus atrophies, but is not the case with these species," Andrew explains.

Andrew will examine specimens under scanning and transmission electron microscopes to learn more about the window function.

Andrew says that identifying differences between barnacle species, and expanding the taxonomy of marine life more generally is essential for us to understand, and hopefully to protect, the natural world.

He draws on an analogy made by Dr Ashley Rowden of the New Zealand National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.

To paraphrase Dr Rowden: "Think of the world as a car. If you are just driving your car to the market on Sundays, you probably don't need to know exactly what all the parts do. You might understand the steering wheel and the gearbox and the tyres; we can think of these as the species that are common, understood and useful to humans.

"But if you are driving your car in the Paris-to-Dakar Rally, you want to have at least some idea of the function of every piston, nut and valve on that car; and we can think of these parts as the species we do not yet know about.

"Until very recently we have understood our world as if we were Sunday drivers, but driving it as hard as if we were in the Paris-to-Dakar Rally.

"The least we can do is learn how it works," he says.

A coral barnacle of the genus Cantellius. Image: Gary Cranitch.

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Gone fishing - for parasites


23 May 2010


From the beach or a boat, with a snorkel or on scuba, using nets, lines, spear guns or clove oil, Holly Heiniger and Dr Terry Miller of the University of Queensland and the Queensland Museum spend most afternoons on the CReefs Ningaloo expedition going fishing.

Fishing may be an art, but the science starts when Holly and Terry bring their catch back to the field lab and examine the fish species they have targeted for internal parasites.

Holly and Terry are documenting and describing the biodiversity of internal parasites in Indo-Pacific coral reef fishes.

Holly is looking for microscopic parasites of the phylum Myxozoa, which can be found in various tissues, including the gall bladder, brain, muscle and heart of fish.

Terry's focus is on trematodes, which are parasitic flatworms of the phylum Platyhelminthes, that can be found in the internal organs of fish, particularly the intestines and stomach. Parasites of these phyla also inhabit the gills, body cavity, liver, spleen, and urinary bladder of certain fish species.

"The diversity and richness of parasitic taxa on coral reefs is fascinating. Every fish species has a parasitic fauna of some kind, whether internal or external – some fish may host up to five or 10 different species," Terry says.

"Based on what we know already about host preferences and distributions of many of the parasite families we have recovered so far, we are certain that we have found new species on this expedition. Although, until we sequence the DNA and analyse the morphometrics of the parasites, we can't definitively say how many species we have found," Holly adds.

The work will contribute to the overall knowledge of parasitic taxa, host-parasite relationships and their ecological interactions in coral reef ecosystems. Another major component of their study is to explore the evolution and biogeography of parasites in marine fishes.

"We have found parasite species that are genetically and morphologically identical between Ningaloo Reef and the Great Barrier Reef and even wider in the Indo-West Pacific, so we're interested in how these parasites have dispersed over large geographic ranges," Terry explains.

"These expeditions have provided us an unprecedented chance to explore the taxonomy and systematics of internal parasites of reef-associated fishes, which together form a major component of the overall biodiversity found in coral reef ecosystems," he says.


Holly Heiniger and Terry Miller diving to collect fish. Image: Gary Cranitch.

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Frenemies of the reef


23 May 2010


The tiny, colored or semitransparent, one-eyed crustaceans that make up the subclass Copepoda may be among the most ecologically important animals in the world – but according to Dr Viatcheslav "Slava" Ivanenko of the Moscow State University, they may also pose a serious danger to coral reefs.

It's estimated that the oceans absorb approximately two billion tons of carbon each year. Copepods make up a large part of the biomass of the oceans, and so contribute significantly to the oceans' status as the world's largest carbon sink.

However, the news on copepods is not all good. Many copepods form parasitic relationships with corals and can damage coral reefs.


These copepods, however, have not been well studied in the world's oceans – Dr Ivanenko is one of very few marine biologists to focus on symbiotic copepod biodiversity. This group of copepods was discovered by coral aquaculturists.

"In French Polynesia and the South-China Sea, I found some taxa of copepods which we think could be quite damaging to corals. The parasitic copepods eat the coral hosts," Dr Ivanenko says.

"People from North America and Europe keeping aquaria had exchanged samples of an endangered species of Acropora – a very diverse genus of stoney corals, but they had problems from some particular species of copepods. Whole coral colonies died; it's like a disease. Interestingly, we know a little about the diversity of these copepods but almost nothing about their relationships with corals in the natural environment," he says.

