CReefs Australia leaves an important legacy

Australian Institute of Marine Science employee Greg Coleman retrieving ARMS from Ningaloo Reef in May.
Image: Gary Cranitch.


22 November 2010
The CReefs Heron Island 2010 expedition has come to a close, and with it, the field program of the CReefs Australia project.
The project has seen the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) lead a consortium of scientists to study coral reef biodiversity over a series of nine expeditions in three years: three trips each to Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia and Lizard and Heron Islands on the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland.
CReefs Australia has given Australian and international marine scientists the opportunity to 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.
Although the fieldwork is over, research using the samples collected during the project will continue in museums and universities for many years to come.
AIMS Principal Research Scientist and CReefs Principal Investigator Dr Julian Caley estimates that researchers have discovered more than 1200 new species during the CReefs Australia expeditions. He expects that many more will be described as researchers continue to analyse the material they have collected.
It is likely to take many decades to describe all the new species discovered through the project, Dr Caley says, in part due to the shortage of researchers working in taxonomy – but CReefs Australia, which is generously supported by BHP-Billiton, has leveraged some of its funding through the Australian government and natural history museums in Australia in order to fund career- and capacity-building grants in taxonomy. 
Dr Caley hopes this will go some way towards addressing the backlog of samples that need to be processed, and towards ensuring the future of ongoing taxonomic research.
The ongoing laboratory research will contribute to the legacy 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.
CReefs research will also assist with genetic identification of marine species.
A scientist from the Ocean Genome Legacy has participated in several CReefs field expeditions to take tissue samples of much of what is collected. DNA is extracted from each of these samples. 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.
Eventually, scientists will be able to barcode every sample they collect, giving the international scientific community a much better understanding of marine biodiversity.
Once species are identified, they are catalogued on the Ocean Biogeographic Information System, an online database of marine species.
"This is the first globally-distributed, publicly-available facility that allows members of the scientific community to access data about species locations across the oceans at all depths. Anyone can download that data and use it for their own work. We're pleased that the CReefs project will feed into that," Dr Caley says.
AIMS will also continue to manage a database of all the specimens that have been collected through the CReefs Australia project, regardless of whether the specimens have been classified.
"We have compiled a very rich data source, which will assist scientists to conduct analyses and syntheses across taxonomic groups. We hope to further explore the patterns of biogeography, diversity, abundance, distribution and behaviour of marine organisms," Dr Caley says.