Hundreds of new kinds of animal species surprised international researchers systematically exploring waters off two islands on the Great Barrier Reef and a reef off northwestern Australia – waters long familiar to divers.

The expeditions, affiliated with the global Census of Marine Life, help mark the International Year of the Reef and included the systematic scientific inventory of spectacular soft corals.

The discoveries were made at Lizard and Heron Islands (part of the Great Barrier Reef), and Ningaloo Reef in northwestern Australia. The found about 300 soft coral species, up to half of them thought to be new to science; dozens of small crustacean species — and potentially one or more families of species – likewise thought unknown to science; The beautiful, rare Cassiopeia jellyfish, photographed upside down on the ocean
floor, tentacles waving in the water column — a posture that enables symbiotic
algae living in its tentacles to capture sunlight for photosynthesis.

Preparing for future discoveries, the divers pegged several layered plastic structures – likened to empty doll houses – for marine life to colonize on the ocean floor at Lizard and Heron Islands. Creatures that move into these Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS), which provide shelter designed to appeal to a variety of sea life, will be collected over the next one to three years.

“Corals face threats ranging from ocean acidification, pollution, and warming to overfishing and starfish outbreaks,” says Dr. Ian Poiner, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), which led the research. “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.”

Ningaloo Reef appears to be the least biodiverse of the three sites studied, which may be related to its comparative isolation from other reef systems.

Understanding these biodiversity gradients and the influence of connectivity will help scientists predict reef biodiversity worldwide.

Expeditions to the same three sites will be repeated annually over the next three years to continue their inventory and measure impacts of climate change and other processes over time.

The addition of perhaps as many as 150 new species to the global inventory of soft corals is a major addition to the knowledge of this group which, despite its high distribution worldwide, remains one of the most poorly understood groups.

The scientists’ studies also included seaweeds, urchins, and lace corals. More formally known as Bryozoans, lace coral colonies consist of asexually budded (and therefore genetically identical) individuals. Colonies form large intricate structures which bear no resemblance to the structure of the individual.

The Census of Marine Life (www.coml.org) is a global network of researchers in more than 80 nations engaged in a 10-year initiative to assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of marine life in the oceans – past, present, and future. The network will release the first Census of Marine Life in 2010.

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