Sea cucumbers missing in action

Francois Michonneu.
Image: Gary Cranitch


 By Angus Livingston
 Friday 29 May  2009:
IF LIZARD Island was paradise for sea cucumbers, Ningaloo Reef falls some way short of that.
It has been somewhat frustrating for Francois Michonneau, who is doing his PhD in the marine organisms through the University of Florida.
"Sea cucumber numbers are really low here," he said.
"I think it's probably from the environmental conditions. It's more exposed to wave action."
Despite that, Francois has been collecting as many samples as possible of all types of echinoderms as he can.
His collections are part of a large project being run out of the University of Florida that aims to establish a picture of biodiversity across the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Francois collected on Lizard Island as part of that project, as well as from locations in Madagascar, off Hawaii and in the French Polynesian Islands.
He said that a DNA barcode would be generated from each sample collected and analysed for similarities with species collected from other sites.
In this way, scientists can decide if separate species should actually be classed as the same thing, or if populations that were previously thought to be a single species are actually two or more species.
"We have a really broad coverage of the Indo-Pacific," Francois said.
Working with Rob Lasley, from the Florida Museum of Natural History, Francois has collected 971 marine samples so far.
However the lack of a number of species he expected to find at Ningaloo has surprised him.
"A lot of really common species of the Indo-Pacific I haven't found yet – or they're not here," he said.
Even though he has not been collecting as much as he would like, finding a lack of species is just as important to the project as finding an incredibly diverse range.
It means the scientists using the results of the project can better understand where marine organisms live – and where they don't.