Tuesday, July 16, 2013

"Small stuff" at the Southern Expedition and why we should care

When asked why he was interested in bryozoans, Dr Kevin Tilbrook of the Queensland Museum joked: "Isn't everyone?"
Grace Chua has captured Dr Kevin's humour that many at the Southern Expedition appreciated (and miss). She also explored why we should care about small stuff that people often overlook, featuring some of the amazing animals encountered during the Mega Marine Survey expeditions.

Grace writes: "It was chance that drew Dr Tilbrook into studying bryozoans. He started out in the United Kingdom studying fossils, then moved to the tropics where they are less well-studied, to look at live ones. Bryozoans, swaying gently in an ocean current, might look like corals, but they are colonies of tiny animals, each with their own organs and digestive systems. In the ecosystem, they provide food for other animals, and researchers are fascinated by their diverse range of shapes and forms. But more importantly, because they fossilise, they can provide key evidence that swathes of land were once under water millions of years ago."
"In fact, those in Singapore have never been studied before. During a dredge this year, Dr Tilbrook found "the whole seafloor covered with bryozoans - not what I expected at all". Singapore's water tends to be clouded with sediments, but fast currents might provide the clearer water bryozoans prefer."

Grace also wrote: "Dr Niel Bruce, also of the Queensland Museum, was lured into studying tropical isopods as an undergraduate on "false pretences". "There was one project that said 'Taxonomy of isopods of the Red Sea' - it sounded like you could go and do field work there." While this turned out to be untrue, his fascination with marine isopods carried on."
"Isopods are mostly tiny, delicate crustaceans similar to woodlice. In the ocean, they are scavengers, and can serve as a barometer of water quality and habitat disturbance. In an expedition here earlier this year, he found Singapore has some 60 to 70 species - most of which have never been scientifically documented.

Dr Bruce said: "I don't want to just describe new species. You have to prioritise - new genus or form, or whether your finding extends a known species' range. You're looking for added value." Sometimes that value helps stave off an invasive species infestation. For example, ornamental fish from South America or other regions may carry isopod parasites. If they get into the Australian or Singaporean ornamental fish trade, "there's no saying what they would do", said Dr Bruce. So it's important to know what species those parasites might be, to work out what to do about them."

Thanks to Grace Chua for highlighting these fascinating creatures and the Mega Marine Survey.

Full article: Sweating the small stuff Tiny creatures often play outsize ecological role, say scientists who study them by Grace Chua Straits Times 14 Jul 13;

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