Dr Ivanenko is studying the diversity and evolution of copepods, describing many new species and preparing specimens for DNA analysis. He hopes his work can inform ecological research.

"I am doing taxonomy but my goal is not only taxonomy. My task is to help people use information about small crustaceans living on the corals and other invertebrates, to identify them and to understand if they pose a danger to the reef. I have to attract the attention of ecologists. To my mind, it's quite important," he says.

Dr Slava Ivanenko examines coral for copepods.
Image: Gary Cranitch.

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Colonial forces


23 May 2010


Discovering a colony of social snapping shrimps of the genus Synalpheus has been a highlight of the CReefs Ningaloo expedition for Dr Arthur Anker of the Florida Museum of Natural History.

"This shrimp, a species of Synalpheus, is presently considered the only social marine invertebrate," Dr Anker says.

"Social colonies have been found in the Caribbean, but the colony we found on Ningaloo Reef is the first clear proof of their existence in the Indo-West Pacific," he says.

Dr Anker found the shrimp colony in a sponge. The colony comprised more than 50 individuals, all descendants of the same female, the "queen".

A shrimp of the genus Synalpheus, found in a colony in a sponge.

"Only the queen has embryos; it is the only reproducing female in the colony," Dr Anker says.

"There must be one or several males to fertilise the queen, but we cannot distinguish the king from the other colony members without conducting paternity testing, which is possible but very expensive and time-consuming," he says.

"We also don't know yet how the queen is able to suppress the reproduction of other colony members," he says.

Dr Anker theorises that living in a colony might allow the shrimp to better defend their home.

"Sponges are in high demand as habitat for animals on reefs. Social shrimp, by forming these large groups, can take over the entire sponge. They probably defend the sponge together, so if a worm or another shrimp is trying to get in, the shrimp may combine forces, snap at it aggressively, and chase it out," says Dr Anker.

Dr Anker's main research focus is on the snapping shrimps of the family Alpheidae. One of the most conspicuous feature of snapping shrimps is an oversized claw that the shrimp snap – hence the name – for self-defence, stunning prey, and possibly also for communication.

"Most alpheid shrimps live in pairs, but like this species, rarely in colonies. Normally they are quite aggressive and they would immediately start snapping at each other, but these Synalpheus shrimps are living together in a similar system to termite colonies," Dr Anker explains.

Shrimps are among the most abundant and diverse creatures found on coral reefs. The genus Alpheus, for instance, has approximately 300 known species, but Dr Anker estimates there may be as many as 800-1000 species worldwide.

Dr Anker is the only researcher in the world currently specialising in alpheid shrimps. His participation in the CReefs expedition to Lizard Island in February 2009 resulted in the identification of at least three new species in this family.


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Killer algae


23 May 2010


To the untrained eye, it looks like a bunch of grapes, but the University of Adelaide's Dr Carlos Frederico "Fred" Gurgel knows this alga could be a killer.

"Caulerpa racemosa belongs to the same genus as Caulerpa taxifolia, which is one of the top 100 invasive hence ecologically-aggressive species in the world," Dr Gurgel says.

"There are several different varieties of Caulerpa racemosa – the morphology varies widely, and wildly – and one of these varieties has now being introduced in Adelaide, in South Australia, as well, which suggests that this genus, more than others, is prone to producing species with ecologically-negative impacts," he says.

"Caulerpa taxifolia introduced populations grow very fast. They smother temperate reefs and displace the local species, other algae and animals, everything. The end result is a mono-culture: fields of Caulerpa and almost nothing else. "

Dr Gurgel has been awarded a significant Australian Research Council grant to study Caulerpa. He will compile a DNA barcode database of the approximately 30 Caulerpa species found in Australia plus species from other countries so that any new introductions can be identified promptly and before populations become invasive.

The project will also simulate, in the laboratory in aquaria systems, scenarios of climate change in the marine environment in order to test the effects of differing values of temperature, salinity, acidity, light and nutrients on the these algae.

"We want to pinpoint exactly which physical conditions weaken the plant the most, use models to predict when those environmental conditions will occur, and implement eradication mechanisms to coincide with those conditions. This will provide us with the information to help us eradicate the invasive species more effectively and therefore also more cheaply," he says.

The project will also track the origin of the invasive populations in Australia using techniques of biogeography and population genetics.

"Australia is probably the richest place for species in this genus," Dr Gurgel explains.

