How it All Began (Polychaetes Conference 2013)

By: Dr Pat Hutchings, Category: Science, Date: 22 Jul 2013

Thirty years ago, way back in 1983, 85 people from 15 countries gathered at the Australian Museum to spend a week talking about worms.

1st International Polychaete Conference

 © Australian Museum

There was, however, a method to this madness. The meeting of worm lovers organised by Dr Pat Hutching from the Australian Museum was the very 1st International Conference devoted to Polychaetes, an abundant and diverse group of marine invertebrates that play a major role in marine ecosystems. The first conference (4–9 July, 1983) lasted a week.

Many polychaete workers who had read each other’s papers met face to face for the first time at the pre-conference picnic down in the Royal Botanic Gardens where the sun shone and people could recover from their jet lag and enjoy the stunning view across the harbour. We had no name tags so people had to introduce themselves. The following day name tags were given out, but they had no titles- a touch of Australian informality (this practise has continued to date).

Both established professors and many early career researchers and students participated. We had four days of 52 talks and a poster session including 18 posters. On our free day we headed to the Hunter Valley to check out the vineyards. The long coach ride provided excellent opportunities for talking and after lunch and wine tasting conversation flowed much freer.

The farewell dinner on Friday night was held down at the Rocks at a seafood restaurant. The next day was an early start for a field trip to rocky shore. We had lunch at CSIRO Fisheries at Cronulla.

On Monday morning about 20 of us went on a 10-day field trip to Lizard Island Research Station run by the Australian Museum, collecting worms and developing long lasting friendships and collaborations. The papers presented at the conference were published as Conference Proceedings by the Linnean Society of NSW.

Another milestone reached during the Conference was establishment of the International Polychaete Association, which was instigated by Jorgen Kirkegaard from the Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Since this historical event, we have had such meetings every 3 years in Denmark (1986), USA (1989), France (1992), China (1995), Brazil (1998), Iceland (2001), Spain (2004), USA (2007), and Italy (2010). Many people have been to all the meetings and it is very encouraging to see students progressing onto becoming established workers.

During the most recent Polychaete Conference in Lecce, Italy, we decided it was time to come back to Sydney in August 2013. To date we have 145 delegates from 26 countries, presenting 100 oral presentations and 105 posters.

We have an organising committee which includes colleagues from Australian Museum (Pat Hutchings, Elena Kupriyanova, Hannelore Paxton, Anna Murray), Museum of Victoria (Robin Wilson), Museum and Art Gallery of Northern Territory (Chris Glasby, Charlotte Watson), a consultant (Lynda Avery) and some students (Lexie Walker), i.e. basically everybody in Australia who works on worms.

We have been able to support 16 students, primarily from developing countries, to attend the meeting, thanks to generous support from the Australian Museum and CSIRO’s National Research Flagship Programme (Wealth from Oceans).

Thirty delegates from the first polychaete conference participants in 1983 are coming back to Sydney this year and those who were students in 1983 are returning as established scientists, including Robin Wilson, Chris Glasby, and Kirk Fitzhugh. So while much has changed – much has stayed the same, the fascination with worms remains and much still remains to be learnt about this group which has been around since the Cambrian.

It is interesting looking at the program for the 1983 meeting, there was not a single molecular paper and only one even attempting to look at the relationships between various groups of worms. Whereas in 2013, we have over 30 phylogenetic papers (20 presentations) and over 20 molecular papers (11 presentations).

Six delegates recall their memories of the first conference thirty years ago:

1983 was a banner-year for me: for one, I participated in a trip to Aldabra (with Pat Hutchings). After the Aldabra trip, I spent a long time in Sydney studying eunicids, this included the first polychaete meeting. I believe the concept was cooked up by Pat, eagerly abetted by J. David George and Meredith L. Jones. The two latter left the arrangements to Pat! Not fair, but Pat got everybody she knew in Sydney (at least that is my impression) to help, so we ended up with a splendid meeting. I got roped into assisting as well: if you don’t like the sequence of papers that was partially my doing. The scientists and students attending have had a deep influence on polychaete studies over the years. The interactions started at the meetings have certainly changed the way we do polychaete studies. Not least because of two truly memorable events; a “field trip” to the wine district north of Sydney, but above all, the field trip to Lizard Island at the end of the meeting. None of the later meetings have had the advantage of access to the Great Barrier Reef; spectacular fauna, good food and drink and unusually pleasant company, Oh, I forgot to mention the fourth event that made 1983 a banner-year for me: I met Len Hirsch in Tampa thanks to Joe Simon (another participant at the meeting) which has made my last 30 years a joy indeed.
- Kristian Fauchald

