Taxonomy of tropical Australian Octocorallia (Anthozoa: Coelenterata) primarily from the Census of Marine Life 'CReefs' expeditions

This study documents and describes an existing collection of approximately 315 morphospecies of octocorals, predominantly from the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), collected over the past decade from biodiscovery surveys that were searching for new chemical compounds from marine animals with potential pharmaceutical applications, and is also undertaking new collections of octocorals from Lizard and Heron Islands on the Great Barrier Reef, and Ningloo Reef in central Western Australia as part of the CReefs expeditions.

Queensland Museum divers surveying Lizard Island Lagoon in the search for octocorals during the 2008 CReefs expedition.
Photo: Sessile Marine Invertebrates Section QM.
Lizard Island Lagoon and fringing reefs surrounding the islands during the 2008 CReefs expedition.
Photo: Sessile Marine Invertebrates Section QM.

The study is being conducted by Dr Monika Schlacher as an early career researcher on octocoral taxonomy, under the guidance of two international experts of marine invertebrates. A major contribution will be to document the enormous diversity of tropical shallow water octocorals, which are one of the most prevalent marine invertebrate groups in coral reefs. The project will also reconcile these new CReefs collections with the existing QM collections from the Great Barrier Reef, document the morphology, produce molecular gene sequences in collaboration with the Ocean Genome Legacy (OGL), which also contributing to the Marine Barcoding of Life initiative (MarBOL), and publish new species records in the scientific literature.

With the publication of several recent "popular" guides to Australian octocorals it is now possible to allocate specimens of octocorals to a family or genus, with the help of some basic histological tools, but the next step of differentiating species and associating these with the published literature is still appallingly difficult, requiring a high level of specialist skills and specific knowledge of octocorals that can only be gained through hands-on experience under the guidance and training from an experienced mentor. The project contributes to building the national taxonomic capability for a prominent group of marine invertebrates through the training and employment of a young researcher in a field for which there is no longer any (employed) taxonomic expertise. It takes advantage of the availability of a retired international authority on octocorals to pass on knowledge to a younger colleague.

Fieldwork continues at the three CReefs field sites of Lizard, Heron and Ningaloo Reefs, with three trips to each site each of approximately 3 weeks duration. In addition to the existing specimens of octocorals at the QM it is expected that once the CReefs expeditions are completed we will have acquired the most comprehensive coverage of octocorals from the Great Barrier Reef. Laboratory work includes histological preparation of specimens for light and Scanning Electron Microscopy, describing and illustrating all morphospecies in terms of their living and histological characteristics, and supporting the morphological taxonomy with molecular sequence data.

Funding

Funded by: The Australian Biological Resources Study grants scheme as part of a collaboration with: the Census of Marine Life's Australian Census of Coral Reef Ecosystems (CReefs) expeditions, under the auspices of the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Investigators

Dr John Hooper

Dr Phil N. Alderslade

Monika Schlacher-Hoelinger

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