"The species in the tropics are native. It is only when they are introduced into temperate, cold waters in New South Wales and South Australia that they become invasive, but as yet we don't understand how they are spreading to these areas," he says.

From left to right: Caulerpa peltata, Caulerpa racemosa and Hypnea pannosa collected and photographed at Ningaloo Reef by Fred Gurgel. Image: Fred Gurgel.

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A steady hand


22 May 2010


The creatures that occupy the time of the Museum of Tropical Queensland's Chad Buxton are not easy to find – they're less than five millimetres in length and transparent.

Chad's group of study is an order of crustaceans called isopods. Isopods range in size from 300 micrometres to nearly 50 centimetres in the case of the species, Bathynomus giganteus.

Chad's focus is specifically the family Stenetriidae, which live freely on coral reefs in the Indo-Pacific, and typically measure from one to five millimetres in size.

In order to find Stenetriidae on this CReefs expedition Chad SCUBA dives, looking for reef areas with high-energy and clear water and that have complex reef structures such as coral rubble with holes or pores that provide hiding places for small animals. He brings chunks of these structures back to the sheep-shearing shed (the makeshift research lab on Ningaloo) where he breaks up the structures and adds formalin to the sea water to agitate the isopods out from their hiding spots. He then strains the water through a very fine mesh net up to 15 times, rinsing the net into a sample jar each time, before examining the sample under a microscope.

Only at this point does he know if he has found Stenetriidae.

Chad performs a rough classification in the field laboratory at Ningaloo Station, but when he takes the specimens back to his home laboratory, he will use a compound microscope (and sometimes high-powered scanning electron microscopy) to identify the isopods.

And then he will dissect them.

"We need to create our own needles from tungsten wire and dissect isopods under a dissecting microscope. The needles I am currently using were a gift from Michitaka Shimomura, an isopod expert from Japan," Chad explains.

Chad Buxton diving for isopods on Ningaloo Reef. |Image: Gary Cranitch.

"Under the microscope, I can examine, for example, the fine detail of setae, the hairs on a claw of a creature that itself might be only three millimetres in size. I have to dissect the isopod legs and even the reproductive structures which are so small they would fit on a pinhead. It's time-consuming and technical work. You have to be very careful and have a steady hand," he says.

Chad is working on an Australian Biological Resources Study grant to study isopods at the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville and is currently pursuing his PhD at James Cook University.
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Canary in the mine


21 May 2010


Polychaetes are known by many monikers – bristleworms, featherduster worms, lugworms, clam worms and fire worms to name a few – but according to polychaete expert Charlotte Watson of the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, they could also be dubbed " the early warning worms".

Polychaetes are invertebrate, segmented worms. Body types vary widely between families, but all species have bristles in common – the name polychaete means "many hairs".

Polychaetes tend to be widespread and appear in large numbers throughout the oceans – so monitoring changes in polychaete biodiversity on coral reefs could provide scientists with an early warning system of potential degradations to these ecosystems.

"The small invertebrates in the reefs are like the canary in the mine," Charlotte says.

"A system balances itself – up to a point. But if there are very big outside influences, like unusual environmental change or persistent human interference, it's important that we catch the early warning signs. For example, ocean warming can encourage more algae to grow, which may smother corals, which causes polychaetes that live in the corals to die off, which removes a food source for the fish that eat the polychaetes.

"By the time people are asking ‘Where have all the fish gone?', it's well past time to be thinking about solutions," she said.

Charlotte is one of a number of scientists collecting and identifying polychaete specimens from Ningaloo Reef to establish a baseline for the diversity of the class and describe new genera and species. There are approximately 100 families of known polychaetes. Charlotte has been awarded a CReefs grant that will allow her to continue her study of polychaetes for another three years.


Charlotte Watson examining polychaete specimens in the field laboratory at Ningaloo Station. Image: Gary Cranitch.

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Origin of the species


21 May 2010


Dr Fred Gurgel and Gareth Belton examining macroalgae in the research lab at Ningaloo Station.
Image: Gary Cranitch.

Examining the genetic differences in algae can help scientists understand the evolution of marine plant species and assist ocean conservation, according to the University of Adelaide's Dr Carlos Frederico "Fred" Gurgel and PhD student Gareth Belton.

Their field of research is called Phycology, or marine botany – the study of algae and seagrasses. They have been scuba diving, snorkelling and searching the ocean for specimens of macroalgae for the University of Adelaide and the South Australian State Herbarium and the South Australian Research and Development Institute – Aquatic Sciences branch.

