Hundreds of New Reef Creatures Found in Australia

James Owen
for National Geographic News
September 18, 2008
Hundreds of new marine creatures, including as many as 150 soft corals, have been discovered in three Australian reefs, scientists report. (See photos of some of the unusual animals.)

Previously unknown shrimps, worms, scavenging crustaceans, and spectacularly colored soft corals were identified at the tropical sites during a study led by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).

Part of the Census of Marine Life, a ten-year initiative to assess global ocean diversity, the expeditions involved systematic sampling of lesser known coral reef animals at Lizard and Heron islands on the Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo Reef on Australia's west coast.

"Between Sand Grains"

The four-year survey recorded about 300 kinds of soft corals, as many as half of which could be new to science. Soft corals lack the hard skeletons of reef-building corals.

A similar proportion of tiny amphipod crustaceans—a group that includes freshwater shrimp—are also set to be described for the first time, the research team said.

In addition, the team found scores of new varieties of shrimps known as tanaids, some armed with claws longer than their bodies.

Tanaids resemble typical marine shrimps, although they are much smaller, said Julian Caley, principal research scientist at AIMS and co-leader of the global Census of Coral Reefs (CReefs) project.

"A lot of them are so small they basically live between sand grains," Caley said.

Seabed Vultures

Other types of newly sampled crustaceans surveyed at the three sites include varieties of pill bug-like isopods called the vultures of the sea, because they scavenge dead fish on the seabed.

There was previously no record for isopods at Ningaloo Reef, Caley said. Yet the team found representatives of two groups that have never been recorded before on coral reefs anywhere.

In total, about a hundred new isopod species could emerge from the study.

"Not only are we picking up new species, we're really massively extending the ranges of some of these organisms," Caley said.

Soft corals were among the biggest, most colorful creatures the team surveyed.

Many such corals were previously unrecorded, despite the fact that divers regularly visit the three reef sites, Caley said.

"People have been swimming past these big, showy animals for years," he added.

Soft corals are more diverse than stony corals and play a key role in reef ecosystems, providing a habitat for other animals to live in, Caley said.

"Astonishing Richness"

Other finds include a potentially new class of marine worm known as bristle worms, relatives of leeches and earthworms.

The team is also analyzing organisms such as seaweeds, urchins, and lace corals.

"Amazingly colorful corals and fishes on reefs have long dazzled divers, but our eyes are just opening to the astonishing richness of other life forms in these habitats," Census of Marine Life chief scientist Ron O'Dor said in a statement.

"Hundreds of thousands of forms of life remain to be discovered," O'Dor said.

"Knowledge of this ocean diversity matters on many levels, including possibly human health. One of these creatures may have properties of enormous value to humanity."

The Unexplored

Coral expert James Crabbe, professor of biochemistry at the University of Bedford in the U.K., said he's excited by the latest discoveries but not surprised.

"There's so much that we just don't know is there," he said.

Corals depend on a symbiotic relationship with temperature-sensitive algae that live inside their tissues and provide both food and color.

While the impact of ocean warming on stony corals is well known, soft corals are also vulnerable to the effects of climate change, Crabbe said.

Given the threats, it's crucial that scientists now determine which species inhabit coral reefs, according to Crabbe.

"Otherwise we just don't know what we could be losing, whether due to climate change, pollution, or other environmental changes."

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