The research conducted by Dr Maria Capa
as part of the CReefs project could contribute to understanding which marine animals pose a danger to coral reefs, as well as which geographical areas are richest in marine life and in most need of protection.
Dr Capa, a post-doctoral researcher with the Australian Museum in Sydney, is one of a team of scientists studying the diversity and biogeography of polychaete worms on the CReefs expeditions to Lizard Island and Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef, and Ninglaoo Reef in Western Australia.
"There seem to be several species that have Indo-Pacific distributions, so they were found all around the coast of northern Australia.
We're now looking at the genetics of populations to confirm this," Dr Capa
It has some identical genes to specimens found in Hawaii, so we think they are the same species, but we don't know whether if they've gone from Heron Island to Hawaii or the other way around," Dr Capa
Introduced species could potentially threaten marine ecosystems.
"One species of the group I am working with, for instance, Sabella spallanzanii , is a tube worm that measures about 20 centimetres long and has a large fan of branch-like tentacles.
In its native habitat in the Mediterranean, these worms are widely dispersed in seagrass beds, but in southern Western Australia and in Port Philip Bay in Melbourne, they cover some areas in very high densities.
They modify the environment below them, because they capture most of the small particles of food from the water, and are probably competing with native species," Dr Capa
says that understanding the biogeography of endemic and introduced species could have important applications for conservation.
"For instance, if a species lives in several places in northern Australia and we want to preserve it, we might choose, for example, an area in Western Australia to preserve, and say that is a representative population of that fauna.
But if there are different species in different locations, we might need to preserve an area in Western Australia, another in the Northern Territory and another in Queensland," she
is an important project because it allows us to conduct population studies, which will help us to resolve the biogeographical boundaries of the species," she
If you've ever puzzled over your own family's genealogy, spare a thought for the task of Dr Maria Capa of the Australian Museum, who is one of a small team of scientists working to understand the evolution of polychaetes, a group of segmented, invertebrate marine worms.
is focusing on several families of polychaetes, including the sabellids, sabellariids and oweniids.
uses morphology (the study of shape, form and colour) and molecular biology, including DNA analyses, to better understand the specimens she
What we don't understand is the relationships between the families," Dr Capa
Until recently, many polychaete groups were thought to be related because their morphological features shared some resemblance, but DNA analyses have shown that this is not necessarily the case.
Advancements in DNA technology
over the last decade have also made identifying new species easier, especially in those cases where there are few morphological differences.
has found at least five new species during the CReefs project.
will study the morphology of these specimens, compare them to existing species, and define where they are found geographically, before each is described as a new species.