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From Lizard Island - Part 1 (Polychaetes Conference 2013)

By: Dr Pat Hutchings, Category: Science, Date: 20 Aug 2013

Directly after the 11th International Polychaete Conference a group of researchers headed off to Lizard Island Research Station.

LIRS Polychaetes Field Trip #1

Alexander Semenov © Alexander Semenov

Directly after the 11th International Polychaete Conference a group of researchers from six countries headed off to Lizard Island Research Station, a facility of the Australian Museum for a two week field trip. This field trip was funded by a grant from the Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation, which covered airfares, bench fees and subsistence for 16 researchers, plus a chef who prepared all the meals.

This field trip was led by Drs Pat Hutchings and Elena Kupriyanova from the Australian Museum and ably assisted by Anna Murray from Marine Invertebrates at the AM.

We all arrived at Sydney airport on Monday morning 12th August for the flight to Cairns and then a connecting flight to Lizard Island. For many of the researchers this was their first experience of flying in a small plane over tropical waters and good views were had of the reefs between Cairns and Lizard. On arrival we were met by staff from the Research Station and we were ferried with our luggage around to the station. After an induction, plans were made for collecting on the Tuesday. For many this was their first experience of either snorkelling or diving on the Great Barrier Reef.

The aims of this field trip were to describe the polychaete (seaworms) fauna of Lizard Island and to populate the Lizard Island faunal guide with good worm photos. One of the participants is a renowned photographer of marine invertebrates, Alexander Semenov and several of his images are included in the polychaete photographic exhibition on display in the coffee shop at the Australian Museum.

Basically we go diving or snorkelling every day to collect samples of sand, coral rubble and other likely worm habitats. We bring these samples back the lab in bags and buckets then spend hours sieving the sand and searching through dead coral rubble to find the worms within – they range in size from a few millimeters to several centimetres long. Each researcher specialises in a different group of worms so specimens are distributed to the relevant expert as they are found. Over the next two weeks we will sample as many habitats around Lizard as we can so that we find as many different species as possible.

Much research needs to be done before many of the specimens can be linked confidently to their correct scientific names. The participating researchers will do this work at their home institutions over the next year or so – in Spain, Germany, Norway, Russia and Brazil, as well as at the Australian Museum and the Northern Territory Museum. It is certain that there will be many species that are new to science and others that have never been recorded in Australia or on the Great Barrier Reef before. Each researcher will prepare scientific papers documenting the diversity of their special families. These will then all be published in a monograph that brings together a wealth of knowledge about the polychaete fauna of Lizard Island, one of the most abundant and diverse groups and up until now poorly known.

In addition to this documentation of the worm fauna, all these researchers will remember having had an amazing experience of diving on the GBR and already some of them are planning to return to continue their research. Collaborations between researchers from different institutions and different countries are already being forged. The group consists of researchers at different stages in their careers from those just beginning a PhD to senior researchers. Much will be learnt and experiences shared.

While a field trip to Lizard Island Research Station was held after the 1st International Polychaete conference in 1983, the station was far more basic then with some of us still sleeping in tents and no attempt was made to document the polychaete fauna. This current field trip would not have been possible without the generous support of the Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation and the logistical support of Marine Invertebrates at the AM. Finally a very special thanks to Anne Hoggett and Lyle Vail (Co-Directors of the Research Station) for greatly facilitating this workshop and making sure everybody is out there sampling.