Way back in 2013, a group of polychaete workers descended on Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef, and set up shop at the Lizard Island Research Station (a facility of the Australian Museum, Sydney) for a two-week field trip.

These researchers consisted of established workers, mid and early-career researchers and a postgraduate student, from seven countries. We also travelled with a professional photographer, and a cook to ensure we were well fed, allowing us to work long hours in the laboratory following diving and snorkelling trips. We sampled over 120 sites around the island, on nearby reefs and on the Outer Barrier 12 nautical miles away. We were blessed with amazingly good weather for the time of year, with the dominant south-east trade winds almost completely falling away for some days allowing us to visit the Outer Barrier. Material was collected and brought back to the station where it was sorted alive, often photographed and then fixed for either morphological or molecular studies back at the researchers’ home institutions. A tremendous variety of habitats was sampled including dead coral substrates, seagrass and algal beds, soft sediment between reefs and intertidal sediments. A total of 1,640 lots of polychaetes were databased.

Sorting continued late into the night with families being swapped between workers, facilitating international co-operation, and allowing people to see their worms alive sometimes for the first time. Throughout these two weeks the Co-Directors of the Research Station helped us continually: driving boats, facilitating the export of all the material to people’s home institutions; and generally making our lives as easy as possible. To satisfy the conditions of the permit issued by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority most of the material has now been returned to the Australian Museum, Sydney.

So what did we find? 91 new species of polychaetes in 21 families, 67 new records for the Great Barrier Reef and 19 new records for Australia. In addition we still have extensive collections of other polychaete families waiting to be worked up. Within 18 months, everybody had delivered one or more manuscripts for review and in August 2015, two years after the workshop the finished publication (800+ pages) appeared online in Zootaxa (Hutchings and Kupriyanova, 2015).

While the number of taxonomists is declining worldwide (this is particularly true in Australia) and natural history museums are reducing their scientific staff, much of our biodiversity still needs to be documented. This is especially true for coral reefs, which are increasingly being impacted by factors such as increasing water temperatures, declining water quality and increasing acidity. While the decline in fish and coral populations is being monitored, far less is known about other groups, especially the invertebrates (excluding the corals). Limited data indicate that increased sedimentation changes the polychaete communities (Hutchings et al., 2015) but without comprehensive inventories of the polychaetes and other invertebrates it is difficult to assess how the organisms at the bottom of the food chain are changing with increasing anthropogenic impacts on coral reefs. So, the intensive polychaete workshop held at Lizard Island was a very cost-effective way of beginning to document the fauna of this diverse and important component of the benthic ecosystem. However, such workshops have other benefits: participants involve other researchers, – the publication includes 33 authors from 27 institutions; work will continue to be published based on the material collected at Lizard; and several future collaborative programmes were planned during the field trip. But probably the most important flow-on effect was the mentoring of younger participants by the established workers, but this was not one way, as some of us learnt new techniques for studying these animals and absorbed the enthusiasm of the youngsters.

I encourage organizations, research stations, funding agencies, etc. to think about hosting such workshops especially on the coral reefs of developing countries where the fauna is often so poorly known. Detailed baseline studies of the biodiversity are critical if we are to develop monitoring and management plans for these areas, which are so often critical for these countries in terms of the benefits to their economy from tourism, feeding their populations and providing some protection to low-lying areas from storms.

We would like to thank the Lizard Island Reef Research Foundation for supporting this workshop and the Lizard Island Co-Directors, Dr Anne Hoggett and Dr Lyle Vail, AO.
Further reading
Coral reef-associated fauna of Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef: polychaetes and allies. Edited by Pat Hutchings & Elena Kupriyanova Zootaxa 4019 (1): 001–801 http://www.mapress.com/zootaxa/2015/f/ zt04019p002.pdf - open access.
Hutchings, P.A., Peyrot–Clausade, M. & Osnorno, A., 2005. Influence of land runoff on rates and agents of bioerosion of coral substrates. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 51: 438-447.
Hutchings, P and Kupriyanova, A (eds) 2015. Coral reef-associated fauna of Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef: polychaetes and allies. Zootaxa 4019 (1): 001–801. Available at: http://www.mapress.com/ zootaxa/2015/f/zt04019p002.pdf 

Lanice viridis n. sp, a terebellid worm removed from its tube to reveal its banded buccal feeding tentacles, three pairs of reddish brown branched branchiae and a bright green body. The animal spreads its highly extensile buccal tentacles across the substrate to collect sediment which it ingests and removes the algae and bacteria on the surface of the sediment particles. Image: Alexander Semenov.

Spirobranchus corniculatus with its branchial crown and operculum emergent from a live colony of Porites. This species can occur in a variety of colours and rapidly retreats back into its calcareous tube embedded in the coral which grows as the coral grows, as any shadows pass. This provides some protection from predation from fish although they can regenerate this crown. Image: Alexander Semenov

Researchers collecting polychaetes living in the sandy sediments and associated algal clumps at extreme low tide in front of Lizard Island Research Station. Image: Alexander Semenov.


Pat Hutchings, Australian Museum Research Institute, Australian Museum, Sydney NSW