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Hundreds of New Corals Found on Familiar Australian Reefs

TOWNSVILLE, Australia, September 19, 2008 (ENS) – Teams of marine researchers exploring Australian reefs long known to divers have been surprised and delighted to find hundreds of new kinds of soft corals and other animal species never before described by scientists. The researchers say multiple threats to coral biodiversity make the scientific inventory of life on Australia’s reefs an urgent priority.

“Corals face threats ranging from ocean acidification, pollution, and warming to overfishing and starfish outbreaks,” says Dr. Ian Poiner, chief executive of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, which led the research. “Only by establishing a baseline of biodiversity and following through with later censuses can people know the impact of those threats and find clues to mitigate them.”

Dr. Poiner also chairs the Scientific Steering Committee of the Census of Marine Life which, after a decade of research, will release its first global census in October 2010.


Rick Morris films soft corals on the north
side of Heron Island. (Photo by Gary
Cranitch, Queensland Museum)

The three expeditions, affiliated with the global Census of Marine Life, mark the International Year of the Reef 2008. They included the first systematic scientific inventory of unique soft corals named octocorals for the eight tentacles that fringe each polyp.

On the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s longest coral reef, the scientists explored Lizard Island from April 2 to 22 and, further south, Heron Island from August 25 to September 14.

An expedition visited Ningaloo reef off northwestern Australia from June 5 to 25. Each of the three expeditions took three weeks and included about 25 members.

Expeditions to the same three sites will be repeated annually over the next three years to continue their inventory and measure impacts of climate change and other processes over time.

The Australian expeditions are part of an unprecedented global census of coral reefs, CReefs, one of 17 Census of Marine Life projects.


Dendronepthya soft coral in Heron Island
waters (Photo by Gary Cranitch, Queensland
Museum)

]

“Amazingly colorful corals and fishes on reefs have long dazzled divers, but our eyes are just opening to the astonishing richness of other life forms in these habitats,” says Census of Marine Life Chief Scientist Ron O’Dor.

“Hundreds of thousands of forms of life remain to be discovered. Knowledge of this ocean diversity matters on many levels, including possibly human health – one of these creatures may have properties of enormous value to humanity,” said Dr. O’Dor.

Coral reefs are highly threatened repositories of extraordinary biodiversity but little is known about the ocean’s diversity as compared to life forms on land.

Scientists with CReefs Australia want to learn how many species live on coral reefs, how many of these are unique to coral reefs and how do they respond to human disturbance.

Dr. Julian Caley, principal research scientist at AIMS and co-leader of the CReefs project, says the three explored coral reef sites are located in two ocean basins with different levels of biodiversity.

“Compared to what we don’t know, our knowledge of marine life is a proverbial drop in the ocean,” Caley said. “Inventorying the vast diversity and abundance of life across all ocean realms challenges both science and the imagination.”

On the three expeditions, scientists discovered:

* About 300 soft coral species, up to half of them thought to be new to science
* Dozens of small crustacean species – and potentially one or more families of species also thought unknown to science
* A rarely sampled amphipod of the family Maxillipiidae, featuring a bizarre whip-like back leg about three times the size of its body. Only a few species are recorded worldwide
* New species of tanaid crustaceans, shrimp-like animals, some with claws longer than their bodies
* The beautiful, rare Cassiopeia jellyfish, photographed upside down on the ocean floor, tentacles waving in the water column – a posture that enables symbiotic algae living in its tentacles to capture sunlight for photosynthesis
* Scores of tiny amphipod crustaceans – insects of the marine world – of which an estimated 40 to 60 percent will be formally described for the first time

While the colorful animals are not reef builders, they dominate some of the areas studied, covering up to 25 percent of the ocean floor


Whale shark on Ningaloo reef (Photo
by Gary Cranitch, Queensland Museum)

“The new Australian expeditions reveal how far we are from knowing how many species live in coral reefs around the globe. Estimates span the huge range from one to nine million, says Dr. Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, another principal investigator with CReefs.

Researchers were intrigued as well by discoveries of various isopods, often referred to as vultures of the sea, because some feed on dead fish. Of the many isopod species collected during the first two expeditions, about 100 are not yet described in the scientific literature.

Some isopods are parasitic and burrow into the flesh of live fish. Most infamous of the parasitic isopod are cymothoids – the tongue biters – so called because they invade a fish and eat its tongue off, replacing the tongue by attaching to the host’s mouth.

Dr. O’Dor is curious about the evolution of coral reef species. “Even at the low end of this range, we must wonder why nature has evolved such prolific diversity on coral reefs,” he said. “While they are icons of diversity, the processes that have generated and maintained coral reef biodiversity are still unknown.”

The Census of Marine Life, online at http://www.coml.org, is a global network of researchers in more than 80 nations engaged in a 10 year initiative to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine life in the oceans – past, present, and future.

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