Fred and Gareth use taxonomy, morphology (the study of shapes, structure and anatomy), molecular biology (DNA analyses) and biogeography to understand the evolution, distribution and biodiversity of marine algae.

"Part of our work is to look at any genetic differences between populations of macroalgae found in different places and environments," Gareth explains.

"If we find genetic differences between populations we try and understand the reason for the lack of gene flow between these populations, which could be due to ocean currents or prevailing winds. If you find quite significant genetic differences between the populations, we could have a new species rather than different populations," he says.

"But if we find only minor differences between populations, we might be seeing the start of speciation. For example, if one population of macroalgae lives in cold, rough conditions in Victoria, and a genetically identical population lives in calm, warm waters here at Ningaloo, with minimal gene-flow between the populations, they may eventually become adapted to their local different environments, differentiate, and become distinct species. The problem is that just by looking at them we can't tell at which stage in the evolutionary process they are. We need to do DNA analysis to understand the whole story," Gareth says.

One particular green alga, for example, had always been found growing together with a sponge, in a symbiotic relationship between the two: a plant (the alga) and an animal (the sponge). This structure had been found throughout the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.

"It was assumed to be one species of alga and one species of sponge. Every time we found it, we knew exactly what they were," Fred explains.

"But recent molecular analysis conducted in our lab is now showing that, even though they all look the same, in different areas they are composed of different species of green algae and different species of sponge. You can't tell that from looking at it, you can only tell through DNA analysis. The levels of genetic diversity observed can even put these newly discovered entities in different genera.

"Just by looking at the morphology you cannot quantify the true biodiversity," he says.

This has important implications for conservation of coral reefs.

"We now know that there is greater macroalgal diversity than formerly appreciated," Gareth says.

"If we lose a population in the Ningaloo Reef, for example, we can't assume that's okay because it's still found in other tropical environments, like the Great Barrier Reef. It's not. It could be a separate species or sub-species, and it will be gone forever. Modern conservation efforts aim not only to ensure the survival of species but also to protect the genetic diversity within species. Once the genetic diversity is lost, the likelihood a species will disappear, increases," he says.

Fred's team, in collaboration with Murdoch University's Dr John Huisman and Melbourne University's Gerry Kraft, is working on a book of the red algal flora of the Great Barrier Reef that will be published by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Australian Biological Resources Study as part of the Algae of Australia series.

"But recent molecular analysis conducted in our lab is now showing that, even though they all look the same, in different areas they are composed of different species of green algae and different species of sponge. You can't tell that from looking at it, you can only tell through DNA analysis. The levels of genetic diversity observed can even put these newly discovered entities in different genera.

"Just by looking at the morphology you cannot quantify the true biodiversity," he says.

This has important implications for conservation of coral reefs.

"We now know that there is greater macroalgal diversity than formerly appreciated," Gareth says.

"If we lose a population in the Ningaloo Reef, for example, we can't assume that's okay because it's still found in other tropical environments, like the Great Barrier Reef. It's not. It could be a separate species or sub-species, and it will be gone forever. Modern conservation efforts aim not only to ensure the survival of species but also to protect the genetic diversity within species. Once the genetic diversity is lost, the likelihood a species will disappear, increases," he says.

Fred's team, in collaboration with Murdoch University's Dr John Huisman and Melbourne University's Gerry Kraft, is working on a book of the red algal flora of the Great Barrier Reef that will be published by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Australian Biological Resources Study as part of the Algae of Australia series.

Dr Fred Gurgel returns from a dive. Image: Gary Cranitch.

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True Colours


20 May 2010


It's not easy being green, or purple, orange or blue – at least if you're a crab and you happen to catch the eye of University of Singapore Ph. D. student Rob Lasley.

Rob is studying brachyura, or true crabs, focusing on the xanthid family, specifically the genus Chlorodiella.

With about 7,000 known species, true crabs are a diverse group. Rob says that it is challenging to classify new species definitively in the field, because many of the features that distinguish species from each other can only be found through detailed lab work.

"It's hard to tell because they're small, but look at this one," Rob urges. "It's blue and purple and the claws are orange and it's got hairs all over it. From a distance it looks just like this one, but this one is totally different: the shape of the carapace (the shell) is different and it's got different colour spots on it. Colour is very important," he says.

