Lizard Island home to 'amazing' soft corals



Octocoral
Image: Trish Hendriks

They are probably one of the first things you notice on a dive or a snorkel – the beautiful and exceptionally colourful soft corals; yet so little is known about these animals.

Octocorals, named for the eight tentacles that fringe each polyp, are different from hard corals in many respects, including the fact that they have no solid skeleton and they are "filter feeders", unlike hard corals which are predators and capture zooplankton. Soft corals depend on the current to carry the particles to them.

The CReefs soft coral team here on Lizard Island is made up of scieBack to topntists Katharina Fabricius, Monika Schlacher-Hoenlinger, Patricia Hendriks and Merrick Ekins.

Katharina, from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), has been studying soft corals for 20 years, whereas Monika, Patricia and Merrick, all from the Museum of Queensland, are relatively new to the area. They tell me since meeting Katharina and seeing all the "amazing" soft corals on the island, that they have been inspired to expand their knowledge in the area.

Katharina said that only about five people around the world specialise in soft corals, and most are of retirement age so it is a good time for younger scientists to become involved in octocorals.  
She said that before she wrote her book on soft corals, there was very little available on the subject and most was "cryptic taxonomic literature" from the previous century.  

"They're not reef-building but they're very common…in some areas 25 per cent of the surface is covered in soft corals," Katharina said.

"I saw that there was a big gap in the knowledge – and also, they're really beautiful. Aesthetically they're one of the most amazing things on the reef – divers love them," she said.


Octocoral
Image: Trish Hendriks

The team is here to collect and sort the samples and expects to find many new species in the area.

"We are hoping to get 400 samples on this field trip. It's the first time that any attempt has been made to count the soft coral species systematically anywhere on the reef. Probably every second or third species we find has not yet been described," Katharina said.

The three scientists working with Katharina are from the Sessile (meaning not moving) Marine Invertebrates section of the Queensland Museum. They usually specialise in sea sponges, hence their affectionate name around the researchers as "the sponge people".

Originally from Austria, Monika was inspired to become a marine biologist after meeting Hans Hass.

"He is Austria's version of Jacques Cousteau. I met him when I was about eight years old. I told him I wanted to study marine biology and he was really nice," Monika said.

Patricia said that due to growing up on the Gold Coast, it seemed natural for her to study in this area.

"When it was time to choose what we did at university – I just automatically chose marine biology," she said.

Merrick began his career a little differently. After graduating with a science degree he worked in plant pathology until he took up the position working with sponges at the museum.

"Spending my time looking through fields or collecting samples diving in amazing water. Hmmm, I wonder which one sounds more appealing," Merrick laughs.

They say they have all been motivated by the soft corals and plan to continue working with them back at the museum. The team has been inspired not only by Katharina's passion and knowledge in the area, but also by diving in these beautiful waters and collecting the remarkable-looking specimens.

Soft corals come in myriad colours with intricate patterns. Patricia's favourite is the Xenia soft coral.

"They have these big long stalks with the polyps - they were still pulsating when we brought them back in. They're amazing," she said.

The scientists are enjoying their time on Lizard Island learning about these beautiful corals, but admit the diving aspect is ever so slightly more interesting than the data input. But overall the sponge people, perhaps soon to be octocoral people, love what they do.

"When you do something you love it never feels like work," Monika said.

For more information on the Queensland Museum's website, go to http://www.qm.qld.gov.au/organisation