Learning in the Field
19 November 2010
A key purpose of the CReefs field program is to contribute to the taxonomic classification of coral reef species for the international Census of Marine Life. This classification process occurs not just in the three weeks on Heron Island, but through a combination of field work and then further analysis at the scientists' home research labs over the life of the four-year project.
Such was the case for isopod taxonomist Chad Buxton when describing one of the new species he has discovered during the CReefs program.
Chad is researching the order of crustaceans called Isopoda, with a focus on genera and species of the Stenetriidae family. To accurately describe a new species, he ideally needs to capture and examine mature adult male specimens, as these have diagnostic characteristics that are unique between species.
"We need a good collection of specimens from the field and thorough research in the lab to describe new species," Chad explains. "For example, the material collected from Heron Island last year contained some unusual specimens. They were quite large and had various characteristics of two known genera. I thought these specimens might even belong to a new genus," he says.
"This year, I found some specimens that were even bigger, and only now has the picture become clear.
Due to the size of the 2009 specimens, I had believed that they were adult males, when in fact they were not. This is just a particularly large species compared to what I had previously seen."
"I have now collected four adult males, which have unique characteristics that will allow me describe the new species and place it into the appropriate genus," Chad explains.
"This new species will be an exciting addition to the taxonomy of isopods – but just as importantly, the process of discovering it highlights the value both of exploratory field work and laboratory research, and of learning from initial mistakes to build our knowledge and depth of understanding," he says.
"It also demonstrates the value of programs such as CReefs that provide the opportunity to resample the same site repeatedly over time."
Chad says that because he now has a series of specimens, including females, juveniles and fully-grown adult males, he is confident he can now make an accurate description of this new species.
He estimates that through the CReefs project at least 30 new isopod species have been discovered in the Stenetriidae family alone, and that there are many more to be described among other isopod taxa as laboratory work continues.
Chad is working on an Australian Biological Resources Study grant to study isopods at the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville and is pursuing his PhD at James Cook University.