"We also look under a microscope at the small structures: the tips of the claws, the teeth on the side of the carapace, and in males, the intermittent organs for mating, called gonopods," he says.

Following extensive lab work on the crabs he collected in Ningaloo on last's year CReefs expedition, Rob is certain he has discovered at least one new species of Chlorodiella. Chlorodiella are characterised by rounded, often called spoon-shaped, tips on the claws. Rob is collecting more samples on this trip.

"I've found species of Chlorodiella on all the CReefs trips: in Ningaloo, Heron Island and Lizard Island. It's amazing that a species can be found all over the Indian and Pacific Oceans, yet we know so little about it. It shows how much we still have to learn about the biodiversity of coral reefs," Rob says.

Rob says he is fascinated by the diversity of crabs.

"And," he adds, "they're fun to catch."

A brachyuran of the Hirsutodynomene genus, found on Ningaloo Reef. Image: Gary Cranitch.

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Can we save the ocean - or will the ocean save us?


20 May 2010


Compounds discovered in underwater life may hold the key to curing cancer, according to Museum Victoria honorary associate and bryozoan expert Phil Bock.

Bryozoans, also known as moss animals or lace corals, are tiny invertebrate organisms, typically about 0.5 millimetres long that create colonies on dead coral or the underside of rocks in coral reefs.

There are around 6000 species of bryozoans around the world and Phil believes there are hundreds more to be discovered.

Chemicals extracted from bryozoans are being investigated for use in the treatment of cancer and other diseases, and have provided encouraging results.

"Analysis of a marine bryozoan species in America has come up with some interesting anti-cancer compounds which are still being tested," Phil said, "although it may not be the bryozoan that was releasing the anti-cancer compounds, but the bugs that were living inside."

But this doesn't mean we should give up investigating bryozoans for medical properties, Phil said.

"Any creature that is soft and brightly coloured and just sits there saying, ‘Eat me, eat me!' needs a defence which may be chemical. Many marine animals, including bryozoans, produce all sorts of odd chemicals some of which may display bioactivity that humans can harness for their own purposes. Chemists are only just beginning to discover the enormous range and the potential uses of such chemicals from the oceans," he said.

Bryozoans on the reef also provide food for nudibranchs (sea slugs), sea urchins, crustaceans, mites and starfish, among other things and contribute to the structure of coral reefs by depositing calcium carbonate in a similar way as corals.


Melbourne Museum bryozoan expert Phil Bock examines specimens.
Image: Gary Cranitch.

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CReefs to star in BBC doco


20 May 2010


A BBC Horizons film crew visited the CReefs Ningaloo expedition to record material for a documentary with the working title Can We Save the Ocean?

The crew filmed footage of the retrieval and processing of the Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS), as well interviewed many of the researchers participating in the CReefs expedition.

The documentary will focus on the Census of Marine Life, of which the CReefs program is a part. The Census of Marine Life is a comprehensive international survey of the diversity, distribution and abundance of marine life in the oceans, past, present and future. Findings of the 10-year survey will be released in October this year.

The BBC documentary will use the CReefs project as an example of the important work of the Census.

The documentary will also include three case studies: overfishing in Boston Harbour and Cape Cod in Massachusetts, US; acoustic noise pollution affecting whale behaviour in the same area; and climate change, ocean acidification and ocean warming, being filmed in Australia.

Clare Kingston, science researcher on the BBC project, said the CReefs project was essential in the documentary because it illustrated the scale of what is not yet known about the oceans.

"A key theme of the film is that we're destroying the ocean before we even know what's in it," she said.

"The CReefs project is really important because it documents the current biodiversity of coral reefs, which are species-rich but as yet, so little understood. Scientists on this expedition have discovered new species; it's a race against time to identify species before they're potentially lost," she said.

Clare said the documentary urges a cautious optimism about the future of marine life.

"We asked every scientist we interviewed, ‘Do you think it's too late to save the ocean?' and nearly all of them said, ‘No, it's not; science can help.' So we hope people will come away from the film understanding that we can save the oceans, but only if people change their behaviour, significantly and starting now," she said.

The BBC Horizons documentary will screen in the UK to coincide with the release of the Census report in October.


The BBC film crew recording footage of the CReefs expedition.
Image: Gary Cranitch.

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True crabs, false crabs and crabs twice described


19 May 2010


When is a crab truly a crab? Rob Lasley of the University of Singapore is studying brachyura, or true crabs, on the CReefs Ningaloo expedition.

