Advancing knowledge of soft corals



Trish Hendricks and Monika Schlacher photographing soft coral.
Image: Gary Cranitch

 

Friday 5 September 2008
 
EVERY time the CReefs soft coral team learns something new about soft corals they make a significant step forward in our knowledge of the organisms.
 
Because so little work has been done on soft corals, any gain they make represents a "huge leap".
 
Patricia Hendriks, a research scientist at the Queensland Museum, said the chance to work on something new was part of what drew her to the beautiful organisms that wave from the sea bed.
 
"There are very few people in the world working on soft corals at the moment, so this chance to build collections and further our knowledge of these animals is a rare opportunity," she said.
 


Trish Hendricks photographing a sample in the lab.
Image: Gary Cranitch

 

Despite being a large part of what makes coral reefs so beautiful, soft corals are understudied and there is barely any accessible literature about them.
 
One book written by Katharina Fabricius and Phil Alderslade was published in 2001 by AIMS, and is the first major guide to soft corals, also known as octocorals.
 
Trish said her aim was to increase the information available for people working in the area.
 
"There's very little literature for people to use in making solid taxonomical identifications," she said.
 
To help with furthering our knowledge of soft corals, Trish and two other researchers from the Queensland Museum, Dr Monika Schlacher and Dr Merrick Ekins, are working on Heron Island as part of the CReefs project.
 
The trio make up one of the few groups of scientists working on soft corals in Australia.
 
Trish said the group is:
  •     Collecting specimens
  •     Preparing permanent sclerite preparations. Sclerites are the hardened body parts of the soft coral, and is all that remains after the soft tissue has been bleached away. Scientists use this to better identify their specimens.
  •     Taking DNA samples
  •     Taking underwater photographs
  •     Taking photographs of these animals in the laboratory
 
Once the three-week CReefs trip is over, the group will go back to their regular tasks at the Museum, leaving the soft corals unstudied until projects are developed for further research.
 
Trish said the samples taken from Heron Island will become part of a permanent collection that can be used for future studies.