21 November 2010
The work Dr Patricia Hutchings is doing today will contribute to the conservation and protection of marine environments for years to come.
Dr Hutchings, a Senior Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Museum in Sydney, is one of a team of researchers focusing on the segmented, invertebrate marine worms known as polychaetes. Members of the team have collected and analysed polychaetes on each of the CReefs nine expeditions over the past three years.
"One focus of our research is to assess whether there are species that are present at all three of the CReefs sites, or whether some of them have very restricted distributions, and to compare this information to other records we've got for polychaetes in areas between Ningaloo Reef and Heron Island, around the north coast," Dr Hutchings explains.
On this trip, Dr Hutchings and her colleague Dr Maria Capa are particularly interested in collecting from habitat types at Heron Island that they were unable to sample on previous trips; looking at the differences in habitats between the three CReefs sites; and building on the existing collection of specimens suitable for DNA analysis.
Dr Hutchings says the work of the polychaete research team will be used in the management and conservation of marine areas.
Coastal waters, she explains, fall into broad ecoregions: large areas each containing a geographically distinct assemblage of species, natural communities and environmental conditions.
Each ecoregion, however, can be further divided into a series of bioregions, which reflect an understanding of which areas are richest in biodiversity and need to be conserved.
The Great Barrier Reef comprises approximately 70 bioregions.
"Australian waters, from the tropics down to the sub-Antarctic, span a vast range of unique habitats. We need to protect a component of each of these of habitats," Dr Hutchings explains.
"Various proxies are used to map the bioregions, such as sediment, depth, presence of seagrass beds or mangroves, and the abundance of fish – but it's also very important to consider the data on polychaetes as a surrogate for the biodiversity of other invertebrate animals," she says.
"This will allow us to make much more robust models of bioregions, and ultimately better decisions about environmental management and conservation," she says.
Dr Hutchings' work on the CReefs expedition to Heron Island is funded by an Australian Biological Resources Study/CReefs grant.