Brachyura are an order of crustaceans that usually have a short tail and small abdomen hidden under the thorax. While some "wannabe" crabs take the name, such as hermit crabs and horseshoe crabs, these are not true crabs, but a different suborder of crustacean.

Rob's work is focusing on the xanthoid family of brachyura, specifically the subfamily chlorodiella. He expects to find new species of chlorodiella as well to sample extensively to improve the accuracy of the taxonomic record of these species. Rob will also take tissue samples of his specimens to be archived in a tissue library at the University of Singapore, and contribute samples to the Ocean Genome Legacy's Barcode of Life Database.

As a result of his work, Rob plans to reclassify some of the existing taxonomy of chlorodiella, removing two previously-named groups that have proved not to be distinct species, and adding four newly-discovered species.

According to Rob, "This happens quite often in taxonomy because many species were described a couple of hundred years ago. Often someone else comes along and thinks they have a new species but they haven't seen the old paperwork describing the original sample. When two different scientists describe the same species, those species are then called synonyms."

Rob says there is still a lot of work to be done in correctly classifying brachyuran. This work will be helped by efforts to archive and share information, such as scientists making their papers available on the internet, and the work of the University of Singapore tissue library and the Ocean Genome Legacy's Barcode of Life Database.

Projects that allow researchers to conduct fieldwork and to collaborate with other scientists, as on the CReefs expeditions, are also essential to improving the classification of species.


Rob Lasley shows off the results of his crab-catching skills.
Image: Gary Cranitch.

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The day the rains came


18 May 2010


Life on a field expedition is seldom glamorous and oftentimes nature makes difficult the study of itself. Like today.

The morning dawned cloudy and grey. Several researchers returned from early boat trips to the reef looking decidedly green.

Back on land, BHP Billiton employees Lexie Frankham and Silver Naumoska set about processing the ARMS, but had to guard their work from the greedy beak of Ningaloo Station's resident emu.

By lunchtime, the south-easterly winds had whipped up the waves. With boat trips cancelled for the rest of the day, most researchers had just settled in for a productive afternoon in the research lab when the skies opened up.

Ningaloo Station is in a desert, and had not had significant rain in the past year. Until today.

The heavy rain found every hole and crevice in the leaky old shearing shed, causing a scramble for plastic sheeting to protect computers and laboratory equipment.

After several hours of rain, the clouds cleared just in time for the evening refuelling of the "gennies", a ritual performed many times every day to ensure the generators continue to power the station's lights, laptops, fridges and scientific equipment.

And as the modems powered back up, it became apparent we'd lost the internet connection, one of the more tenuous links between this remote station and the civilised world.

Ah, the joys of field work.

  The shearing shed come CReefs research lab at Ningaloo Station.
Image: Gary Cranitch.

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BHP Billiton enviros get immersed in the marine world


18 May 2010


BHP Billiton employees Lexie Frankham and Silver Naumoska have been made honorary research assistants on the CReefs project this week.
Both came to Ningaloo Reef as part of the BHP Billiton Employee Engagement Program, which sends two employees on each of the CReefs expeditions to gain first-hand experience of marine field work.

BHP Billiton is the major sponsor of the CReefs Australia expeditions.

On dry land, Lexie is an Environmental Advisor for BHP Billiton's Newcastle Properties Group in NSW and Silver is a Senior Environmental Advisor at the Worsley Aluminum Refinery near Collie in WA – but on the Ningaloo expedition, they're in the water every day.

Their project while at Ningaloo is to observe divers retrieve the Automated Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) from the ocean floor and process the material collected. They have also had the opportunity to visit several snorkel sites on the reef.

Each of the ARMS is a set of stacked PVC plates that provide a habitat for marine life. The CReefs team will retrieve nine ARMS that were installed on the previous CReefs Ningaloo trip in May 2009 and analyse all the creatures that have set up home in the structures over the past year.

 Lexie and Silver have established a processing station to dismantle the structures, label and photograph the plates, remove the organisms from the plates, filter the material to separate organisms by size, and then preserve the samples in ethanol.

"On the first structure, we found lots of worms, a bit of weed, shrimp-type creatures, different shells, and a small fish. I'm looking forward to seeing what the next ARMS have on them," Lexie said.

BHP Billiton employees Silver Naumoska and Lexie Frankham
processing the ARMS
. Image: Gary Cranitch.



