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New hotspots of marine fish diversity revealed by ‘citizen science’ initiative

Posted September 27, 2013

New global patterns of marine fish diversity have been revealed using information collected through a ‘citizen science’ initiative developed by University of Tasmania researchers. As part of the Reef Life Survey program, committed recreational scuba divers are trained and supported to survey numbers of reef animals worldwide.

Analysis of information provided by Reef Life Survey volunteers over the past six years has revealed new hotspots of marine biodiversity, including south-western Australia and the Galapagos Islands.

A report based on the Reef Life Survey data, published in the prestigious journal Nature, presents an alternative view of global biodiversity patterns. In order to reflect ecological processes, global diversity was considered in terms of the abundance and characteristics of fish species for the first time, rather than simply the number of species present in different regions. Results provide new insights into how different fishes associate with each other around the world, and highlight novel and informative ways that diversity information can benefit coastal management.

The co-founders of Reef Life Survey, Professor Graham Edgar and Dr Rick Stuart-Smith, both researchers at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) at UTAS, highlight the central role played by volunteer divers in contributing to new scientific breakthroughs. “The assistance of more than 100 dedicated divers has allowed us to look at ecological patterns and processes impossible for scientific dive teams to cover,” Professor Edgar said.

Dr Stuart-Smith, the lead author of the paper, said the study was only possible because of the unique dataset, which currently includes information on more than 2000 fish species from more than 5,000 surveys in 40 countries, extending from polar regions to the tropics.

“The network of volunteers who contribute to RLS includes people from a range of backgrounds, but all have extensive diving experience and enormous commitment and motivation,” said Dr Stuart-Smith, praising the efforts of the RLS volunteers.

“The level of detail and fact that data were collected using the same methods globally allow us to assess theoretical ideas that have not previously been tested. Reef Life Survey fits into a level of citizen science that is unique for marine research, with trained volunteers providing information equivalent in detail and quality to experienced scientific teams.”

In addition to Professor Edgar, Dr Stuart-Smith and other UTAS staff, the global analysis of marine biodiversity involved researchers in the USA, Sweden, Spain, Italy, Indonesia, New Zealand, the UK and Chile, most assisting with field surveys of marine life in their local waters. The group has also been working on other studies using the Reef Life Survey dataset, with the primary goals of addressing management-related issues.

“Acting as ‘eyes under the sea’ is the overarching goal of the Reef Life Survey program,” Professor Edgar said. “The marine environment is out of sight and largely unknown, so managers need new ways of observing what is happening at national scales to more effectively allocate scarce resources to where marine conservation is most urgent.”

Source: University of Tasmania

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