July 1983 was a transitional period for me. I had just received my master’s degree at Texas A&M, identifying over 83,000 polychaetes from the Louisiana continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico, and about to embark on a PhD in Washington DC. Earlier in the year, Kristian Fauchald encouraged me to attend the Sydney conference and give a talk. I had never before attended an international conference, much less given a talk at such an event. The only recollection of my talk is that it was something to be forgotten! There were other moments both more memorable and influential…
My first most notable memory was the social gathering the day before the conference; I met Phyllis and Wynn Knight-Jones. They were so kind and affable. It was during the second day of the conference that I experienced Harry ten Hove, who stood up after Jørgen Kirkegaard’s talk and made it clear that he disagreed with what Kirkegaard had said. That evening, as everyone entered a room to hear a talk by Kristian Fauchald on cosmopolitan species, we found a stuffed wombat at the front of the room, with a large label hanging around its neck, with the word, “Harry.” I thought, “Hmm, I guess I better stay away from this Harry fellow.” But that evening was a good opportunity to see firsthand ‘the species problem.’ There were only two talks at the conference that presented cladograms (how times have changed!): Karen Green’s on arenicolids and Harry ten Hove’s on serpulids. My interest in cladistics was just beginning, and these two talks were significant for me. On the last evening, on our way to the conference banquet, Joe Simon came up to me, pointed to his tie pin, and asked me, “Do you know what this is?” I replied, “Oh, it’s a histriobdellid.” Joe smiled with approval. I knew I had been accepted as a polychaetologist.

Kirk Fitzhugh

The First International Polychaete Conference in Sydney in 1983 was my first ever conference. I had started a Masters course a year earlier and this was the chance to present my results on reproduction biology of an unusual freshwater nereidid (Simplisetia limnetica) to a very knowledgeable audience. With youthful enthusiasm and the support of my two well-respected supervisors, Pat Hutchings and Don Anderson, I felt confident enough to present an oral. However, I didn’t anticipate the language difficulties that sometimes occur in international meetings. In question time, Hans-Dieter Pfannensteil, one of leading nereidid biologists at the time, asked me about one of my slides which showed the population age distribution. It was classic bell-shaped curve which I described as ‘Normal’ (i.e Gaussian). How is that normal he asked? At the time I was too focussed to even realise he might be thinking of the usual meaning of normal (ie. common type). So there was a long silence ... my first question at my first conference ... fail! I did considerably better chauffeuring my polychaete heroes to and from motels (some which were located in the red-light district in Sydney) and helping on the mid-week field trip. My enduring memory of the field trip was seeing Phyllis and Wyn Knight-Jones combing the intertidal rocks, bums in the air, searching for spirorbids and wearing the latest fashion in magnification goggles. From that point on I decided that if polychaetes were to be my future, I would work on a group I could actually see in the field! Looking forward to the return of the IPC in Sydney this year – catching up with old friends, meeting new ones and, of course, making the same mistakes.
- Chris Glasby

Reminiscing the First International Polychaete Conference indeed brings back a multitude of impressions from the crevices of my memory, some may be slightly discoloured by time: Australian hospitality, lunches with white wine galore, many informal discussions with colleagues, old and new ideas in an unplanned workshop. In the time leading up to the conference, my only contact with Noel Tait had been two short letters on Galeolaria (a calcareous tube worm). The moment he heard that I was coming to the IPC, he (and Robyn) rather imperatively offered me space in their house for the week I had planned to work in the AM prior to the conference. And so it happened that without any previous visual contact (it was the time before internet) our eyes interlocked in the turmoil of Sydney airport, and we simultaneously realised that the other was the as yet unknown colleague. During the conference, various colleagues laid on parties, barbecues, in short made us really feel welcome.
In an unthinking moment, I had dropped the remark that what I wanted to convey on taxonomy, characters and phylogeny of 3 related genera easily could fill two full oral presentations. Tuesday afternoon I was informed that on Friday I could have the first talk after lunch in addition, the original speaker had not turned up. Of course I had been too optimistic about the amount of extra work involved, it cost me a night. I had noted certain drowsiness in the audience during sessions after lunch. Instead of dropping the old fashioned pointer with a clash on the floor to get the attention, I chose three fake slides on character evolution from “Bau und Leben de Rhinogradentia” (Harald Stümpke, 1957, translated as “Form and Life of the Rhinogrades”). With the third slide, of a small mammal collecting food from a branch above a stream by means of slime threads from his prolific smell organ, most of the audience realised that they were being led by the nose, and I could get on with the more serious approach.
I was quite impressed meeting several well known names for the first time. I vividly remember an intensive exchange of ideas with a whole range of students and scientists, from many disciplines. Highly refreshing for someone without such direct contact possibilities on polychaetes in his own country. One night Kristian organised a spontaneous workshop on biogeography and wide-spread species. Entering the auditory, three named museum vertebrates were flanking the stage. Interpreting one of the two penguins, the one labeled Pat, was not too difficult. Pat claims that after many years of diving she is growing webbed feet, a clear case of adaptive evolution. The thoughts behind the second penguin, Kristian were slightly more complicated to deduce, he cannot be accused of a special interest in the sportive side of collecting worms, my associative thoughts lead to a streamlined morphology maybe, convergent evolution. However, why the third animal on stage was Harry the wombat still eludes me after all those years. Two of my older colleagues attended, both respected polychaetologists and very nice persons. Based on identifications with Fauvel’s Faune de France, the first’s results in biogeography of the entire Atlantic Ocean were questionable, and I intended to have a private talk with him later. However, when his colleague suggested to combine pelagic species distributions with benthic distributions, I could not but stand up and openly question the value of such a combination. Afterwards I apologised to both, explaining in detail that I would have preferred a discussion in private, but really could not let pass this counterproductive idea. I still am looking back with mixed feelings to my role in this part of the workshop, but certainly not to the 1st IPC.

