[ASC-media] Multiple threats to coral biodiversity lend urgency to scientific inventory of life on Australia's famous reefs

Wendy Ellery w.ellery at aims.gov.au
Fri Sep 19 00:43:10 CEST 2008

19 September 2008

Multiple threats to coral biodiversity lend urgency to scientific
inventory of life on Australia's famous reefs

Hundreds of new kinds of animals have surprised international
researchers who have been systematically exploring waters off two
islands on the Great Barrier Reef and a reef off northwestern Australia,
waters long familiar to divers.

Amid rising concern about the impact of multiple threats to coral
habitats, the Census of Marine Life-affiliated scientists today released
the first results of a landmark four-year effort, led by AIMS, to record
the diversity of life in and around Australia's renowned reefs.

Working at Lizard and Heron Islands (part of the Great Barrier Reef) and
Ningaloo Reef in northwestern Australia, researchers turned up a wealth
of new insights into - and stunning images of - ocean life, much of it
never seen by humans before, including:
* About 300 soft coral species, up to half of them thought to be new to
* Dozens of small crustacean species - and potentially one or more
families - likewise thought unknown to science; 
* A rarely sampled amphipod called 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; and
* Scores of tiny amphipod crustaceans - insects of the marine world - of
which an estimated 40 to 60 per cent will be formally described for the
first time.

As well, the researchers deployed new methods designed to help
standardise measurement of the health, diversity and biological makeup
of coral reefs worldwide and enhance comparisons.

Preparing for future discoveries, the divers pegged several layered
plastic structures for marine life to colonise on the ocean floor at
Lizard and Heron Islands.  Creatures that move into these Autonomous
Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS), which provide shelter designed to
appeal to a variety of sea life, will be collected over the next one to
three years. 

"Corals face threats ranging from ocean acidification, pollution and
warming to overfishing and starfish outbreaks," said Dr Ian Poiner, AIMS
Chief Executive Officer.  "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 (CoML) which, after a decade of research, will release its
first global census in October 2010.

Dr Julian Caley, Principal Research Scientist at AIMS and co-leader of
CoML's CReefs project, said the three coral reef sites being studied
were selected because they were thought to offer the greatest possible
range of biodiversity.
"These site characteristics offer insights that will help us to better
predict patterns of biodiversity on reefs in areas that are well known
and those that aren't," Dr Caley said.

"We were all surprised and excited to find such a large variety of
marine life never before described - and in waters that divers access
easily and regularly.  It reveals the enormous challenge faced by
scientists trying to create an inventory of the vast diversity and
abundance of life across all ocean realms," he said.

Expeditions to the same three sites will be repeated annually over the
next three years by researchers committed to establishing a baseline
inventory of life inhabiting Australia's magnificent reef ecosystems.

Funding for the work was provided from several sources: BHP Billiton
(the global resources company), the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, the
Census of Marine Life, and AIMS, which leads the Australian node of the
international CReefs project.  The Australian Biological Resources Study
(ABRS) is funding taxonomic research associated with the CReefs project.
This research may include DNA barcoding of organisms in support of the
Barcode of Life initiative.

Generous support has also been provided by the many consortium partners.
The AIMS-led consortium includes the Australian Museum, the Museum and
Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, Museum Victoria, the Queensland
Museum, the South Australian Museum, the Western Australian Museum, the
University of Adelaide, Murdoch University, the South Australian
Herbarium and the Smithsonian Institution.

Issues being addressed by CReefs Australia include:
*	How many species live on coral reefs? 
*	How many of these are unique to coral reefs? and
*	How does this diversity respond to human disturbance?

The biodiversity data generated will be made publicly available through
the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS) (www.iobis.org), a
CoML initiative.

CReefs is a multi-agency collaboration, led by scientists at AIMS, the
Smithsonian Institution and the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center
(PIFSC) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA),
which aims to strengthen tropical taxonomic expertise, conduct a census
of life in coral reef ecosystems and consolidate and improve access to
coral reef ecosystem information scattered throughout the world.

Coral reefs are highly threatened repositories of extraordinary
biodiversity and have been called "the rainforests of the sea," but
little is known about the ocean's diversity compared with its
terrestrial counterpart.

"We don't even know to the nearest order of magnitude the number of
species living in the coral reefs around the globe," said Dr Nancy
Knowlton of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, another principal
investigator with CReefs.  "Our best guess is somewhere between one and
nine million species based on comparisons with the diversity found in
rainforests and a partial count of organisms living in a tropical

The Australian CReefs expeditions are part of an unprecedented global
census of coral reefs, CReefs, one of 17 CoML projects. CoML
(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.

For further information, please contact:
Dr Julian Caley, AIMS, 07 4753 4148; 0439 472 148; j.caley at aims.gov.au
Ms Wendy Ellery, AIMS, 07 4753 4409; 0418 729 265, w.ellery at aims.gov.au 

A more detailed media document and a range of relevant images are
available at http://www.coml.org/embargo/creefs2008.htm

To see blogs from the three 2008 Australian CReefs expeditions, go to:

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