"I'm learning a lot. This experience is very different from roles I've worked on but I've always been interested in coastal and coral reef processes and management. It's great to get out on the water and have a look. Being around scientific experts, learning about what they have found and what they hope to achieve is fascinating," she said.

Silver agrees. "I've always loved the ocean, and I love seeing new things on the reef. This is a great chance to learn about the latest marine research. It's important to find out what other groups in the science world are doing," she said.

Lexie and Silver are at the Ningaloo site from 16 to 22 May.


Australian Institute of Marine Science employee Greg Coleman
retrieving the ARMS.
Image: Gary Cranitch.

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Conserve and protect  
17 May 2010


The work Abigail Fusaro is doing today will contribute to the conservation and protection of species for years to come.
Dr Fusaro, staff scientist with the Ocean Genome Legacy in Massachusetts, United States, is working on the Barcode of Life Database, which makes available genetic identification of marine species to scientists around the world. This information can assist researchers to understand and preserve coral reef systems.

"We have a state of threatened ocean health, through climate change, unsustainable fishing practices, pollution and other pressures exerted on the ecosystem. Many of the species we find today may become extinct over the lifetime of current researchers, or over several lifetimes. By archiving material, we can still access what a particular animal or plant was like and what it was doing, by deciphering its genetic code," Dr Fusaro said.

Dr Fusaro's work on the CReefs project ensures scientists who don't have the opportunity to participate in field research due to a lack of funding, time or resources, can still gain access to the materials they need to conduct important research into marine life.

According to Dr Fusaro, "The database is a service to the scientific community, and it helps us to understand biodiversity in the world's oceans. It's important to conserve species that are out there right now."

Dr Abigail Fusaro sorting specimens from the ARMS. Image: Gary Cranitch.

This is her third CReefs field trip; she participated in the Ningaloo and Heron Island expeditions last year. She said scientists are still discovering new life at Ningaloo, especially smaller fauna, such as creatures that live in the sand and coral rubble. Scientists are also re-sampling species found on previous trips, and Dr Fusaro said this allows her to understand the genetic variation among individuals within a species.

Dr Fusaro works with researchers on the CReefs expedition to take tissue samples of much of what is collected. Each of these samples will be archived and barcoded: researchers break open the cells and extract the DNA. Part of this DNA is stored for perpetuity; part of it is made available for researchers to request for their own research projects. A small fraction is sequenced for DNA barcoding and the sequences are made available through the public online Barcode of Life Database.

Barcoding looks at nucleotide sequence of about 650 letters in the chain of DNA. Dr Fusaro's work looks specifically for a sub-unit of the mitochondrial DNA called cytochrome oxidase 1 (COI). For many marine organisms, COI is found in a predictable spot and is unique to the species – essentially a quick molecular ID or fingerprint.

For some other groups of organisms such as sponges and some corals, the COI sequence isn't unique between species. Researchers of these groups are using different regions of the DNA chain, even including spaces between genes such as the internal transcribed spacer 1 and 2 (ITS1 and ITS2), to differentiate one species from another.

The barcoding is time-intensive: one field trip can yield 800-1200 samples in three weeks, but for Dr Fusaro's team at the Ocean Genome Legacy, which can process 90 samples in a week, it may take from three months to a year for all of the samples to be analysed. Sample throughput is something that the Ocean Genome Legacy is working to improve; soon, this team should be able to process the same number of samples currently handled over the course of a week in just a few hours.

Eventually, scientists will be able to barcode every sample they collect, giving the international scientific community a much better understanding of marine biodiversity.

"Our role is to provide the information so that researchers can work on solutions to conserve and protect coral reefs and other marine ecosystems," she said.


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The names of things  
16 May 2010


A key purpose of the CReefs Australian expeditions is to contribute to the taxonomic classification of coral reef species for the international Census of Marine Life. Taxonomy is a discipline in which scientists describe and name species and place them within existing hierarchies, taking into account the evolutionary relationships between species.
According to Dr Julian Caley, Principal Research Scientist with the Australian Institute of Marine Science and project leader of the field trip, ocean life is relatively unexplored compared to many groups of land-based animals and plants.

"We don't even know within an order of magnitude how many species live on coral reefs," Dr Caley said.

"In order to understand what is going on on reefs, we need a biodiversity baseline and then to monitor against that baseline. Research on coral reefs has focused very much on corals and fishes, but that makes it very difficult to compare except for corals and fishes. Research has had to assume that corals and fishes are good surrogates for biodiversity," he said.