- Harry ten Hove

Leading up to the First International Polychaete Conference in Sydney in 1983 I had been working for some time at Museum Victoria doing rough sorting and what would now be called morphospecies determinations of material from a large number of benthic collections from a survey of the previously unsampled continental shelf of Bass Strait, southeastern Australia. Other colleagues at my institution were dealing with molluscs, crustaceans and echinoderms. However polychaetes which seemed to comprise at least 40% of the species and of the individuals, were not receiving any attention. Initially I was lukewarm but soon became deeply interested in their diversity of form. Pat Hutchings was easily enticed to come down to Melbourne and spent a couple of weeks getting me started with the skills required for dissecting, describing and quantifying variation in some of the common polychaetes from our samples. I was also encouraged to register for the forthcoming inaugural polychaete conference in Sydney. And so I did.
My lasting memories of that meeting were what a convivial bunch polychaete workers were, and of how much scope there was to make a contribution to their knowledge. (The same is true today.) I particularly recall Kristian Fauchald holding forth in eclectic and informative style on cosmopolitan species – sort of a cross between Kinberg and Obi-wan Kenobi. Another memorable contribution, and on the same theme, was Andy Mackie making an early and lasting contribution to the mess that was “Prionospio cirrifera”. Andy gave me the tools and the confidence to return to the collections from Bass Strait and sort them out. And with a lyrical accent that would leave Robbie Burns sounding very pedestrian, I’ve never been able to hear or read about “hooded hooks” since without thinking of Andy. (I never want to hear what he thinks of the unmelodious Australian accent.) Plenty of other colleagues first met during that week in Sydney also became firm friends, even if many acquaintances were only renewed in person on an irregular basis. Looking forward to more of that 3 decades on, in August 2013...

- Robin Wilson

I am really sorry that circumstances make it impossible for me to attend this year's meeting in Sydney. Originally, when people asked me, I told them I am Israel's worm person--originally began doing all the polychaete taxa, and, in later years my research became more limited to serpulids as different taxa clearly also required revision --a very time-consuming and painstaking task and I had some cooperative colleagues (Harry ten Hove and Helmut Zibrowius) who helped me not go wrong.. The first polychaete conference in Sydney was an opportunity to meet colleagues--even ones from Europe-- and, as, in Israel, I was isolated in my field of research that was very important to me. The meetings took place in the Australian Museum in Sydney and I recall sharing a room and across the street was a center of Sydney's "red light" district ( we did not have direct contact with that!). After the meeting some of us visited Lizard Island--my first and last opportunity to see the Barrier Reef and to sample polychaetes on the island. A group of us stayed on the island and Pat Hutchings did the cooking! In 1983, we did not have the opportunities for communication with colleagues available today and it was so important to have the opportunity to get to know some of the colleagues personally. Sharing the cottage on Lizard Island were Phyllis and Wyn Knight-Jones and Mary E. Peterson among others. Later, I visited Phyllis and Wyn in Wales and Phyllis visited me in Jerusalem and we also went to Elat. In that visit Phyllis ,brought her mother who stayed in my flat and babysat the cat and did Jerusalem touring! Later, I visited Mary in the U.S. I believe the Sydney meeting brought about different collaborations with several colleagues and that is why the meetings are so important. They still provide the opportunity to discuss face to face various aspects of one's research. Of course, today, there is Skype and other opportunities for contact. There is one picture taken of the participants--and I was not in it because I had gone to the police station in Sydney having lost something--don't even remember what it was. But I still have the picture on the wall of my room in the Hebrew University and many of us who were in Sydney are still active today.
- Nechama Ben-Eliahu

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