From: Reuters
Published September 18, 2008 11:24 AM

Hundreds of new species found on Australia reefs

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian scientists have discovered hundreds of new coral and marine species on the Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo Reef which they say will improve monitoring reef biodiversity and the impact of climate change.

Three expeditions to the reefs over four years to collect the first inventory of soft corals found 300, of which 130 were new species, said a report released on Friday.

Dozens of new marine species were found, such as shrimp-like animals with claws longer than their bodies, along with already known animals like a tongue-eating isopod parasite that eats a fish's tongue and then resides in its mouth.

"We were all surprised and excited to find such a large variety of marine life never before described, most notably soft coral, isopods, tanaid (small, bottom-dwelling) crustaceans and worms, and in waters that divers access easily and regularly," said Julian Caley, research scientist at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).

The marine inventory, being carried out globally as part of a 2010 census of reefs, will allow better understanding of reef biodiversity and climate change, said the AIMS report.

"Corals face threats ranging from ocean acidification, pollution, and warming to overfishing and starfish outbreaks," AIMS chief executive Ian Poiner said in a statement.

"Only by establishing a baseline of biodiversity and following through with later censuses can people know the impact of those threats and find clues to mitigate them," said Poiner.

The scientists said other major finds included about 100 new isopods, often called "vultures of the sea" because some feed on dead fish.

Some two thirds of the species found on Lizard Island on the Great Barrier Reef may be new, along with many polychaetes or "bristle worms", a relative of leeches and earthworms.

"The new Australian expeditions reveal how far we are from knowing how many species live in coral reefs around the globe. Estimates span the huge range from 1 to 9 million," marine scientist Nancy Knowlton from the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, said in a statement.

Expeditions to Lizard and Heron Islands on the Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo Reef off northwest Australia will be repeated annually for the next three years to continue the inventory and measure the impact of climate change and other processes.

Scientists have left behind "dollhouse-like" plastic habitats for animals to colonize for collection, which will help standardize reef sampling worldwide, and DNA will be used to speed up the identification of these species in future.

One sampling method the Australian scientists used was to cut the base off dead coral heads, which were presumed to contain no living creature, but revealed more than 150 crustaceans, molluscs and echinoderms.

The scientists said that globally dead coral heads host many thousands of species and are emerging as an important tool for assessing coral reef biodiversity.

The Australian expeditions are part of the global Census of Marine Life (CoML), which after a decade of research will release its first global census in October 2010.

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

(Reporting by Michael Perry; Editing by Jerry Norton)

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