Canary in the mine

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


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.