The CReefs field program gives researchers an opportunity to sample the biodiversity of coral reefs in much greater detail than has been possible in the past. Dr Caley estimates that researchers have found more than 1000 new species over the six previous CReefs expeditions, and said they are likely to find more on this seventh trip.

Dr Julian Caley, Principal Research Scientist with the Australian Institute of
Marine Science. Image: Gary Cranitch.


While researchers in the field focus on collecting samples of marine life, it may not be until they take these specimens back for extensive analysis in their home research labs that they know what they have discovered.

"There's everything from creatures that live betweens sand grains to large soft corals. It will take a long time before all of [the estimated 1000 new species] are described, but while we may not yet know the identities, we know they're out there, and that helps to set the baseline," Dr Caley said.

"What strikes me is that we haven't gone to impossibly remote locations such as the Chagos archipelago, we've gone to Lizard and Heron Islands, which have resorts and research stations on them, and we've come here to Ningaloo Reef where people have been fishing and diving for decades. This is not an obscure place and we've still come up with 1000 new species with relatively small effort," he said.

While organising a team of 30 researchers and support staff to live and work in remote Western Australia for three weeks is no easy feat, Dr Caley said that the CReefs expedition is not a big project compared to the size of the problem. There is a need for more researchers to work in the field and for capacity-building in taxonomy, the necessary support is difficult to come by.

CReefs Australia is generously supported by BHP-Billiton and has leveraged some of its funding through the Australian government, and natural history museums in Australia in order to fund taxonomic research and capacity building in this vital discipline.

As Dr Caley explains, "It's not enough to do the whole job but it's pretty much the biggest game in town."


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Ningaloo Station  
16 May 2010


Ningaloo Station. Image: Gary Cranitch


The CReefs team is back in the sheep shed and back out on Ningaloo Reef for the final Western Australian leg of the CReefs program.

The field expedition, running from 15 May to 3 June, is the third and final CReefs expedition to Ningaloo Reef. This year the participants will include more than 30 people on site at different times during the three weeks, including researchers from Australia, Singapore, Japan, Russia and the United States, support staff, BHP Billiton employees, a photographer and, for four days, a BBC film crew.

The research teams are searching for crabs and other crustaceans, invertebrate marine animals, shrimp, barnacles, worms, parasites, algae, soft corals and zooanthids.

The expedition gives those researchers that have been on previous CReefs trips the chance to re-sample known species and to continue searching for new plant and animal life.

For scientists new to the CReefs program, the expedition provides an opportunity to explore largely unexplored territory.

The researchers are based at Ningaloo Station, an historic shearing shed located about 100km south of Exmouth. The shed, operational for shearing for most of the year, has been transformed into a makeshift research lab for the duration of the expedition.

The team is using three boats to visit a range of dive and snorkel sites on the reef, allowing researchers to collect samples of marine flora and fauna.

The researchers on the field trip use diverse sampling methods in a wide range of habitats to sample species associated with coral reefs that have not previously been well sampled.

One of the tools used is the Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS). The ARMS are sets of stacked PVC plates which are pegged to the ocean floor and provide an appealing habitat for sea creatures to colonise. The CReefs team will retrieve the ARMS that were deployed on the last CReefs Ningaloo trip in May 2009 and analyse all the creatures that have set up home in the structures over the past year.

Launched in 2005, CReefs is the coral reef component of the Census of Marine Life, a 10-year program involving researchers in more than 80 countries. The Census is the first comprehensive survey of the diversity, distribution and abundance of marine life in the oceans in the past, present and future.

The Australian part of the CReefs program includes a series of nine such expeditions: three trips each to Ningaloo Reef in WA and Lizard and Heron Islands on the Great Barrier Reef. CReefs Australia is supported by BHP Billiton through the Great Barrier Reef Foundation.


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* Melbourne-based Rebecca Leech is an award-winning journalist. She has a BA with honours from Deakin University, and has worked as a writer, editor and public relations professional.

She currently edits the quarterly education magazine Professional Educator for the Australian College of Educators and the Australian Council for Educational Research.

Rebecca has authored a book on scholarship testing for ACER Press, and has won the 2009 Australian College of Educators Victoria Media Award, the 2007 Writer of the Year in the Australian Business and Specialist Publishers' Bell Awards, and the 2006 Best print-media feature in the Australian Council of Deans of Education's journalism awards.

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.

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