The names of things

Dr Julian Caley, Principal Research Scientist with the Australian Institute of Marine Science.
Image: Gary Cranitch.


16 May 2010
A key purpose of the CReefs Australian expeditions is to contribute to the taxonomic classification of coral reef species for the international Census of Marine Life. Taxonomy is a discipline in which scientists describe and name species and place them within existing hierarchies, taking into account the evolutionary relationships between species.
According to Dr Julian Caley, Principal Research Scientist with the Australian Institute of Marine Science and project leader of the field trip, ocean life is relatively unexplored compared to many groups of land-based animals and plants.
"We don't even know within an order of magnitude how many species live on coral reefs," Dr Caley said.
"In order to understand what is going on on reefs, we need a biodiversity baseline and then to monitor against that baseline. Research on coral reefs has focused very much on corals and fishes, but that makes it very difficult to compare except for corals and fishes. Research has had to assume that corals and fishes are good surrogates for biodiversity," he said.
The CReefs field program gives researchers an opportunity to sample the biodiversity of coral reefs in much greater detail than has been possible in the past. Dr Caley estimates that researchers have found more than 1000 new species over the six previous CReefs expeditions, and said they are likely to find more on this seventh trip.
While researchers in the field focus on collecting samples of marine life, it may not be until they take these specimens back for extensive analysis in their home research labs that they know what they have discovered.
"There's everything from creatures that live betweens sand grains to large soft corals. It will take a long time before all of [the estimated 1000 new species] are described, but while we may not yet know the identities, we know they're out there, and that helps to set the baseline," Dr Caley said.
"What strikes me is that we haven't gone to impossibly remote locations such as the Chagos archipelago, we've gone to Lizard and Heron Islands, which have resorts and research stations on them, and we've come here to Ningaloo Reef where people have been fishing and diving for decades. This is not an obscure place and we've still come up with 1000 new species with relatively small effort," he said.
While organising a team of 30 researchers and support staff to live and work in remote Western Australia for three weeks is no easy feat, Dr Caley said that the CReefs expedition is not a big project compared to the size of the problem. There is a need for more researchers to work in the field and for capacity-building in taxonomy, the necessary support is difficult to come by.
CReefs Australia is generously supported by BHP-Billiton and has leveraged some of its funding through the Australian government, and natural history museums in Australia in order to fund taxonomic research and capacity building in this vital discipline.
As Dr Caley explains, "It's not enough to do the whole job but it's pretty much the biggest game in town."